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In defence of consultants

September 10, 2013

2012-08-01The impression I get is that the general public don’t seem to like consultants.  They are nervous of us, thinking we’re dodgy.  Specifically, they think we are a waste of tax-payer’s money if public sector bodies or charities or quangos bring us in to do something.

But we’re just experts, specialists.

You want someone to build you a bespoke shelving unit, you go to a joiner.  You want someone to fill your tooth, you go to a dentist.  And (in my case) if you want some market research done, you come to a market research consultant.

So I’d like to come to the defence of consultants.  Well some of them, anyway.

In my mind there are three main justifications for employing a consultant:

Firstly, it is a good idea to bring in external expertise if you have a skills gap.   As I say, consultants are specialist experts and they do stuff that they have been highly trained to do, and they are (should be!) good at it because they do it all day every day.  (Assuming you are a non-specialist yourself), consultants can probably do a task better than you and quicker than you.

Secondly, the thing about the type of work that we consultants do is that the consultancy ‘product’ is usually an occasional specialist purchase.  Research is like buying a TV or a car – it is a high-value purchase that most people only make once every few years.  For this reason (except for the very biggest organisations) there wouldn’t be enough work for me to do if I did research for one organisation full time, and the nature of each project is likely to be sufficiently sporadic that it wouldn’t make financial or administrative sense to employ me on a regular part-time contract.  So I am brought in on a project-by-project basis to get a particular task done.

Thirdly, sometimes organisations need an independent expert to come in – someone that is not previously associated with their organisation.  In the case of my work, people need independent researchers because they want to be sure that research findings are unbiased because unbiased research helps them to make genuine evidence-based strategic decisions.  In addition, some organisations bring in independent consultants to make or enable tough decisions that they can’t (or don’t want to) make themselves.

I work alone – I’m an independent consultant – but there are plenty of organisations called consultancies where many consultants work together  and I have worked for these too.  There’s nothing inherently scary or suspicious about a consultancy, it is simply a way of building scale and efficiency into the consultancy process.  By having a load of consultants in one place working on multiple occasional and sporadic projects at once, it is easier to manage workload and cashflow and it is easier to market the service.

I’m sure that some consultants fail to provide an excellent good value service, but that’s a separate issue to whether there is justification for employing consultants in the first place.

And think of the alternative – public sector bodies or charities or quangos wasting time and money by arsing things up.  Consultants have a cost associated with them, yes, but this should be offset by the benefit that they bring.  Bringing in specialists should provide focus and strategic direction in a timely manner, and free up valuable staff and resources which could be put to better use elsewhere.  And certainly in the case of research, consultancy can save huge amounts of time and money by preventing the public sector body or charity or quango from making a terrible decision that wouldn’t have worked or might have had costly or far-reaching negative consequences.

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