With a Little Help From Your Friends

You can't know everything.

More companies are using consultants today because of the demands of rapidly changing technologies and scarcity of technical skills. So it's more important than ever to use consultants properly and effectively.

The Internet and e-business, among other developments, have brought the need for new technologies into old-line manufacturing companies at a dizzying rate. Plus most mid-sized companies have little or no in-house expertise or resources to understand the opportunities or pursue them for competitive advantage. Even if a company wanted to hire an in-house technical staff, finding and retaining the best and the brightest is mission impossible given today's high technology job market. Given the cost of most benefit packages and the tenuous nature of the economy, management might not want to make a long term commitment with an unproven individual.

It's no wonder, then, that smaller companies, many that have never used consultants before, are beginning to look to this option as the only way to get into the game. But it's difficult for these companies to determine just what kind of help they need and where to find it.

THE NEED

The employment of e-business technologies has rapidly become a necessity in all kinds of business, whether to support marketing and sales efforts direct to consumers; for effective communications with dealers, resellers or industrial customers; for communicating with suppliers and service providers or in order to participate in online marketplaces: trade exchanges and collaborative networks.

Most custom-designed and pre-packaged software applications – anything designed or built more than a year or two ago – do not fully support the communications, data transfer and interoperability requirements that are necessary to fully participate in the world of commerce.

Given the desperate on-going need for technological know-how, a larger mid-sized company might consider hiring a full-time employee to fill the need, but that's a lot easier said than done. The demand is very high and the supply of qualified individuals is rather sparse. If you could find the right candidate, the asking salary would probably knock your socks off. It's a sellers' market and the job seekers are well aware of that fact.

Assuming you succeeded in hiring the right person with the right skills and training, then retention becomes a huge concern. Prior to the recession, turnover in this market used to be tremendous, but if your techie is highly qualified, expect him to get frequent recruitment calls and higher salary offers.

Another concern is the short shelf life of today's technology expertise. Your new employee will need to spend a fair amount of his or her time staying up to date with developments and new products and tool sets.

RENT RATHER THAN BUY

When you need expertise for a defined project or for a limited period of time, it makes sense to rent it – contract for the needed help only to the extent that it is needed. That's obvious. But you should also consider a more long-term relationship with outside resources, especially in support of new and evolving technologies. Since things are changing so rapidly, and considering how difficult it is to hire and retain technical employees as well as keep their skills up-to-date, using outside resources on an ongoing basis becomes very attractive, indeed.

Most companies that immediately reject this idea are scared away by the high daily or hourly rates charged by consultants. But they should force themselves to look past the immediate out-of-pocket cost and think in terms of both the benefits expected and the cost of the alternatives.

Once you've decided that consultants have the answers you seek, finding the right one (s) becomes the next big challenge. There are international, national, regional and local firms of all sizes with a number of specialties and capabilities. Your choice will be dictated by a number of factors, including the scope and nature of the project, the location (s) covered and whether you have an existing relationship with a software vendor, accounting firm or technology vendor that also offers the consulting expertise you need.

For more limited tasks that are relatively well defined, building a Web site or integrating e-business software to your enterprise requirement planning (ERP) system, for example, your best choice might be a local or regional firm that knows your software and your business . If you are looking for help in developing a strategy, one of the larger firms with more varied experience and a deeper pool of expertise might be more appropriate.

Of course, you may need both kinds of help. You might look for a firm that can do it all, but that leaves some people uncomfortable. Many believe that the firm that analyzes the problem and maps out the solution should not be the one to deliver it. It is reasonable to suspect that a firm that has a cadre of programmers, analysts and systems integrators on the payroll might be motivated to generate work for these people to the possible detriment of the customer's budget. On the other hand, another service provider brought in to do the work won't have the intimate knowledge of your situation and your needs that you just paid the first consultant to absorb.

If your company has only one plant and warehouse, a smaller and more local firm might be a good choice, but if your operations are scattered throughout the country or around the world, you'd better be looking for a firm that can support you in all those geographic areas.

Most software vendors have consulting resources available either on staff or through an affiliate network or both. If the project is supplemental to the core software, these people will have a leg up on other firms who might have to learn the intricacies of the software before they can help you. However, don't expect an objective assessment of the software's suitability if the consultant has a relationship with the software vendor. Many accounting firms have consulting services arms, but some customers shy away from using the same company for consulting and auditing based on those same concerns about objectivity. In any case, several of the big accounting firms have now spun off or sold their consulting organizations. Or you might already be working with a consulting organization and you will have to determine if they have the skills and knowledge necessary to help you take the next step.

ONGOING NEEDS

Building your Web presence, integrating systems together, devising an Internet strategy or any of the other specific tasks involved in moving forward with new technologies – these are not one-time events.

The technology is changing daily as is the form and shape of the marketplace these technologies are creating. If you rely on outside resources for help in getting it done in the first place, budget for continuing support not only to keep it all running smoothly but also for upgrades and expansion that will be necessary to keep up with the technology, the competition and customer demands.

When choosing your advisory resource, think in terms of a long-term relationship rather than a one-time project. It is absolutely fair to insist on interviewing the principal consultant (s) who will be working on your project and checking references just as you would a potential employee. And if, at a later time, you find that a person working on your project is not providing the service you expected, or simply does not fit in with your organization and your project team, it's okay to ask for that person to be replaced.

When interviewing consultants and assembling your team, be sure that the desired individuals have the time available in their schedules to support your project. Get a commitment in writing as to the availability of key individuals. Of course, the best-laid plans can be derailed by sickness, injury or other unforeseen circumstances. Even consultants change jobs from time to time. Insist on a commitment from the firm that you have the right to specify who will be working on your project.

The foregoing is not intended to sound negative or imply an adversarial relationship between consulting firm and customer. On the contrary – the consultants should be full-fledged members of your team and should be made to feel the same kind of loyalty toward your organization that your employees feel. Make them welcome and treat them like members of the family for they surely are, or should be.

Companies have a wide range of attitudes about consultants. Some are used to tapping these resources on a regular basis while others have never taken advantage of the expertise and objectivity that consultants have to offer.

In today's environment, with complicated (and rapidly changing) new technologies becoming more and more important to becoming and remaining competitive, it's nice to know that you can rent the expertise you need, when you need it. The sticker price may be a bit of a shock at first, but the return is almost always well worth the investment – not only in keeping up with the competition but also in saving time and money in getting where you need to be.

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