COMING UP FAST: Crash course - Who needs a consultant? - Difficult challenges are looming for your business, and you don't feel you have the know-how in-house to tackle them. Time to call in the management consultants?

COMING UP FAST: Crash course - Who needs a consultant? - Difficult challenges are looming for your business, and you don't feel you have the know-how in-house to tackle them. Time to call in the management consultants? - THINK AGAIN. Are management consul

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

THINK AGAIN. Are management consultants right for the task? Colin Barrow, head of the enterprise group at Cranfield School of Management, says: 'A good reason to use consultants is when you have a one-off problem outside your skills area, such as installing a new accounting system, when there is no point in acquiring the skills. I'm against using consultants to devise your strategy, because that is your job and it is something you have to learn.'

WRITE THE BRIEF. Identify exactly what you aim to achieve from a consultancy project. According to Martin Price of voluntary sector best-practice group ACT, the brief should include a description of the organisation and its situation, an outline of what the consultancy is expected to achieve, and the project's timescale. 'The brief should be sufficiently clear to give a good idea of what is involved, but not so restrictive that there's no room for creativity,' he says.

FIND A ROUND PEG. The Institute of Management Consultancy suggests inviting up to three consultants to tender. You need a consultancy with appropriate expertise and a sympathetic culture. Find suitable candidates by referral: ask your contacts. Failing that, the IMC offers a search service, via its web site or telephone.

BUDGET FOR THE BENEFITS. Hiring consultants is expensive. According to one industry survey, the cheapest one-man consultancy will cost you pounds 500 a day; senior personnel at bigger consultancies will cost three or four times that. Says Barrow: 'If you can define your objectives and understand the cost benefits you will achieve, you will know what you can afford to spend.'

FIND OUT WHO'LL DO THE WORK. Before making an appointment, establish which individuals will be responsible for the work. Consultancy firms tend to use seniors to sell and juniors to do. You may want input by one of the principals written into the contract.

SET MILESTONES. Clearly defined steps along the way ensure that both sides are clear the project is proceeding according to plan. There should be deliverables at each stage, such as data collected, findings suggested by data, interim views and final options.

SET AN END DATE. As a general rule, every consultancy project should have a clear ending, says Price. Otherwise you risk becoming dependent on the consultant. If you have a continuing need for a particular expertise, find a permanent way to fill it. Says the IMC's chief executive, Ian Barratt: 'If you are employing consultants on a regular basis for their expertise, you should set a timetable for them to transfer the knowledge to you.'

BE OPEN - UP TO A POINT. Tell your employees why the consultants are there, but avoid being too specific until the decision point is reached 'There are commercial sensitivities to consider and there is no point in setting hares running and getting people worried about their jobs while you are considering possibilities that you may later decide to turn down,' says Price at ATC.

DON'T HIDE BEHIND CONSULTANTS. We've all heard of consultants being called in to rubber-stamp decisions, or to act as the fall guy for redundancies. Political considerations may have some legitimacy in a large organisation, says Barrow, but in a small organisation your agenda should be purely economic.

KEEP AN OPEN MIND. You may not like the consultants' conclusion, but if you reject it without considering the evidence and their arguments, you shouldn't have employed them in the first place.

DO SAY: 'We need to reduce manufacturing costs by 10% within six months. The role of consultants will be to propose how that might be achieved.'

DON'T SAY: 'This business is in a right mess. Let's hire some shit-hot consultants to sort it all out.'

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