21 11 2011

If recent media reports are to be believed (and people are believing them) then introducing myself in this way now gives me a somewhat lower social standing than, let’s say bankers or estate agents.

However sensationalist newspaper headlines hide a sector which offers much to Britain emerging stronger from our current economic problems and, far from what the media reports claim, the vast majority of us are not out to rip you off!

The problem with modern media news reporting is that very often ‘sensational’ will trump ‘balanced’ and ‘headline’ will frequently beat ‘proper research’.

Take last week’s news that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has run up a £600 million consultants bill and you will see what I mean. Great headline and definitely sensational but how many news carriers that you saw balanced their report by seeking the view of a consultant? How many compared the one ‘shock, horror story’ with the hundreds where good consultants offer exceptional value for money.

It is not as if the good consultants are not prepared to make our case. When the above story broke I contacted the news desks at the BBC, ITV and Sky offering my services (free of charge I add) in order to provide balance to the reporting. Not one of them even acknowledged me let alone replied. I know of colleagues in consultancy with similar tales.

At the last election the public services union Unison ran a poster campaign decrying the money spent on consultants by local government. Not once did they look at cost v benefit, not once did they ask about value. As with the media, I wrote to Unison and offered to discuss what it is that consultants do; the benefits we provide and ways in which (good) consultants will ensure that cost and benefit are carefully weighted from the outset and then monitored as work progresses. Their response? I don’t know; I still haven’t received it.

A couple of weeks ago I had lunch with the Director of a government quango. We discussed the difference between simple cuts and bigger picture effectiveness, efficiency and economy. We discussed the lack of real consultation with the people footing the bill (the taxpayer) and we talked about how single issue policy costs so much more than properly integrating strategy. “Jim,” he said, “we could do with your services, indeed they (the government) could do with your services but the Minister has made it clear; no consultants.”

I am left wondering at the damage done to my profession by a few bad and greedy consultants who have tarred the decent, honest majority with the same brush. Yet the question that recurs in my mind is the paucity in logic in all of the above thinking by media, unions and now government.

If you employ a specialist to do a job and they get it wrong or overcharge you have (or should have) recourse. Didn’t the people in (eg the MoD) who negotiated these contracts stop and say; “hang on a minute, this looks a bit pricey?” or maybe “our budget is £xx and therefore the job must, contractually, be done within that budget.”

No? Am I alone in thinking these are probably the sort of people who respond to emails from Nigerian princes who have a few million quid they need help moving to Britain? Maybe that was their plan for raising the £600m? A contract is a two-way agreement and while these particular consultants took the proverbial; who was letting them?

I am reminded of another story from last year which, on the basis of a single experience, criticised consultants. Dame Mary Perkins is, by any standards, an extremely successful businesswoman and if you haven’t heard of her, you will have heard of her brand – Specsavers. So when Dame Mary said last year; “I’ll never hire consultants again,” the media were ready with their sensationalist headlines but no one thought to ask a (good) consultant any questions to gain a balanced view.

In a nutshell; the story centred on Specsavers growth into the Netherlands, a move for which a consultant was hired. The consultant’s advice proved to be poor, Dame Mary stepped in and changed course and decided never to use a consultant again (and to tell the world about it).

Consultants being marginally less popular than Satan right now, the media lapped it up however; allow me to put a slightly different take on Dame Mary’s approach:

Imagine I visited an optician for an eye test and received bad advice. Would it be wise, or even moderately sensible, to say that I would never use an optician again? Probably not. How far does that principle apply? Plumbers? Doctors? Mechanics? Consultants?

You tell me.

As in all walks of life there are good consultants, bad consultants and indifferent consultants. As in all walks of life the buyer needs to be aware for the bad and try to seek out the good. If in doubt, ask advice and take references. When drawing up contracts clarify budgets, charges and what will or won’t be included. Ask the consultant how they add value and monitor them against this. Don’t ask the consultant to do jobs your own staff can do at a fraction of the cost – they will charge in the same way you would them, at their going rate.

Consultants can play a key role in helping Britain move forward from our many current issues; economic, social and otherwise. Please, apply a little common sense and don’t ask the good, honest majority to carry the can for few rogues.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, November 2011

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan


Twitter @cowanglobal




6 responses

21 11 2011
Bill Casey

Jim, I always enjoy your stuff, this time especially. On this side of the pond, our Department of Defense has occasionally come under attack for dollars spent on “contractors.” “Contractors,” may mean a consultancy, doing the sort of thing that you (and I) do — OR it could mean a body shop that rents back (long term) military retirees. The latter case costs much, much more money, but there is no distinction; they are all “contractors.”

21 11 2011
Marcus Kingwell

Jim, you are spot on. The issue is really about quality and value for money, not about whether you are a consultant, associate, contractor or member of staff. If you are charging more money – whether as a well paid employee or a consultant – you should be giving more value. It’s a simple as that.

21 11 2011

Thanks Bill, Marcus.

Having written this blog it did occur to me that maybe the next one should be to mourn the passing of common sense?

Or, more tongue in cheek, should they employ a consultant to help them manage their relationships with consultants!



21 11 2011
Bill Casey

Actually, Jim, your tongue-in-cheek suggestion is pretty good. Years ago, I was on a Big Eight (that’s how many years ago it was) team that was swarming all over the client site, burning the hours madly. The client very cleverly hired an independent, senior consultant to manage the project. He got the Big Firm hotshots in line pretty quickly and turned the project into a success. It shouldn’t have been needed, but it was. Nothing like hiring a fox to guard the henhouse — against other foxes!

20 02 2012
Emma Insley

Nice post, Jim.

Hello, I’m a consultant too. I wholeheartedly agree with the points you raise, but would like to follow up on the point about MoD consultants. Let’s just say I know a few people who are ‘consultants’ to MoD, only they are nearly all contractors hired to do a highly technical job. The MoD has a policy of rotating civil servants every 3 years so they never develop the in-depth technical expertise that is required. So the irony is that expertise – and in some regards stability – is provided by contractors. The solution to having fewer contractors, which you suggest earlier in your post is to take a long-term view and develop the talent in-house… which seems unlikely in the wake of wave after wave of cuts.

22 02 2012

Hi Emma,

Thank you for taking the time to comment and for sharing these important points. I agree with everything you say.

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