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Consultants: when to hire one and how to get it right

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Many things have been said about consultants over the years – some good, some bad, some unrepeatable. But one constant theme is that they don’t come cheap.

According to the IT JobsWatch website, the median contractor rate for an IT consultant is a very handy £530 per day. Management consultants, perhaps chuckling in their hot tubs, earn £550 a day.

What this means is that, if you want to hire a consultant to work on your project, you must be very sure that you need one.

“I remember losing an entire annual IT budget just for one consultant engagement,” says programme manager Richard Samworth. “If you start losing focus then the bill will go up and up. They start finding things to do that really don’t need to be done.”

But on the flipside, consultants – be they IT, management or business analyst – can bring in much-needed extra capacity and capability. They can also create a learning culture within an organisation, says former project manager and now consultant Glenn Keelan.

So, what do project professionals need to know?

When do you need a consultant?

Project professionals should decide before a project begins whether consultancy help will be needed. They should forward plan, aiming to identify where and when any pinch points will emerge and whether they have the necessary in-house skills and resources.

Of course, issues can also develop after a project is up and running. Perhaps the schedules change, the scope of the project alters or new technology is required.

It could be a capacity issue, because you haven’t got enough people in your in-house team to complete a particular piece of work.

It could also be a capability issue. That new technology required for the project may need outside IT expertise to utilise.

“Recent digital transformation means that a lot of knowledge now sits externally,” says consultant Mike Scott, delivery lead at The Travel Corporation and formerly of P2 Consulting. “For distinct areas such as cloud, analytics and data, you need to bring in consultants if you want to get to market fast.”

If the project decides to change tack in a specific area and take, for example, a scrum approach, then scrum masters or business analysts may be needed.

The project manager may also need help engaging with stakeholders and sponsors about the state of the project and benefits. They may require change or delivery managers to ensure that business and project objectives remain aligned.

“I am often called in for areas such as change capability building and helping to deliver more reliable projects,” says Richard Newton, director at Enixus. “A project might be doing well but failing in its engagement with sponsors and stakeholders. The sponsor may be losing faith in the project. Perhaps there is a communication barrier, and I can help make the project manager a trusted adviser again.”

Where can you find consultants?

Personal networks are a good route, as is using trusted agencies. But planning is vital.

“You may have the UK’s best tunnel designer, but if your resource plan says you need six of them then you need to plan,” says Keelan. “Some think it is like going down to Sainsbury’s and finding the right consultant on the right shelf when you need them. They are not blades of grass and there is a lot of competition out there. Plan a year ahead.”

What key things do you need to get right?

Samworth says managing the consultants is key. “Planning is your friend,” he says. “What are the consultants responsible for delivering? How many days have you budgeted for and are they delivering the quality you need? You must watch out for scope creep.”

Scott agrees that relationships are vital in maintaining team dynamics. “A lot of the time the consultants will come in to work alongside the project manager, not work for them,” he says. “They may have been brought in by the programme manager or sponsor and the project manager’s nose may be put out of joint and they become defensive. The consultant needs to be good at engagement and make the project manager understand that they are not there to point fingers.”

Overall benefits

Consultants can help get a project back on track or ensure that it remains on budget and meeting deadlines and objectives. They can also help develop an organisation’s in-house skills base and expertise.

“There is sometimes a tendency to miss the opportunities that highly skilled consultants can bring for existing permanent staff,” Keelan says. “In my past as a project manager we utilised consultants to educate our staff such as planners and programmers. They became planners and programmers with experience and knowledge in engineering and construction. Now when they pressed button ‘F9 slash’ or whatever, they understood what it meant in terms of the overall operation and where the risks lay.”

Future need

Scott believes consultancy might continue to flourish post-pandemic. “We are seeing a lot of projects that were put on hold now restarting,” he says. “They will have to engage consultants in the short term as they try and move quickly.”

However, going forward the picture might look different. “Pre-pandemic we were seeing firms like Google trying to bring capabilities in-house. That is the long-term trend,” he says.

Consultants are an essential part of most projects, but don’t get too comfortable in that hot tub!

Read more about opportunities for project professionals in APM’s Salary and Market Trends Survey.


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