My dictionary defines “consultant” as: 1. a person who consults with another or others; 2. an expert who is called on for professional or technical advice or opinions. The Thesaurus lists: Advisor, expert, guide, mentor, counselor.
There are also multitudes of less formal (and less complimentary) definitions; among them, “A consultant is a person who borrows your watch to tell you the time. And then sends you a bill!”
For full transparency, I have been a Business Continuity Management consultant for more than twenty years. From that perspective I offer this article as food for thought for those deciding whether to seek a consultant’s assistance with a Business Continuity project. For those who determine that working with a consultant is the best approach for their organization, it provides some suggestions to make the experience a more beneficial and positive one for all concerned.
You’ve just been given responsibility for developing, updating, or enhancing your organization’s Business Continuity program. While it’s an area of interest for you and you know it’s something that is desperately needed, your mind reels as you try to figure out where you’ll carve out the number of hours this new responsibility requires. The challenge is magnified greatly for those with limited Business Continuity training or experience.
Looking at the scope of the project, the time in which it must be completed, and existing workload and time demands, you determine that the best solution is to bring in a consultant. And you are likely right. Often, the primary reasons for hiring a consultant are the need for:
- Specific expertise, e.g., Business Continuity planning, plan development, training, conducting exercises and tests…all the above.
- Person hours that you and your staff don’t have.
At this point you may want to take another look at the decision to hire a consultant. Would there be greater benefit from applying the cost of contracting with a consultant toward creating a new position and hiring an employee who will be permanently assigned to manage the BC program? Is it possible and practical to identify a current employee with excellent related capabilities and provide that employee with the necessary education and training to handle the project internally?
You may also want to consider whether a consultant is needed for the entire project. Break your project down. Is a better approach using outside assistance only for certain project phases or tasks or to provide as-needed guidance, direction, or oversight? Do the math, look at the calendar, and consider the short-term need and long-term benefits.
Consultants, regardless of the focus of their work with an organization, can also provide:
- A solution to a tough problem that can’t be solved internally. This often relates to the first two items, a lack of time or expertise.
- New, innovative approaches.
- Experience working with the standard, guidelines, or best practices selected by your organization, as well as applicable certifications.
- An unbiased perspective that rises above company politics, cliques, and personalities. Assessing the current level of preparedness and conducting the Business Impact Analysis are examples of where this may apply.
- Someone who can step back and view your organization’s situation and needs with “fresh eyes”. Just because “that’s always been our Business Continuity strategy” doesn’t mean it’s still the best.
- A means to develop internal knowledge and capabilities by working with the consultant to “learn as you go”.
- A person other than you to deliver unwelcome news – the “hit man” (e.g., highly negative results of an assessment of your organization’s level of preparedness and ability to recover).
The Business Impact Analysis has been completed. More than half of one department’s functions have been identified as being non-critical. Aren’t you glad you can say to the Department Manager, “The Business Impact Analysis conducted by our consultant determined that…”?
Avoid situations where a contract with a consultant can result in:
A lasting dependence on the consultant. Assign ongoing ownership of the Business Continuity program to an employee. With a learn-as-you-go approach, that individual may well be able to maintain, update, and further enhance your organization’s Business Continuity capabilities without a need for the consultant to return year after year.
Recommendations for solutions that require using products and/or services that the consultant provides or represents rather than those that may be the best for your company.
A focus on recovery of IT and other technology only rather than a comprehensive enterprise-wide Business Continuity Management System that includes all internal and external interdependencies.
Development of methodologies, documents, and other deliverables to which the consultant retains ownership. If you pay for it, it should be yours. Working documents, procedures, and plans developed for your business recovery program should belong to you at the end of the project and be yours to use, reprint, revise, and distribute with no additional compensation to the consultant.
Next, consider steps that can be taken to make the most of your work with the consultant who borrows your watch.
After weighing the pros and cons, you determine that it is in your organization’s best interests to hire a consultant, and you begin the search for the ideal person to borrow your watch. To prevent a negative experience that can waste time and money and leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, take steps to avoid setting the project up for possible failure.
It’s all about developing a working relationship that produces maximum results.
- Spell out your specific reasons for calling in a consultant. Before you begin your search, write a project mission statement. What do you want to accomplish? What will be the consultant’s role?
- Identify the right expert(s) for your needs. Some consultants are primarily technical experts; others can assist with every phase of the project.
Look for someone who has the right experience. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the consultant has consulted only with organizations that are mirror images of yours. Often, someone who has worked with a wide variety of types and sizes of organizations in different locations brings a breadth of knowledge that can’t be matched by one who has created multiple “cookie cutter” solutions. Working with many different companies usually results in the consultant being able to quickly get a handle on your organization’s operations and culture and its Business Continuity needs and requirements.
Make sure the consultant is a good “fit” – one who can work well with the people in your organization from the mail room to the data center to the boardroom. What works best for you? Is one of the larger international consulting firms what you’re looking for? Will a smaller consulting firm better meet your organization’s needs? Is an individual consultant with a more personal approach best for you?
Make sure you know the actual individuals with whom you’ll be working throughout this very important, and possibly long-term, project. Know who will be showing up at your door. Can you communicate with them? Is there trust and rapport? What is your comfort level? Will the working relationship be a successful partnership where the consultant is seen as a member of a team working toward a shared goal?
Agree on specific project goals. This is key. Make sure there is a clear understanding about what are the deliverables, what will be accomplished, by whom, how, and when. Don’t begin the project until clear and well-defined project goals are agreed to in writing.
Agree on project reporting. How often will the consultant provide you with progress reports and in what format? This benefits all concerned. Project reporting keeps you up to date by creating checkpoints where you and your consultant meet to review progress and discuss issues. This is another item to spell out in the contract. Get nervous if there are unexpected long periods of silence!
Allow enough budget and time for the start-up phase and front-end analysis. Assessing current capabilities and laying the groundwork is essential to the success of all subsequent project phases. Developing and agreeing on a detailed project work plan is one example of important front-end work. Don’t expect that the consultant will sign the contract by day one and begin writing detailed plans and procedures by day two.
To quote Malcolm S. Forbes, “What is an expert? I read somewhere that the more a man knows; the more he knows he doesn’t know. So, I suppose a definition of an expert would be someone who doesn’t admit out loud that he knows enough about a subject to know he doesn’t really know much.” Beware of consultants who present themselves as knowing it all and being the only and ultimate experts. The Business Continuity field is still evolving and maturing.
Once you have the ideal consultant on board:
- Give the consultant the power to get the job done. Once that contract is signed, don’t throw up roadblocks that may prevent your consultant from doing the best possible job. Create the right balance of appropriate reporting and accountability and a Nike, “Just do it,” approach.
- Provide the information necessary for the consultant to work effectively. Always keep in mind that it is your organization’s Business Continuity Management program. The consultant will need information, input, and feedback from you and your co-workers. Keeping relevant information from your consultant, for whatever reason, is counterproductive.
- Allow your consultant access to people in your organization. Remember, a consultant brings expertise but does not come with built-in detailed knowledge about your organization. Information and input from key staffers are critical. Help identify and provide the consultant access to, the people who can provide needed information. Assign an employee to assist the consultant with scheduling meetings, interviews, and training sessions.
- Understand that the consultant will most likely not be able to immediately solve problems that have existed (and maybe been building) for years. While the Business Continuity development process often provides opportunities for non-related improvements, the consultant will not likely be able to neither cure what has ailed your company for years, nor turn a dysfunctional organization into a model one as if by magic.
Working with Business Continuity consultants is often the best approach to developing or enhancing a Business Continuity program. To be sure that this is true for your organization and to help ensure that the organization’s needs are met, ask yourself some questions.
Do I need to know the time? Can someone in our organization tell time or learn to? Will the “time teller” teach us to tell time? Is this the person to whom I want to loan my watch? Will I be sold an extravagant clock that we don’t need or that is not a good investment? Will I get my watch back with value added? Remember, it’s your watch!