Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Dealing with Consultants

For reasons I don't need to go into here, I've been thinking a lot about organizations that bring in outside consultants to evaluate things and offer recommendations. It reminded me of an Internet Whirl column I'd written for Internet World (yes, the column name was a pun) magazine a decade ago, so I share that column with you.
Internet Whirl
Grin and Bear It
The Upside of Letting an Outsider Tell You What You Already Knew 
By John Zipperer
(06/15/01) An e-business consultant was recently in our conference room, commiserating about the challenges he faced helping companies get from point A to B in their Internet plans. He remarked that though he is often mistaken for one, he is no magic fountain of secret knowledge. In fact, he said, “Often, I’m telling them to do what they already know needs to be done.” It may sound like an unnecessary waste of money for a company, but it often proves to be a very necessary reassurance. 

This is a lesson I learned firsthand while working on a project to Web-enable a former employer’s database. We had legacy software specially designed for our type of organization, but it hadn’t been designed to work with Windows NT—which we didn’t know when we started the project—causing us a great deal of trouble when we went live. Only after months of struggle did we get the software maker to admit their software was the problem. It was your typical e-business nightmare: The database was too slow; it often crashed; it didn’t have enough search functions for our customers.

There were other problems, too. We had a number of broadcast e-mail lists I administered, which pulled their addresses out of the same legacy database. Except that the filters for the broadcast e-mail software often failed; people couldn’t get subscribed easily and often got unsubscribed because the system overwrote new lists of subscribers with older lists. Those were the lucky ones. We also heard from more vocal customers who had not subscribed but nonetheless were receiving the e-mail, which in such circumstances translates into spam.

The technical problems weren’t monumental. We knew what we needed to do—upgrade various software programs, bring in a new technical consultant with expertise in our broadcast e-mail system, establish a position of chief architect for all of our technology efforts, and eventually, switch server platforms. We ended up doing all these things, but only after a second trial by fire. The first trial had been handling problems and dealing with customer complaints. The second trial was implementing the new system despite losing the confidence our customers and board members once had in us.

We had to go through a long political charade before we could get the necessary changes made. The board’s solution was to bring in an outside consultant who would do a review of our technology use, needs, and future growth. A local firm was hired to conduct interviews. We worked with them, and then waited anxiously for their report. It essentially restated what we had said all along—what needed fixing, what staffing changes were necessary, and what future investments had to be made to get the company where it wanted to be.

Well, it wasn’t all stuff we’d been saying all along. On one page of the report was a particularly annoying chart that purported to show how our company would fall behind the technology curve if we didn’t keep investing and upgrading. It was an amateurish chart: it indicated no quantities of time or money, just some curved lines, our company’s name, and a description with a dire warning about our future if we failed to heed the report’s recommendations. That graphic was, to me, the final insult of an insulting process. Yet it was swallowed whole by the board, for the sole reason that it had been prepared by highly paid outside experts.

It was galling, but also a lesson in the value of refraining from asserting the need to be recognized for having been correct all along. What the consultants provided (for a few thousands of dollars) was a comforting aura of expertise that our board needed in order to accept our recommendations and accept a new working arrangement with us. In short, it gave them ammunition with which to answer potential critics. Politics is a messy thing, and it ain’t just in Washington. But if one can manage to set aside one’s distaste for it, the bigger picture will unfold.

For us, there was a happy ending; the political games served to get us to where we needed to be all along. Frustrating as it was, it was the right thing to do, because it allowed everyone involved to eventually buy into the plan. But all it required of us in-house folks in the end was a little patience and humility. To reach our goal, that wasn’t too much to ask.
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