Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Access, working in-house and consulting – understanding and working in the fundamental constraints at a job

Posted in consulting, HR and personnel, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on December 15, 2010

I have made a point several times now in this blog that consultants come into a business to solve some specific problem or complex of problems and then they leave. The same consultant may be brought back by the same client business repeatedly but this is virtually always to address specific issues. There is one real and relatively common exception to this and that is when a full time employee is taken on under contractual terms that would normally apply to a consulting position, to limit indirect expenses from benefits and related costs that would have to be accepted with a more conventional in-house employee hiring. And that can be a risky and untenable long term solution for any business, and can just serve more to shift expenses from one part of the debits side of their accounting ledger to another with consultants charging more per hour or per day to cover for their health insurance and other benefits anyway.

So I set this exception aside and simply consider a more standard consulting assignment that can be of short or longer term duration. Consultants are hired to solve specific problems. And another point I have raised before that I start with here is a “why” issue. Why not simply add these tasks to the job descriptions of one or more in-house employees and save the extra expenses and complications of bringing in subject matter experts who do not know your business itself from the inside? An at least partial answer to that, I have already shared in this blog is that consultants come and go, so they are much less encumbered by office politics and corporate culture, and any silo walls and other barriers that these can serve to create. At least ideally, consultants step in and handle problems that in-house employees could not work on effectively because they would be constrained from accessing the necessary combination of people and other resources from in-house – full time, in-house employees would not be as able to walk across the table of organization where that would be needed to do that job.

I realize and acknowledge here that this is only one legitimate reason to bring in a consultant for some specific task or set of tasks. But even when the more overtly expressed reason is that it would not be cost-effective to bring certain specialty skills in-house with a full time hire, this can still be at least a background reason for hiring that consultant short term instead.

Having stated that I note that some consultants who are brought in to actively function as consultants stay on long term and the longer they remain in place the more tied into in-house employee constraints they can become. So an effective consultant always has to be aware of the distinction between their position and their role in the business, and the positions and roles of the people they work with, and who they may have worked with for a year or more now. And they have to work to maintain the flexibility and the potential for access and range of resource availabilities that they initially brought to this job with them as a consultant. Even if they get to attend the year-end holiday parties with this same business group for several years in a row, it is important that they remain a consultant per se, rather than simply slipping into an in-house employee pattern. If they fail to do this and fall into a rut of simply working there at their client business they in fact simply become an in-house employee but one who does not get benefits.

And the access I write of here can be a complex and shifting resource, and it is one that can never simply be taken for granted. I started this posting discussing consultants and consulting but this is actually more about access, and who conventionally gets to talk with whom and about what. This is about the information sharing side of building and maintaining an open organization or it is, if you will, about the breakdowns in information flow that lead to sclerotic development of a system of silo walls and internal barriers and impediments.

I have recently been working with a smaller organization that on the face of it has a relatively flat and open table of organization. Senior management meets together regularly and their doors are in fact open for the most part for staff and for maintaining open communications. But even as a relative outsider coming in as a consultant I quickly found myself hearing very different understandings and visions of that organization depending on who I spoke with. Access is not about “you can’t talk with X but you can with Y.” It is the steady accumulated impact of talking with Y but not with X, or with X too but with self-imposed and systematic constraints when talking with them.

Silo walls do not always start with brick and cement barriers. They are much more likely to begin in the way meetings are scheduled, who has lunch with whom, and other more minor and even unnoticed impediments to free and open exchange of ideas in conversation. The brick walls and distance barriers can come later and serve more to formalize silos than to create them.

I started this with discussion of consultants and end with that too. Look to where you do or would hire consultants, and certainly where you would consider bringing one in for a long term or even open ended assignment. You have in that, a roadmap to where you may be developing organizational barriers that block open access, limit resilience and organization flexibility and that can in the long term limit or even block organizational success. And if you can say you would only bring in people with specialties you need but not full time – but you keep on finding situations where that happens, you may have reason to talk with your department heads and your HR department to reconsider what you actually need to bring in-house as essential skills sets. But that is topic for another posting.

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