posted 25 Aug 2010 in Volume 13 Issue 10
No more consultants: or are we all consultants now?
Joanna Goodman reports from David Gurteen’s
The economic downturn is having interesting consequences for consultancy. Public and private organisations have been forced to cut costs and lay off staff. At the same time, many former managers and skilled employees are deploying their skills differently, by offering specialist consultancy services, sometimes to the organisations that had previously employed them. At a time when organisations are looking closely at their budgets, how should they decide when to bring in an external consultant? If they do use consultants, how can they maximise the value that consultancy brings to the business?
These issues are central to Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell’s new book, No more consultants: we know more than we think, and were explored in depth at David Gurteen’s knowledge café hosted by Arup in
In a departure from the usual knowledge café format, which starts with a short presentation, the audience was immediately involved in a game of ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’. Gurteen played Chris Tarrant’s questioner role, while Collison and Parcell were the ‘contestants’.
They started with a few icebreakers, including what had inspired Collison and Parcell to write the book. It seemed bizarre that two leading KM consultants would write a book called No more consultants! In the six years since publishing their KM bestseller Learning to Fly, they had discovered that many organisations and individuals were looking for an element of organisational self-assessment early in the KM process. No More Consultants offers tools and guidance to facilitate that process.
No More Consultants is designed for KM specialists, managers and consultants – in-house consultants and external consultants who are brought in on a temporary basis. A show of hands revealed that about half the audience were consultants.
After Collison and Parcell answered the first few questions – without having to phone a friend – the game moved on to the final, million-dollar question: ‘Is there a place for consultants in companies and organisations today, and if so, what is their role? It was time to ask the audience.
Café time. Everyone participated in three group discussions. Finally, a whole group discussion identified common themes, some of which are outlined below.
We need to know what we know. How do organisations identify their internal capabilities and their collective knowledge? This depends on the size, profile and culture of the organisation. Small and mid-size businesses simply have to make time to talk, while larger organisations require more standardised processes, particularly if they have a geographically diverse workforce. This is a challenge. For example, online employee surveys tend to be facilitated by HR, and this can compromise the quality and honesty of responses. Group teleconferences need to be moderated carefully otherwise a few individuals tend to dominate the discussion. The limitation of expertise finders is that people’s CVs don’t always reflect recent experience. Network mapping demonstrates that some people can be inundated with requests for assistance and advice, which can cause difficulties.
More organisations are establishing social networks. Challenges include encouraging participation and capturing unstructured information and experiential knowledge. Arup has invested in developing skills networks and has established online forums for particular projects and issues. As people start and finish different projects, they can subscribe and unsubscribe to relevant forums and threads.
Understanding your organisation’s capability is not limited to sharing skills. One participant advocated the mystery shopper approach: apparently, phoning up your company pretending to be a customer is incredibly revealing!
Why use consultants?
Before you decide whether you need a consultant, you need to define the term ‘consultant’. You then need to identify the issue you are looking to address.
In many situations, consultants are brought in to deliver a particular project or objective, such as a rebranding. They bring specialist knowledge and expertise and an external perspective. They are likely to have experience of similar projects and may introduce new processes that help organisations and employees harness their collective and individual knowledge. The discussion moved on to the symbiotic relationship between consultancy and KM.
Consultants are often brought in to facilitate change. Some organisations train dedicated facilitators – or internal consultants – but depending on the size and profile of the business, this can be more costly than employing external consultants on a project-by-project basis.
A point that was reiterated in many of the small group discussions was that although, in theory, organisations can change from within, in practice businesses take more notice of an external consultant than they do of their own managers and employees and are more likely to act on their advice. A successful consultant requires an element of detachment, so consultants should not work for one organisation for too long. Collison agrees. When he was brought in by Centrica as a consultant, he was told to get going immediately as within six months he would become part of the organisation!
Another consultant emphasised the importance of getting the brief right. There are different types of consultancy: either the brief has a defined scope, where the consultant’s role relates to a particular project, goal or objective; or it allows free rein, and the consultant is brought in to help identify where the problems are in a business and find appropriate ways of addressing them.
Finally, consultants can bring unexpected added value. In 1999, Arup designed
Are we all consultants now?
A key point is that workplace culture and attitudes have changed and the concept of employee – and employer – loyalty has all but disappeared. Generation Y has been described as being in a marketplace of one, selling their skills. As skilled employees retire, they are increasingly being re-employed on a consultancy basis.
As more people work in knowledge-based organisations, workforces are increasingly comprised of individuals with specific skills, many of whom are employed on fixed contracts. What is the difference between contractors and consultants in a knowledge-based organisation?
Hang on; does this mean that we are moving towards a world where we are all consultants?
Collison observed that the workplace would certainly be transformed if organisations treated all their employees with the same respect and responsibility that they give consultants.
We know more than we think
When the question was put to a vote, the audience decided to add another possible response – was there a definitive answer to the question we had just been discussing? The answer was yes, there is a role for consultants, but this depends on the individual circumstances.
As was highlighted in the final discussion, organisations need to think carefully before pressing the McKinsey button and appointing consultants in any given situation. This presents an opportunity for managers to look carefully at how they manage and leverage the knowledge that resides within their organisations and find the best way to identify and address any gaps that may be preventing them from reaching their full potential – whether or not this involves consultants.
The real issue is underscored when you look again at the title of the book. We know more than we think. We need to think more, and we need to think more about what we know. With a little more thought we can learn to distinguish between the issues in our organisations that we can address ourselves and the issues that might be better addressed by bringing in an external perspective: whether we have a specific project to deliver, whether we are seeking inspiration, innovation or a new direction.
Joanna Goodman is a freelance writer and editor, specialising in the legal and business sector. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org