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Walk the Walk

Walk the Walk

Got a problem with consultants? Stop complaining and put a little more muscle into managing them. Consultants. Now there's a subject ripe for ridicule, if ever there was one. And an easy target, too. Consultants generate enough hot air to register on the top 10 list of global warming dangers. And yet, much as I yearn to, I can't hop aboard the consultant-bashing bandwagon. I could maybe hitch a ride on the bumper, but a front seat on the buggy? To quote John Cage, the eccentric lawyer on Ally McBeal, "It troubles me". People like to mock consultants because of the disparity they sometimes see between the industry's premise and how it operates in real life. Consultants remind me of those attitudinal locker sheikhs in high school whose report cards contained remarks like "Brad shows enormous promise, but he doesn't live up to his potential." The concept behind consulting -- a smart, objective person analyses a corporate problem and fixes it -- sounds like the answer to an executive's prayer. But there are too many Brads in consultingdom who fail to deliver the goods -- the new customer support system or the new financial software. Many consultants are indeed whip-smart people who generate revenue and save corporations millions through bright ideas, wisely executed. But there are also the less capable sort who promise what they can't deliver or pad their billable hours enough to embarrass even Dolly Parton.

CIOs and other executives get very indignant about alleged excesses from consultants, but one has to wonder just how fair that is. Executives sometimes seem to regard consultants as the human embodiment of the "Trust Fall".

Remember that hoary exercise from the 1980s, where you had to fall backward into the arms of co-workers and trust they would catch you? Many companies do the same thing with consultants. "Here," they seem to say, "take this million-dollar project and go do it. We won't bother with in-house oversight or meticulous contracts. We trust you." It seems to me the responsibility for curing bad consultant behaviour lies just as much with the customers as it does with the consultants -- a combination of the old adage, "Physician, heal thyself", and that brand-new saying, "Patient, give thyself a stiff dose of accountability". After all, it's asking a lot of any company to selflessly and voluntarily curtail lucrative revenue streams, unethical or not. Don't forget that a consultancy exists to make money, just as any corporation does.

So what can be done? More than 80 per cent of the CIOs who answered the CIO (US) survey* agree that there ought to be some sort of organisation to nudge consultants toward ethical work practices. But if corporations think there ought to be a governing body for consultants, they should do something about it. You can bet the prospective governees won't. And regardless of any nascent watchdog group, business honchos need to put more muscle into managing consultants. Somebody should know what kinds of projects are in-house at one time to avoid redundancy. It's also a good idea to give one person or group the responsibility for negotiating all consulting contracts. Smart companies will also make sure that each project has an in-house manager to look out for corporate interests. It may be easier to pull a Trust Fall and abdicate responsibility for project success onto consultants, but companies that choose to give consultants too much control will probably pay more than they want for a project that does less than they need.

Carol Hildebrand is Senior Editor at CIO (US) *Late last year, CIO (US) surveyed its readers for feedback regarding their satisfaction with consulting projects. A random sample of 2000 readers (excluding consultants) resulted in 406 responses.

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