Before landing my current job, I had a brief sojourn in the consulting world. At my first placement, the director who hired me said this: “A consultant is someone who knows the same things you do but comes from more than 50 miles away and has a nicer briefcase, so people will listen and follow directions even though you’ve told them the exact same thing.” I giggled a little at the time because she had a Chanel tote and I had a Samsonite on wheels, but we had a successful engagement nevertheless.
In looking for other definitions of the consultant role, Urban Dictionary describes it as:
A self-proclaimed expert that extorts inflated fees from a host company in return for vague and predominantly incorrect business advice. The successful consultant detaches from its host at the exact moment its parasitic qualities are discovered by upper management …
I’ve certainly come across that type before. One of the first consultants I ever encountered could have been the reason that the “buzzword bingo” game was created. I remember sitting across the conference table thinking, “Who is this woman and who does she think she’s kidding?” as I tried to weed through the barrage of words that had very little meaning. Luckily our leadership quickly determined she was all fluff and no stuff and showed her the door. Unfortunately there are some people who are so dazzled they don’t see through the hype until long after the consultant has flown the coop.
There are many reasons why organizations hire consultants and there are many different types of consulting offerings in the healthcare IT world. Even with the best consultants, though, it’s important to manage them and understand exactly what they are supposed to be doing and the role they should play in the organization. How consultants are managed depends on the reason they are hired.
Consultants can be leveraged to backfill skill sets that are lacking in an organization. These are often well-defined, one-time projects such as constructing an interface, mapping a lab crosswalk, or installing hardware. In this situations, it’s fine to have a “once and done” philosophy and let the consultants get in and get out.
For other backfill situations such as training users prior to go-live or supporting them after, it’s important to ensure knowledge transfer. A forward-thinking organization will include time in the proposal to allow the consultant to train existing team members in the target skill set and proctor the team until it is able to function independently.
In the first situation (once and done), organizations can get away with minimal management – ensuring timelines are met and deliverables are high quality with sufficient documentation. The second situation requires more active management to ensure that training is occurring and that the team is absorbing in a manner that they can later assume the role played by the consultant. It also requires appropriate instruction to the team so that they can understand what is expected of them and that they are to adopt the methodology agreed on by the leadership and the consultant.
Another reason to use consultants is workforce augmentation – when an organization has a skill set but is involved in a project that requires more resources than they can allocate. Consultants in this role may work better remotely. I’ve seen consultants quickly lose productivity when brought on site because of constant distractions. It’s tempting to try to pull an expert resource into other initiatives and difficult for the consultant to combat scope creep. When staff augmentation occurs on site, expectations regarding time and attendance should be made clear at the beginning of the engagement. Some attention should be paid to the team dynamic so that existing staff doesn’t feel intimidated.
On the other hand, I’ve used consultants in the past simply because I needed someone to BE intimidating. I’ve leveraged our vendor to play “bad cop” to our internal “good cop.” In other situations, I’ve been asked to be the bad cop myself. The key to this strategy is making sure the consultant understands the end game. It’s never polite to knowingly make someone a punching bag, especially when you may have to work with them again down the road.
Consultants are also used for strategic planning efforts. This is where some bad consultants take advantage. The Urban Dictionary definition continues that, “the consultant preys upon upper management’s lack of job expertise and unrealistic dreams of grandeur.” This is more likely to occur when there is a lack of leadership or vision, making it easier for flimflam artists to thrive.
I’ve been in situations where management really has no idea what is going on. They don’t know exactly what they want a consultant to do or what they hope to accomplish, other than wanting someone to “just fix this.” A skilled consultant will sit down with the client and explain that there is no magic wand to be waved. He or she will then work with the client to develop realistic and actionable goals for the organization.
Too many managers assume that because a consultant is on the scene, they can be on autopilot. It’s important to understand that the consultant isn’t always part of the management structure. Unless the engagement is set up in a certain way, consultants can’t force employees to do their jobs or take action when sloppy work is done. They must work with the existing reporting structure to deal with problem people, processes, and policies.
We’ve all had our experiences with consultants run amok as well as with those that pushed us to excel. Send yours my way and I’ll share the best of the best (and the worst of the worst) with HIStalk readers.