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Human Resources

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by Robert A. Bundy

In today's business world, most firms use consultants to some degree. These firms understand that consultants can offer a powerful business advantage the advantage of outside help.

I've been a consultant and hired consultants long enough to know: People on the outside can be a tremendous resource to people on the inside. The key is knowing when to use a consultant and how best to manage that relationship.

To decide whether your company could benefit from the use of a management consultant, ask yourself the following:

?Are we using our resources most efficiently?

?Are we missing out on key opportunities because we can't get to them?

?Are we taking advantage of all of the breaks available to us?

?Are we taking unnecessary risks?

If you are not fully satisfied with your response to any of these questions, you should consider the value the right consultant could bring to your organization.

Understanding when you need a consultant and why is an important first step that will drive subsequent decisions. There are three primary situations that might prompt you to look for outside help:

?You need specialized expertise that you don't have in-house.

?You might be able to do the job yourself, but probably not as effectively or efficiently as an expert in the field.

?You want a fresh perspective on a problem or opportunity, or some objective advice from someone removed from the situation. Maybe you just want to brainstorm with someone who can stimulate your thinking.

Realizing when and why you need a consultant is critical. However, the selection process you follow and the relationship you establish will determine the real added value any consultant can bring to your organization.

To begin the selection process, many companies turn to a request for proposal (RFP). RFPs can be effective when you know precisely what the job is and what you want out of it. For example, if you need a consultant to conduct specific computer training for your company, an RFP can be a valuable purchasing tool.

But think twice when it comes to assignments that are not as precisely defined. A rigid RFP process can stifle the thinking and creativity of the very group you're asking to get involved and provide insight.

For example, some RFPs ask the consulting candidates to bid on the implementation of a specific solution, without asking the consultants to consider whether this is the only solution or the best solution.

Other times, the RFP process is designed to keep consultants at arm's length, preventing them from asking important questions and gaining valuable background information.

Playing close to the vest benefits no one. Not surprisingly, the proposals you get back are generic, or completely miss the target. Plus, you're not taking full advantage of what the consultant has to offer new and different ideas, information and experiences.

There's a better way. Provide the consultants with the information and access they need up front including, at minimum, an initial informational meeting or conference call and they'll deliver not just proposals, but solutions tailored to your specific needs and objectives.

Ideally, you should not hire a consultant without a face-to-face meeting at some point during the selection process. This gives you the opportunity to assess their consulting style, creativity and thinking ability, as well as explore proposed recommendations in more depth and assess the chemistry between your team and theirs.

As you move through the selection process, be sure to check references. Find out what companies the consultant has worked for, and call them. Ask open-ended questions, such as, "Can you tell me about your experience with Joe Smith at XYZ Consulting? What would you consider to be Joe's area of expertise?"

Once the consultant is on board, remember that information remains the key to a successful partnership. Again, keeping the consultant at arm's length is only to your disadvantage.

Involve the consultant with the project team and other key influencers within your organization. Help your consultant understand your business environment and your business strategy to provide context for the consulting assignment as well as how your company measures success. This will enable the consultant to provide better, more relevant advice and solutions.

Naturally, the information flow goes both ways. During the project, expect and demand an appropriate level of contact and communication. An experienced consultant should provide ongoing project updates.

If something goes wrong, the consultant should notify you, assume responsibility, fix the problem and move on. Be wary of consultants who focus on finding and assigning blame.

When a project is complete or at least on an annual basis for an ongoing relationship evaluate how well the consulting partnership has worked. Measure results against objectives. Ask yourself:

?How well did the consultant manage the inevitable changes along the way?

?Did we have any unpleasant surprises?

?Was the consulting work done right? On time? On budget?

?Did the consultant stay in touch during the entire process?

?Were the right people and resources brought to bear on our needs?

?Did we get a good return on our investment in consulting services?

?Did the consultant ever challenge us?

The last question is particularly important. If your answer is yes, you're working with someone who is not afraid to go outside of the box to help you meet your objectives.

And you will realize that opening the door to outside help can also open your company to new ideas and new successes.

(Robert A. Bundy is a worldwide partner and head of the Kansas City office of William M. Mercer Incorporated, the world's leading human resources consulting firm.)

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