Because sometimes I write too much for one column at a time (like this time), and because sometimes I’m a little short on ideas (like I am this time), let’s call this part two of the subject I started last issue.

And the subject was: making the most effective use of consultants – some organizations do, and many (too many) don’t.

In the interests of cost effectiveness and stress reduction, I offer some advice about making the best use of people like me.

Expect to get what you pay for: The best consultants, the ones with the most experience, the ones who can size up and address your situation quickly, will simply cost the most – these folks can be chargeable anywhere, and they’re probably not going to work for you for less than what they can get elsewhere, even if your project is unique and attractive.

And you can’t simply compare the rates of high-end IT consultants to the rates of consultants in other industries. I don’t know how many times I’ve had people tell me/ask me: “Your rates are so high. Don’t you know that I can get the best engineering consultant in town for half of what you’re asking?” And I’ll respond with a question of my own: “Is it an engineering problem you’re trying to solve?”

Consistency and simplicity don’t come cheap: A potential client was complaining a couple of weeks ago about the inconsistent process, variable quality and lack of overall accounta1bility he was seeing among the wide variety of independent IT contractors he was employing on a big project. “Some of them are great, some aren’t so great, but they all have different contracts that I need to administer, there’s no single point of contact and accountability for them, and there’s no consistency in the way they plan and execute projects.” Imagine my surprise.

Then he said “I’ve added up the costs of all these independents, and if your organization can give me a single team for the same price or less, I’ll sign up today.” I respectfully declined.

Everything he wanted to see – consistency, a single point of accountability, and excellent people gathered from all over North America – has a significant cost attached to it.

Hiring a collection of talented independents that you manage yourself is a legitimate strategy, as long as you recognize that the burden of administration, the provision of a consistent process or methodology for the work you’re doing, and the ultimate responsibility for the quality of the project deliverables stays with you.

If you’re willing to take all of this on for your project, you can usually get consulting resources less expensively, often from firms that are generically known as body shops. In dealing with body shops, the costs associated with consistency, accountability and administration of consultants don’t disappear, they simply shift onto your shoulders.

On the other hand, if you want to make a single outside organization like mine accountable for the success of your project (recognizing that as the client, you can never assign all accountability away) within a consistent framework, that’s going to cost you more.

Like they say, mass in the universe is never created or destroyed, it simply moves around.

Passing risk to the consultant costs you money: if you’re looking for a fixed-price contract for work that has a large degree of uncertainty associated with it, you can expect to pay a premium for the privilege.

I don’t know how many organizations I’ve worked with (I’ve been on both sides of the desk on this one) that figure they’ll limit their risk by passing it on to the consultant in the form of a fixed price contract. “I’m not sure what all is involved in the solution, but I’ll be OK if the price never exceeds $X.”

Know this: no consultant worth his salt is going to take on additional risk without charging you a premium, even if the premium is well buried somewhere in your fixed price agreement.

Protect both of us – put in performance measures and checkpoints right at the start. Let’s agree in advance on our criteria for success for the engagement, on what your/our performance metrics are going to be before we begin. I want to know before I start working for you what success looks like in the end, and I’ll bet you’ll want the same thing.

Let’s spend some time up front coming to an agreement on objective performance metrics – objective metrics are critical here; “If we feel good about it when we’re done” is unacceptable. These are metrics that we can both steer towardsas the project progresses. You’re going to want to make sure that I’m performing to your expectations, and I’m going to want to make sure that you’re holding up your end of the bargain too.

If we do it right, the experience of working together will be good for both of us. Is that how you feel about your consulting arrangements today?

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at [email protected].

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