Getting the most from a consultant

I’ve been working on behalf of Jisc in partnership with a group of other organisations, Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, Association for Learning Technology, National Union of Students and the Higher Education Academy. Part of the model we’ve been using is reliant on acting as consultants to a variety of higher education institutions. Each of the partners as provided staff and associates to deploy a broad range of support activities. Having done many consultancy days during this programme, I was still unsure about how best to maximise impact and get best use for the client. To that end I emailed a group of staff in institutions, and a group of consultants and asked for their top tips to get best use out of a consultant.

From the consultants perspective

  • Don’t under estimate your own worth, even if you are consulting in an area outside of your immediate area of expertise. Being able to bring your experiences from a variety of areas is still very valuable to the client, as is the external view.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of having an external facilitator – those colleagues who are guarded or respond predictably during internal sessions are likely to be more open and engaged during a session led by someone external.
  • Know what type of consultancy you require – but accept that in most cases an educational institution will benefit most from process consultancy. i.e. dedicated support to help the college or university help itself.
  • Don’t expect because you’re paying them that it will be less work for you. Chances are a good consultant will generate value and more work for you.
  • Identify as soon as possible periods where they are not going to be available, and get a sense of how many days they have free generally over the course of the consultancy.
  • Clarify exactly what you want doing. Be very clear about the amount of days you expect each bit of work to take and the deadlines. This makes invoicing easier for the consultant, and also means that they have a clearer idea of whether it will be worth taking on the job in the first place, or even if it will be feasible to fit it in. If there are models for how the work should look when completed (for example if there is a report to be written) make these available before the contract starts.

From the client (institutions) perspective

  • Don’t expect them to have all of the answers; people are often surprised that they are not provided with answers by consultants. There is a confusion about what consultancy is I think.
  • Agree a clear brief including the political and contextual aspects: what approaches are palatable in your institution, how is external input best presented, how formal or informal is the decision making structure, and where has this project/brief/ challenge gone ‘wrong’ before? Is the university sensitive to research underpinning or will it want a peer-informed gap analysis?
  • For each of the meetings you may have with the consultant put some forethought into priming them so they begin their thought processes in advance; this avoids having unnecessary discussions ‘on the meter’.
  • Use the consultancy to undertake the ‘icing on the cake’ activity. (The added value & usually what you don’t have time to do).
  • Use the consultancy to bring impartiality to your research & evaluation activity.
  • Use the consultancy to look outwards whilst you concentrate on working inwards.
  • Remind any internal staff that the person coming in is an external consultation and that their services are being paid for, not being late for meetings, proper preparation etc. will maximise the consultant’s time.
  • Agree confidentiality and originality clearly. I’ve been surprised about both finding some of our commissioned consultancy outcomes reproduced for other institutions, but also, been confronted with a consultancy report which is eerily similar to one done by the same consultants for another institution.

This is obviously not an exhaustive list, and is meant only to give pointers for both clients and consultants. With thanks to Gwen Van Der Velden, Elizabeth Cleaver, Helen Beetham, Mark Childs, Paul Bailey, Simon Thomson, Caroline Ingram, Will Allan and Sarah Chesney.

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