Getting the most out of your IT consultants

The key to finding the right IT consultants is to tap into multiple resources and build a cohesive team, according to one expert.

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IT consulting has morphed into a $130 billion-a-year industry employing countless consultants with every imaginable skill. But in today's market, the supply of IT consultants outpaces the demand. And with the rise of IT outsourcing and offshore development, CIOs and project leaders have more choices than ever before.

The challenge is to sift through the choices and tap resources from multiple sources -- including internal ones -- to find just the right IT consultants to build cohesive, productive and cost-effective teams.

Hold those calls

To avoid a mediocre outcome, get the most from IT consultants by picking the ideal ones for the job. That effort begins before you call them. So hold those calls until you settle strategic issues like the project objective, scope, desired schedule, project organization and how much of the work will be done by your internal team.

Insist on agreement among the relevant executives, both IT and non-IT, that the project deserves company support. Even the best IT consultant, and project, will falter if executive sponsorship is weak. Your executives must also decide which consulting options to consider. Are you open to offshore development? Would you outsource the application the project team creates?

Resolve what type of firm is appropriate. Is a large systems integration firm the right fit? Or is a smaller firm or an individual consultant the answer? Can one consulting firm handle the work, or do you need more than one? Do you need a firm with both systems and management consulting capabilities?

Answer those questions to narrow the field of consultants and to ensure that your initial conversations with them lead to higher-quality proposals and fewer false starts.

Find the perfect fit

IT consultants bring clients skills, tools, and, often, preconceived notions about how to tackle IT issues. Some offer tailored approaches, while others use prepackaged solutions -- the "hammer looking for a nail."

In pre-proposal meetings, find consultants who understand your needs, ask insightful questions and actively listen to your answers. Great consultants don't just take orders; they offer creative ideas to meet objectives. As you align your needs with what a consultant can do, you may find the one with a "hammer" is the right choice.

Once you receive a proposal from a consultant, it's natural to look first at the fees. But fees vary based on the type of firm and the consultant's approach. So pull out the fee pages from proposals before your evaluation team considers them.

Check references before you interview consultants. It's unlikely a consultant would list a disgruntled client as a reference, but dig into the consultant's work style and competence. Ask questions such as, "If you hired this consultant again, what would you do differently?" Or "What one thing did the consultant do that made a difference on your project?"

Don't overlook intangibles like the consultant's attitude, motivation, candor, talent and fit with the company's culture. Even the most skilled consultants will waste your time and money if they cannot work with your team.

When you meet with a consulting team, evaluate people, not firms. The project delivery team may be different from the sales team, so make sure your evaluation team meets each consultant proposed for the project.

Some firms, especially the larger ones, won't guarantee the availability of specific consultants unless you agree to award them the project within a specified time frame. Resist that pressure to buy. If your selection process has a reasonable timetable, a firm should be willing to hold the consultants.

Three burning questions

Before you hire a consultant, ask these three questions:

  1. What is your exit strategy? Learn in advance how the consultant plans to wrap up the project.
  2. What will our team learn from you? Will your team's professional skills grow as a result of working with the consultant?
  3. What don't you do well? The answer to this question gives you a measure of the consultant's honesty, and points out weak spots you'll need to strengthen.

If you get evasive or unclear answers to these questions, find another consultant.

Strive for balance

Putting together an effective project team is a balancing act. Find the right mix of skills from your organization and the consulting team.

The full-time equivalent number of consultants should not exceed 50% of the total number of project team members, especially on large projects. You want the benefit of outside expertise without giving up control of the project. Once the ratio of consultants to internal team members approaches 50%, you risk losing that control. If that happens, consultants may make decisions that your own team should make.

The best IT consultants support all phases of a project and step up to the toughest challenges. But ownership -- and accountability -- for the project outcome lies squarely with the project sponsor and managers, not the consultants. As the number of consultants grows, the clear line of accountability can erode, causing slower decision making, schedule slips and inappropriate expectations of consultants.

Implement the 30-60-90 rule

For any project lasting longer than 90 days, implement the 30-60-90 rule: Plan to reach a major milestone -- demonstrable results -- every 90 days to help focus your consultant's efforts.

And measure progress toward the 90-day milestone with a comprehensive review of the project at the 30- and 60-day points. These reviews give you an opportunity to assess the performance of the consulting team and make adjustments as needed.

Unleash their motivation

IT consultants grow their businesses through successful projects. They are motivated to help clients succeed, and may even put a client's interests ahead of their own. But to get the most from an IT consultant, think of it as a partnership, not a vendor relationship.

Projects succeed when the client team and consultants work toward a common goal in a collaborative and trusting environment. Creating that environment is a shared responsibility between client and consultant.

Michael W. McLaughlin is the co-author, with Jay Conrad Levinson, of Guerrilla Marketing for Consultants. Michael is a principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP, and the editor of Management Consulting News and The Guerrilla Consultant. Find out more at www.guerrillaconsulting.com and www.managementconsultingnews.com.

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