With things moving faster, it’s becoming harder for organizations to keep up. Not all required capabilities are in-house. As a senior L&D leader, there are several ways to address the problem. You can develop your own talent; hire for a new role; or bring in outside expertise. In the case of the latter, you may wonder when to use a consultant.

Full disclosure: I have served in the consultant role for close to two decades so I have personal (and some might say biased) thoughts on the issue. Yet with an academic background (read: an unnaturally high need to meet standards of integrity) and a sense of responsibility to the field, I’ll do my best to explain and not promote what benefits me personally. (That is better marketing, anyway. I don’t want you to engage me, let alone anyone else, unless it really makes sense.)

What is a consultant?

First, what is a consultant? It’s someone with specific expertise that can help shape your plans going forward. Consultants combine deep knowledge with practical experience. They’ve not just done the work but have reflected on their experience, looked to what others have had to say, and can couch their opinions in the recognized frameworks. They frame things in ways that help others understand, and often come up with new ways of seeing things. They are frequently interviewed, write articles and/or books, and speak prominently. They’re opinionated and don’t parrot lines, but they do credit others when appropriate because they respect others’ expertise, as well.

The difference between a contractor and a consultant

What is the difference between a contractor and a consultant? A consultant will bring a unique depth and breadth of expertise to evaluate your situation and provide guidance. Ideally, he or she is brought in early to collaboratively understand your situation and explore opportunities and tradeoffs before helping converge on a particular approach. The best consulting is a partnership: the consultant doesn’t know your unique situation but draws on rich models about the field. Together, you determine how the models match to the particular context and point to a path forward.

A contractor, on the other hand, largely does what he or she is told. They can execute a chosen solution. Contractors operate as fixed-term employees, typically getting paid more than regular employees because they’re not getting employment benefits or long-term assurances.

A contractor would be brought in after the solution is chosen, if it’s not something the organization wants to execute against. That could be because it’s a one-off and there’s no need to develop in-house capability, or time may be of the essence.  You want a contractor to do things you have no need to build capability in, or you just need to augment your ability for a period of time owing to unexpected circumstances.

Hiring a consultant

Consultants are coaches, teachers, and partners. They have a responsibility to help choose the right direction and develop the associated understanding. One reason to bring in a consultant is to get outside perspective. Sometimes it helps to bring in a different viewpoint. On one engagement, much of my role consisted of keeping the client from reverting to “the course” when they were trying to incorporate a broader perspective. Sometimes the outside perspective can say the same thing as those in house, but the message is received because it is delivered from someone outside the organization. When the outcome is more important than the messenger, or the culture isn’t sufficiently open, this can be a strategic move.

Another good time for a consultant is when time is precious to come up with a strategy. Unlike with a contractor, this is to determine the course—not execute against it. In some cases, the time to figure it out just isn’t there. Having someone come in and quickly sort through the options is more valuable than saving the money and taking longer to develop the necessary understanding. If you truly need to impact an urgent situation, such as improving a critical performance problem, ensure you’ve got the right expertise to drill in and identify the need and solution.

This is also true when you really can’t tolerate mistakes. If you have the time and can weather the likely hiccups along the way, you can get away with learning by experimentation. If, however, there’s little margin for error, starting with expertise makes sense. For instance, if you need your eLearning product to support learning experience design and you can’t afford a loss of credibility, get some advice about what makes good learning experiences.

Another time when a consultant is useful is when there’s uncertainty. Here, in particular, you need an independent voice that isn’t coming in with an agenda. You want someone you can trust to understand the situation and make the right recommendation, not the most expedient or profitable one. Personally, these have been some of my favorite situations in terms of feeling like I’ve really helped the organization make a good decision, and understand why they did.

That latter, sharing the why, is another major reason to bring in a consultant; to learn with and from them. A good consultant doesn’t just tell you what to do—they elaborate upon the models underpinning the decisions. One of the most rewarding things my fellow consultants and I enjoy is sharing learnings and leaving folks with new understandings and capabilities. After sufficient exploration of the situation, many engagements will include a presentation providing some common language to use in addressing the situation, and models to map to the situation to guide ways forward.

Should you bring in a consultant who can also then execute against the project? My personal view is no. Or at least don’t hire them to execute until the advice component is done. Why? It’s too easy to get into a trap where the advice provided is what the provider has the ability to execute against. I’d argue that an independent voice, one not looking to deliver a specific solution, is your best bet early on. It helps if you have a voice that isn’t tied to any specific suites of solutions. If you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on implementation, doesn’t some due diligence make sense for a few thousand?

There are folks who cross the spread. Contractors have expertise, as do consultants. Some contractors can help advise you on the solution before and/or during the project. Similarly, some consultants have valuable execution skills as well. To assure that you’re getting a truly appropriate solution hire what you need, at the appropriate stage.

Some final thoughts

Consultants do tend to cost a bit more. Their ability to comprehend a situation, recognize relevant models, apply them to new situations, and articulate the reasoning, is valuable. They not only provide guidance and can educate the team, but can also help convince stakeholders. And this level of confidence is valuable in and of itself.

Ultimately, you want one that you can work with. Every individual and every organization has an interpersonal style. Find one that matches with you, your team, and your stakeholders. A good test is to listen to them speak, noticing both what they say and how they say it. Although it is less certain, another approach is to contact someone whose “voice” you like in articles. If they’re talking about what you’re thinking about, it may be a good match. Of course, recommendations help too. And I’d recommend that you favor ones recognized by those who don’t refer to themselves as “thought leaders,” but whom others do.

Verify that they have knowledge in the area of need. Having assisted organizations like yours is helpful, and working on similar challenges also helps. The more the uncertainly, the more a generalist helps; someone with broad experience rather than a narrow expertise. Note that some folks are good at talking specifics while others talk conceptually.

Consultants don’t make sense in all circumstances, but in the right ones they’re particularly valuable. Yes, I have a vested interest in saying that, but history and experience bears me out. So when should you use a consultant? When you need one! Just make sure it’s the right time, and then make sure you get the right one(s).

Editor’s note

Clark Quinn will be participating in The eLearning Guild’s second annual Executive Forum on October 23, 2018. This special one-day experience, which takes place prior to the Guild’s DevLearn 2018 Conference & Expo, is designed for senior learning and development leaders who want to collaborate with peers and industry experts on cutting-edge strategies that address the key challenges of the modern learning organization. Join Clark at this exclusive event.