A Consultant: An Expert or a Collaborative Partner?

Most organizations, regardless of their size or industry, have likely employed a consultant at some point. In some cases it might have been a short term engagement, in some other cases a consultant may have been retained to assist the organization with a long term needs. Consultants are employed to work in numerous functional areas, such as technology, financial management, risk assessment, human resources, change management, or organizational development. Organizations seek consultants’ advice for many reasons, but more often during an internally or externally driven organizational change – implementation of new processes, mergers, startups, expansion, performance improvement initiatives, or building a more positive organizational culture.

Naturally, a consultant is brought in because of his expertise and ability to provide competent advice. Yet, regardless of how knowledgeable a consultant is, she has a choice between two approaches while working with a client. In the first scenario, a consultant acts as an expert dispensing advice, and provides ongoing direction to a client on their decisions. Here, communication pattern is usually one-way – from a consultant to an organization. The consultant makes most of the decisions, while organizational representative plays a largely inactive role. While this approach requires less collaboration between a consultant and organization, hence less project time and resources, it may not always be most effective in resolving problems and it may not address organization’s long term needs.

Organizational problems are rarely only technical (e.g. a malfunctioning database). Most often it also involves a human element – employee motivation, communication, management practices, or an entire organizational culture. In other words, the relationships between people in organization are a part of the problem puzzle. Thus, because a consultant is an external party, without thorough knowledge of these relationships, a consultant’s technical expertise might not be enough to effectively assess and solve a problem. If a consultant focuses only at the technical side, she may be having difficulty in guiding a client in effective problem resolution. Secondly, when a consultant acts as a sole expert, he may encounter lower commitment level by leadership and employees. They may not fully embrace and internalize consultant’s recommendations if these are delivered without the organization’s participation during a consulting process. The resistance level for implementation will be higher.

In the second scenario, a consultant and a client may agree on establishing a collaborative relationship and working together on the agreed problem. The consultant and the organization share responsibility for a project outcome. They both work together on identifying not only the technical problem, but also outlining human factors that play a role in the creation of the problem. Communication here is a two way. For instance, in case of malfunctioning database, a consultant and a client will be assessing not only database functions, but also will be looking into how employees are trained to troubleshoot and what type of management support they receive. Even though this type of an approach does require more project time, it has clear benefits for long term organizational purposes.

The first benefit in this approach is that the knowledge gained during a project stays within the organization. Secondly, commitment from leadership and employees will be higher and resistance most likely will be lower – organization will be more likely to “buy in” to a consultant’s recommendations because these would have been developed collaboratively. Finally, organization develops better skills to solve the current issue and future issues due to a stronger systemic approach. It is important to remember, that even in case of a long term engagement, a consultant’s involvement with an organization is only temporary. Ultimately, an organization should gain new skills and embrace changes so that it remains sustainable and effective long term.