IT consultants: Are you getting the skills you pay for?

It is no coincidence that the word 'consultant' starts with the three letters 'con'. Consultants can be invaluable, but if you do call in the experts, make sure you’re getting the skills you’re paying for.


There is an old saying "lend a consultant your watch and he will tell you the time". Most of us who have worked in large companies have some stories to tell around this old chestnut.

One of my ex-colleagues joined a well-known systems integrator. On his first day on the job he was told to meet his new boss in a taxi on the way to a client meeting. A technical manual was thrust in his hand and he was told to have a glance through it.

"We've told the client that you have two years of experience with it," said his new boss. Despite never having touched the technology in question, the meeting went fine. It is perhaps no coincidence that the word ‘consultant' starts with the three letters ‘con'.

Such tales are, hopefully, at the extreme end of the spectrum, and it can be argued that clients who don't bother to do the most basic checking on the skills of consultants deserve what they get.

My own company has recently completed a study into the current state of master data management (MDM) projects, and as part of this probed into the experiences of companies who had used systems integrators to help them.

We also surveyed systems integrators that claim to specialise in this type of project, and compared the results. While two-thirds of the survey respondents were ‘satisfied' (or better) with their chosen systems integrator, this leaves a troubling one third of firms unhappy or worse. Moreover, only 59 per cent found their systems integrator to have had ‘adequate' or better experience with MDM.

I find this particularly worrying. Projects go wrong for a number of reasons and it is sometimes tempting for a customer to blame the systems integrator rather than admitting that their project scope kept shifting or that they had trouble getting the business staff properly engaged.

But at the very least, if you are paying good money for consultancy, you at least expect that the people who turn up on the project will have some reasonably solid experience. Yet the survey found just 16 per cent of respondents felt their chosen integrator to be ‘very experienced' in the very subject that they were selling their expertise.

Such experiences do beg the question as to whether companies are really using systems integrators to their best effect. Certainly there are several reasons why it may make sense to bring in a consultant to help with a project. You may not have expertise in a particular area, or you may have resource constraints. A consultant who has worked on several projects elsewhere may bring valuable experience to help you avoid repeating the mistakes of others. A less satisfactory reason for using a consultancy is that they can make a case for something that you know to be true yet is unpalatable, or to have someone to blame if things go wrong.

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