How to Know Good from Bad Tech Consultants

In 1998 when I became CIO of CareGroup, there were numerous consultants serving in operational roles both there and at its Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. My first task was to build a strong internal management team, eliminate our dependency on consultants, and balance our use of built and bought applications. Twelve years later, I have gained significant perspective on consulting organizations -- large and small, strategic and tactical, mainstream and niche.

One of my favorite industry commentators, Robert X. Cringeley , wrote an excellent column about hiring consultants. A gold-star idea from his analysis is that because most IT projects fail at the requirements stage, hiring consultants to implement automation will fail if business owners cannot define their future-state workflows.

I've been a consultant to some organizations, so I've felt the awkwardness of parachuting into an organization, making recommendations, then leaving before those recommendations had an operational impact. I've also known consultants, of course. Some of the ones I've worked with some are so good that I think of them as partners and value-added extensions of the organization instead of as vendors. Here, then, is my analysis of what makes a good or bad consultant , based on my experience both in hiring and in being a consultant.

1. Project scope

The Good: They provide work products that are actionable without creating dependency on the consultant for follow-on work. There are no change orders to the original consulting assignment.

The Bad: They become self-replicating. As they build relationships throughout the organization outside their constrained scope of work, they identify potential weaknesses and then convince senior management that more consultants are needed to mitigate risk. Two consultants become four, then more. They create overhead that requires more support staff from the consulting company.

2. Knowledge transfer

The Good: They train the organization to thrive once the consultants leave. They empower the client with specialized knowledge of technology or techniques that will benefit the client in operational or strategic activities.

The Bad: Their deliverable is a PowerPoint of existing organizational knowledge without insight or unique synthesis. This is sometimes referred to as "borrowing your watch to tell you the time."

3. Organizational dynamics

The Good: They build bridges among internal teams, enhancing communication through formal techniques that add processes to complement existing organizational project management approaches. Adding modest amounts of work to the organization is expected because extra project management rigor can enhance communication and eliminate tensions or misunderstandings among stakeholders.

The Bad: They identify organizational schisms they can exploit, become responsible for discord and cause teams to work against each other as a way to foster organizational dependency on the consultants.

4. Practical recommendations

The Good: Recommendations are data-backed, are prioritized by relative value (cost multiplied by benefit), reflect current community standards and take into account competing uses of the organization's resources and time.

The Bad: Recommendations lack depth. They are products of uncorroborated interviews. They lack factual details and are a scattershot intended to create fear, uncertainty and doubt. They focus on parts rather than systems. Implementing these recommendations causes energy to be drained away from more strategic and beneficial initiatives.

Next page: How much should you pay consultants?

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