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If many a true word is said in jest consultants seem to be on the end of some particularly hard serves from CIOs. I've heard them described as "someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time and then keeps it". Also as "someone who knows 450 ways to make love but doesn't have a partner". These gibes seem to imply that consultants lack the coalface experience and charge for telling you the obvious.

Yet IDC's "Forecast for Management" research shows that the use of consultants and contractors is on the uptake locally. 1996's survey had around 9 per cent of IT departments using external contractors and consultants. In 1997 usage grew to 14.8 per cent, with CIOs indicating that it will likely stay this high for the next two years. This is particularly surprising given that CIOs frequently voice their frustrations about having to do more with less - because consultants do not come cheap. "Forecast for Management" responses show that while contractors and consultants represent less than 15 per cent of the department, they gobble up 37 per cent of the IT budget allocated to staff.

The Perth author Igor Popovich in his 1995 book titled Managing Consultants defined what he termed a pyramid of needs that give an insight into why consultants are hired. At the apex, Popovich placed "complex issues to solve".

Whether it's resolving a crisis or placating a political hornet's nest, consultants can bring extra skills and resources, objectivity and a second opinion to the table.

Popovich stresses that a consultant's success is in fact the client's responsibility; he believes too many clients expect a silver bullet. Too often consultants are given no clear goals and objectives and are often hired to justify decisions that have already been made. Other failings include: a temptation to fall for fads; a tendency to use "yes" men rather than look for a real second opinion; and, putting the cart before the horse by rushing in with consultants before the project has been properly scoped.

At an InTEP meeting earlier this year the speaker was a former consultant who had been hired as the new CIO of an Australian distribution and merchandising company. He supported Popovich's views, saying that success with consultants depended on organisations understanding their requirements clearly before the consultants were engaged. He said that the client needs to involve consultants in all phases of the project. He recommended using consultants for short projects, but at the same time establishing a long-term working partnership with the consulting firm. Finally, he reminded the audience that consultants have to know that their goal is always to make the client look good.

While organisations will increasingly need to master the ways to deploy consultants effectively they should cast their eyes inward. "Forecast for Management" highlighted that staff turnover in IT departments in Australasia grew dramatically over the last 12 months - up from 12.01 per cent in 1996 to 18.70 per cent in 1997. While consultants may provide temporary expertise, supporting the development of internal staff will still probably represent the best long-term investment an organisation can make.

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