How to find your expert in the IT jungle - Choosing the right IT consultant for your company is a daunting prospect. Andrew Saunders says the key lies in proper preparation, flexibility and clearly defined objectives.
Computer power, according to Moore's Law, doubles in speed and halves in price every 18 months - and there is no shortage of companies dreaming up flashy things to do with all that extra performance. The resulting pace of change presents the inhabitants of the real world with a dilemma.
They know that IT can help their business develop, but don't know which of the latest techie toys will deliver the goods.
The choice is whether to go it alone or to enlist professional help, and even companies with more than their fair share of IT skills will probably call on a consultant sooner or later.
'Planning a company-wide strategy can be a daunting prospect,' says Rob Wirszycz, director of strategy and marketing for consultants EDS, making the case for his profession. 'Technology is like a jungle. You need a native guide.' But how can you be sure that your faithful scout really knows the way and won't run screaming into the undergrowth at the first sign of trouble?
While the cynics might say that you can't, there are ways of skewing the odds in your favour.
Preparation is one of them. 'Before you even go to a consultant, you should be in a state of readiness,' says Wirszycz, whose company is involved in the troubled efforts to update the Inland Revenue's computers before the year 2000. What this means, he explains, is that you should have a clear idea of what you want to achieve in business terms before you look for help in choosing the technology.
Canvass the views of the key people within your organisation, from the board of directors down to those employees who will actually be using the systems concerned - and do some research to discover what your competitors are up to.
'Ask yourself what your company's competitive advantage is, and what you need to do to maintain or improve it,' recommends Phil Williams, head of corporate marketing for Computacentre, a company that supplies, installs and maintains desktop systems. 'Information technology can be expensive; it is worth doing your homework,' he counsels.
Don't ignore existing IT staff. While it may not be appropriate for the IT director to be the project manager for a new programme, that does not mean that he or she cannot offer some helpful pointers.
Trade organisations can also be a good starting point. The Regal Hotels Group has recently set up a new system for flexibly analysing the status of its 130 hotels. 'I knew there was a need for this kind of system, but I wasn't sure where to find it. Then I saw an IT presentation run by the British Association of Hotel Accountants, which got me thinking,' says Carl Weldon, group financial director.
He subsequently met a former colleague whose company had just brought in a similar system, and was introduced to their software supplier, SRC International. The results have been excellent, he says, adding: 'This wasn't a massive project for us (it cost about £13,000 for the consultancy and the first three software licences), but we wanted a quick result and SRC delivered one.'
So remember to use your contacts - it may be a high-tech industry, but one of the most effective ways of finding a good consultant is by word of mouth.
Try to take a step back from your day-to-day concerns and look at your business in the round. What are your plans for the next few years, and how will they affect what you are going to need?
For smaller businesses, 'one-man bands can make good consultants,' says Maurice Cowey, vice president in Europe of the home and small-business division of Dell Computers. There is natural empathy, he says. After all, who understands the problems you are facing better than the proprietor of another small business? Be careful, however, about using them as longer term suppliers. What if they go on holiday, or go bust? 'You want to know someone will be there when you pick up the phone,' says Cowey.
If you are banking on a period of heavy growth, make sure your consultant can keep up. 'Managing growth is one of the most important considerations,' says Paul Barnes, executive director of Orb 2000, a consultant which works with 'larger SMEs and smaller big companies'. The kind of consultant who can very effectively help take a business from start-up to, say, £10 million turnover, is unlikely to be the best choice for the next stage of development, he says.
It can be an advantage for you to have a certain amount of technical savvy. It could, at least, help you to avoid having the wool pulled over your eyes.
'Too many people fall victim to the traditional IT tactic of blinding with science,' says William Poel, chairman of Enformatica, an IT services company specialising in on-line and new media applications. 'Some consultants are only about 20 minutes better informed than their clients, but they claim to be experts.'
However, even if you are the kind of person who has trouble sending an e-mail message, you can still work with a good consultant. You should be able to communicate whatever your level of expertise. Be very wary of 'technobabble'. Remember that you are going to be paying the bills, and if you don't understand something, request clarification. 'You are perfectly entitled to ask a consultant to explain or justify advice,' says Steve Baxter, an accredited Microsoft consultant and author.
Whether consultants should be independent of the suppliers and manufacturers of hardware or software is a matter for debate. The instinctive answer is that they should be because, if they are tied to a company or a range of products, they are not going to offer impartial advice. On the other hand, you probably want a certain level of technical expertise, and technology covers such a lot of ground that it is very unlikely that any company is going to be familiar with every single product that might be appropriate.
'There are companies out there that can do all the things you need,' says Baxter, 'but not many of them can do everything well.' In the real world, independence can be illusory in other ways, too. 'If, as a consultant, I use a hardware or software supplier and they give good service, I'll use them again. Where's the harm in that?' he asks.
Be wary of manufacturers or retailers who say they will throw in consultancy as part of a sales deal. 'PC suppliers aren't necessarily responsible.
They are selling products rather than solutions, whatever they may claim,' says Barnes of Orb 2000. A true consultant, his argument goes, will spend time understanding your business and what you want to do with it, rather than sell you the product that gives them the fattest commission.
'Your IT strategy should not be driven by a particular platform or product,' he says.
While that is a good maxim, you may not be able to afford to apply it religiously because most businesses will have existing 'legacy' systems in place that need to be integrated into any new developments. For example, if you run a big network on Novell servers, it makes sense to use a company that knows how they work. Most of the larger hardware and software manufacturers and suppliers run accreditation schemes, and they can provide useful evidence of the expertise of a consultant. 'Accreditation from, for example, Microsoft or Novell can be worthwhile if you are already using a lot of their equipment,' says Baxter. Membership of a professional organisation such as the British Computer Society, the Computer Services and Software Association or the Institute of Management Consultants can also provide a certain degree of peace of mind. If nothing else, 'they have codes of practice which their members should stick to, and can provide a means of redress if something goes wrong,' says Wirszycz.
Business experience is valuable, too, and helps to avoid the situation where you are paying a consultant £500 an hour to learn about your business.
'It's good discipline to go through your business processes with an outsider, but you only want to do it once,' says Colin Livingstone, general manager of Scottish Power, which regularly uses consultants in several areas of its business. On the other hand, too much highly specialised expertise can be a drawback. Don't use an egghead unless you really need one.
'The consultants who come up with the best solutions are often not the real specialists,' says Livingstone. Someone with more general experience is likely to bring a fresh eye to bear on your business, rather than tell you something you already know.
Be very careful to take up references, as you would with any supplier.
'Track record is everything in this business,' says Andy Matthews, head of the business consulting practice at Cap Gemini, another large consultancy.
'Get references and follow them up,' he advises. Get hold of a client list if you can, although 'confidentiality can be a problem', he admits.
Look on the list for businesses where the profile and likely requirements match your own - and be nosey, he says.
'Obviously you want to know that the company is trustworthy and performed well in terms of delivery - on time and on budget,' says Matthews, but you can find out much more than that. Ask the referee what the consultant was like to work with, and would they handle any aspects differently if they had to do it again? Ask them what went wrong (something is almost certain to have done) and how the problem was resolved. You can also use the opportunity to check out skills or experience gaps that you may be concerned about.
Spending a few minutes on the phone with someone who has already done what you are about to, or even taking them out to lunch, can be an invaluable learning experience.
When faced with the prospect of having to obtain advice, hardware and software from different suppliers, the one-stop outfit can seem an attractive way of simplifying the process. These companies claim to be able to take you all the way from planning stages through development and implementation, and support your system once it is up and running. If you are keen to find an independent consultant, one-stop shops may not be for you, but they can help avoid one of the classic IT pitfalls. If you have separate hardware and software suppliers, and something goes wrong, you can end up being bounced from one to the other with neither accepting responsibility.
David Cartwright, a chartered arbitrator who also runs a quantity surveying business in Evesham, Worcestershire, recalls his involvement in a dispute between an unnamed 'big car manufacturer' and the two suppliers responsible for one of its computerised production lines, which did not work. 'It was a classic case of the hardware people blaming the software house and vice versa,' he says. In the end, the software company settled out of court - for a 'substantial sum'.
Cartwright says most problems are software related.
How you manage the relationship with consultants or suppliers depends to some extent on your preferred means of doing business. Formal or informal, both can work, says Weldon of Regal Hotels. Informal is probably more dangerous, however. Stringent reporting and assessment can help avoid 'creep' - the term used to describe the pernicious growth of your project beyond its original remit, leading to late delivery and busted budgets.
Some consultants might even encourage a little creep in order to keep the work coming in.
'In a way, it is in the consultant's interest to keep a project going,' cautions Weldon.
Work as closely as you can with your consultant's team. 'We want to be regarded as partners, not suppliers,' says Matthews at Cap Gemini. Make an effort to integrate them as well as possible.
'A good cultural fit is important,' says Matthews. Give the key people in your organisation the time they need to do their bit - a consultant can only work with what you give them - and if you think you might need it, get the appropriate political support. Political squabbles can cause problems for consultants, says Matthews. 'For big projects, board-level buy-in is crucial,' he adds.
By way of a final complication, the matter of how to pay gives some cause for reflection: IT consultants may be leading your business into the next millennium but, in at least one respect, they are no more forward looking than solicitors or accountants. They all like to be paid by the hour.
'You are buying expertise and time,' says Wirszycz, 'so hourly rates make sense.' He concedes, however, that it may be wise to withold a significant sum until you are happy with the outcome.
There are alternatives to hourly billing. Fixed-price packages are popular among smaller companies with basic requirements, and remove the risk of spiralling costs that can accompany hourly rates.
'If you want to set up half-a-dozen PCs on a local network, or install desktop faxing for your employees, a fixed-price deal can work,' says Baxter.
Annual contracts can be a low-stress option if you need IT support and maintenance, but you may end up paying for an easy life. They usually involve a fixed service fee that entitles you to a certain number of service hours each year - the 'service-level agreement' - but if you need more time on top of your allowance, it is charged at a premium rate. The tendency is to take a generous allowance to avoid additional costs, which in practice, says Baxter, means that you end up 'paying for time you don't use'.
If that all sounds rather involved, well, it is. The IT business is huge, and can appear fragmented and impenetrable. There are thousands of potential solutions out there, and there will be more than one way to skin your particular cat. Keep an eye on the big picture (what your business needs is a cost-effective solution that works and comes in on time), and be flexible.
Don't get lost in a doomed search for the Holy Grail.
Working with an IT consultant is ultimately about mutual understanding and a bit of give and take. Livingstone at Scottish Power sums it up: 'Consultancy works best when you have a clearly defined objective, and a team you know instinctively that you can do business with.'
PICKING THE RIGHT PARTNER
Look for relevant business experience as well as technical know-how.
IT consultants need to understand the way you do business if they are to help you improve it.
Ask around: a referral from a trusted colleague or a friend can save a lot of leg-work.
Do some background research - what is the competition up to? You are about to spend what may be a good deal of money, so it is worth equipping yourself with a few basic facts.
Don't overlook the importance of low-tech factors such as location.
It is much simpler to deal with a company that is just down the road than it is with one that is hundreds of miles away.
There are plenty of young IT whiz kids out there, if that is what you want, but don't assume that anyone over 30 is past it. Remember, age does bring experience.
MANAGING THE RELATIONSHIP
Co-ordinate your communications. Nothing is more irritating to suppliers than to receive the umpteenth phone call of the day about something they are already doing.
Don't try to do the consultant's job. Instead of asking for your solution ('I need a box of nails'), try instead to explain the problem ('I need to hold these two bits of wood together').
Hold regular meetings to measure and review progress, and if you want to finish on time, set deadlines and stick to them.
Keep an eye on the budget. Don't hesitate to query bills which you might not understand or which may seem unreasonable.
If disputes do arise, try to negotiate around them and, if necessary, consider using an independent mediator. Resorting to calling in the lawyers is an admission of defeat.