Working with Consultants 101

Working with Consultants 101

How to make sure your next outsourced project doesn't hit the rocks.

Having spent most of their careers in IT and consulting for industry, Wayne and Eileen Strider of Kansas City-based Strider & Cline had no prior experience in consulting for an institute of higher education. Then, in 1999, the husband-and-wife team was called to do an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) review for The Ohio State University. After the university had gone through a few other consultants who had attempted to overhaul its administrative software system, the leadership team finally hit it off with Strider & Cline, which advised the school through a $50 million ERP project. It was so successful that to this day, the president (who later became vice chancellor of a different university system) still raves about their work.

The Ohio State story is an example of a consulting relationship that, with the right questions answered and communication channels cleared, was able to steer clear of a disaster and toward a common goal.

Schools, by themselves, often don't have the in-house expertise capable of revamping whole systems, building new facilities, or implementing campus-wide technology. They have increasingly followed the lead of corporate America and enlisted the aid of outside consultants. But calling on a consulting firm isn't as easy as picking up the phone. Firms and schools have seen projects go awry because of a lack of planning and even a clash of personalities. In this guide to working with consultants, University Business spoke to several consultants specializing in a number of fields and asked for their advice on key issues that come up when IHEs work with consultants.

Do some soul searching. Put first things first, consultants say. Before thinking about the solution, administrators should think about what the problem is and how it got that way. Richard Jacik, president of Information Methodologies, a Virginia-based IT consulting firm, refers to this as "institutional soul searching," or the internal research required to figure out how a school wants the consulting to impact its institution and if the administrators involved have the level of influence and political capital it takes to actually make significant changes. According to Jacik, from the school's standpoint, managing a good project is about "being able to bring in some help from the outside and run with the project from the inside."

Articulate the problem. Consultant Wayne Strider says universities need to articulate the problem clearly to the consultant. Many times, clients will say they want something in particular implemented, "but that's not really the problem, that's the solution," he says. Ohio State administrators, for example, simply told Strider & Cline that they wanted to implement an overall software solution rather than continuing with its "legacy system," an amalgam of software applications created by in-house staffers over the years. At a certain point, administrators realized the system was inefficient, and they called in consultants to help.

Set measurable goals. Jim Scannell, of the Pittsford, N.Y.-based enrollment management consulting firm Scannell & Kurz, suggests schools set realistic, feasible goals for themselves that can be seen and measured. "We want to grow" is one of those vague phrases consultants hate to hear and that Scannell advises school leaders refrain from saying. "What does that mean?" he will ask. "We need specifics. Where are you today and where you do envision yourself?"

" If we reach a very comfortable understanding with the school about what the scope of the work is, then the price follows naturally." -Rich Keeling, Keeling & Associates

Get the order right. Clients also have the "instinct of doing things in the wrong order," says Samuel Frank of Providence, R.I.-based Synthesis Partnership. Once his firm had to tell an institution to hold off on a campus master plan and then spent three months guiding the institution through academic restructuring so it would know exactly what it was trying to plan for.

"It's the sequence issue that has really struck us," says Frank. Usually, a lot of key decisions are already made and executed, but quite often, it is not articulated clearly enough and IHEs end up going back and redoing things that they had already made a decision on. "The more specific they are, the more likely they will be successful. The consultant is only about how to get there."

Select your team and create a time line. Consultant Kathy Kurz of Scannell & Kurz recommends determining who is on the school's "team" will work with the firm. Finalizing the players is also about knowing the schedule. What kind of time line best meet the school's needs? Consulting firm schedules may fill up quickly, and certain projects are best done during a particular season, Kurz says.

Most consultants agree that a school should have a ballpark figure in mind before calling a consultant, but a good consultant can help a school inexperienced with the consulting process estimate a project's cost just by talking it through. Several consultants emphasize long conversations prior to signing any contracts.

Think about scope before budget. What New York City-based Keeling & Associates has found is that a dispute or misunderstanding is never really about price, but about the scope of a project, which dictates price. "If we reach a very comfortable understanding with the school about what the scope of the work is, then the price follows naturally; I don't think anybody we've worked with ever had sticker shock," says Rich Keeling, CEO and executive consultant. "The price becomes secondary to the scope."

Consider the value of a solution. Schools shouldn't be too hung up on what they might have to pay, says a consultant at one firm. "It's better to get clear about what the problem is and what a successful solution would be worth; that's partially where you get an answer about how much you want to pay," says Wayne Strider. "How much is it worth to you to solve the problem?"

Strider suggests getting a written statement, or Statement of Work or Proposal, that explains what the problem is, what you want to learn from the experience, who is going to do what, and how much the project is going to cost. "Definitely get that in writing," he adds.

Reveal the budget. If you are talking to only one consultant, then it's fine to wait and figure out the budget afterward, says Frank of Synthesis Partnership. But, he warns, "We don't even respond to proposals that don't have a rough budget in mind." Consultants need to know how much you're willing to spend when you put out a request for proposals. Don't decide to not divulge a budget in the hopes of someone offering the best deal; you may not get the best deal from anyone.

Create a small price tag. Kurz advises breaking down one large, complex project into smaller, simpler projects by prioritizing the steps to reach the school's goals. The objective is to do as much preparatory work ahead of time to lighten the consultant's load. On a number of occasions, multiple-site institutions with both graduate and undergraduate programs, plus continuing education programs, have asked Kurz's firm to do financial aid projects. But complex projects can become pretty expensive.

"In a sense, it means you're doing separate projects for these different markets because they may behave differently. We may find out they spend 80 percent of financial aid on traditional undergraduates. So we focus on that population first. Then it's one market, with a smaller price tag in terms of consulting support."

Wayne Strider also suggests separating the assessment of the problem from the implementation of the solution, which may lower costs. That way, a school can have one consultant work on the assessment, another on the implementation. Or the IHE itself can handle either part.

The client/consultant relationship can make or break a project. Maintaining an equilibrium in the relationship is important, so the consultant can guide a team of university representatives while still allowing administrators to keep their hands on the ball.

If contracting with multiple consultants, do so in the right order. Besides the crucial step of checking references, some firms say the order schools hire consultants in is also vital. Sometimes, a project may require the aid of multiple consultants or firms to help with different aspects of the project. But that can turn a complex project into an overwhelming experience for everyone when information isn't communicated thoroughly, which can result in more than one person doing the same task. Frank of Synthesis Partnership suggests that an institution can hire integrated firms to recommend consultants for the job; some also have specialists on board who can work on the project together. That way, the project's steps will not be done in the wrong order, and everyone will be on the same page.

"Quite often, when a school hires several consultants to achieve a goal, they can get different or conflicting recommendations from different consultants and that can really be an inefficient or time-consuming process. Then they end up grumbling that one consultant or another didn't do the right thing, but it's really a question of having all the information together and hiring the right people for the job," Frank says.

Issue RFPs to a select group of consultants. Frank recommends that schools not issue an RFP to the general public, because while the number of proposals coming in might be great, the quality might not be there.

"If they narrow it down and know there are three or four consultants that they're thinking about, they should interview them, and then ask for a concrete proposal. The school will get a much more thoughtful proposal. Then the consultants also know they have a better chance of getting a project than if they were going up against 20 different firms," says Frank.

Consider both well-established firms and younger, inexperienced ones. Consultants are split on whether or not it's a good idea to hire less experienced firms. Sometimes, all that matters is that the firm has had prior experience consulting in a different sector. Other times, it's a matter of having to clean up after somebody else's mess. Bob Carter, president of Ketchum, an 82-year-old firm with multiple U.S. locations, says, "You get what you pay for." He says his firm has often been called in after younger firms didn't do a good job. Carter places emphasis on the concept of "pay now, pay later," which refers to schools that hire inadequate, or low-quality help, and later suffer the consequences.

Catherine Cook, CEO of Miller/Cook & Associates, based in Florida and Virginia, says it can be more a matter of whether the consultant has had prior experience working in an administrative or management position in higher education. "If you haven't served in that kind of position, it's very difficult to understand the clients you're trying to serve. If the consultant's professional expertise matches the school's perceived need, the next important step is to ask, 'Does this person blend well with our institution?' Consultation and implementation is for me as much about trust as it is about competency."

But Strider & Cline's success in working with Ohio State might persuade IHEs to consider younger or inexperienced firms. "We would've never gotten this first gig if it wasn't for word of mouth," Strider says. "It's not how old or young the firm is, but how experienced the people are and who they are." Between the two partners, Strider & Cline have spent more than 60 years in IT.

"Consultation and implementation is for me as much about trust as it is about competency." -Catherine Cook, Miller/Cook & Associates

And how much does size matter? Strider points out that when a school consults with a smaller firm, the initial contact people will typically guide the project. "It's the people who the client gets, unlike the larger, more tenured companies. They've got the methodologies, and a lot of money behind them, but you don't really know who's going to show up on your doorstep to do the work," he argues.

Find out exactly who will be assigned to the project. A school should find out how many other assignments a consultant is working on. "You want to know that the person that you're meeting with is the person you're hiring--not just a salesman who closes the deal while someone else comes in to do the work," says William Yacullo of executive search firm EMA Partners International's Illinois office.

Go local. You can always opt to hire local consulting firms for areas that are not as different in higher ed as they are in other markets. That way, you can shop for a firm in your own neighborhood rather than one that's hundreds of miles away.

For example, in accounts payable, says Information Methodologies' Jacik, "You don't need to know a whole lot about how universities work in order to do programmed audits to make sure you're not double-paying people. There are certain best practices that are found in every industry."


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