Thursday, June 16, 2005

Common pitfalls in using consultants


But you probably got what you asked for. This is the most common complaint people have about consultancy outputs – it is almost invariably due to one, or a combination of:

- Not being clear yourself about the research – i.e. the five W’s – why, what, who, what use, why contract out?
- Not being able to clearly express needs and desired outcomes in the brief
- The brief was vague
- The brief let the consultants decide what to do and how to do it, and this wasn’t agreed with you, or you didn’t check if this met your needs
- You didn’t get anyone with technical experience to help you write the brief
- In other words… a lot of this is in the brief – put the work in early on.


Then you should have specified a length – to do this it helps if you know what you will do with the report and who the audience is.


Perhaps you need to specify that as well as a technical report, you need an easy-to-read executive summary


It still amazes me that some consultants regularly submit drafts of reports which are exceptionally poorly written. Some pointers to avoid this happening:
- As part of tendering, ask the consultants to provide a) examples of similar reports or work to the assignment/audience and b) a client reference
- Provide a style guide to the consultants in the brief or examples of styles you could like to see emulated
- Mention the importance of final reporting in the brief and the standards required
- Look at who is involved in the report writing from the tender – are they experienced enough, do they have a track record?
- Ask consultants to put in place quality assurance for report writing (such as internal lead writer, proof readers, editors etc)
- If this is a piece of research, at the last resort you need to completely rewrite it – it is helpful to make sure as part of the research brief the consultant is asked to provide individual project components:
Annexes or appendices of data, or research findings
Stand alone reports from research components – for example, ‘report of workshops with SMEs’ or ‘tables from business survey’
All evidence mentioned is sourced fully
Get ownership of the data and copyright of the reports – ensure this is part of the contract


There’s a question as to whether consultants should be providing recommendations anyway. Its far better to ask consultants to present ‘key messages’ or ‘implications’ of research than to proscribe what your organisation should be doing. Far too many consultants get carried away at this point and stray away from the evidence that has been produced as part of their assignment. In some – ask for key messages and implications. Don’t ask them to tell you what to do. Remember that the Freedom of Information Act requires you to make most of your research reports publicly available.


There can be a tendency for any researcher to over-analyse information, data or intelligence – to read too much into this. This tends to be due to inexperience in research and analysis; lack of knowledge about data sources and statistical validity, or a need to ‘bulk out’ a report. You can try and avoid this by:
- Set standards for analysis in the brief – ask for robust analysis and reporting.
- You need to proof read draft reports carefully to pick up points that are not valid.
- Often, too much is made of small samples of interviews, workshops or focus groups. Rememember that these tend to present impressions of people’s perceptions rather than hard facts. They can still be useful, but recognise the limitations of such information. They are best used in combination with hard evidence.
Setting strict limits on the sizes of reports tends to concentrate the minds of consultants a bit – and gets them to stick to the main findings and facts.


At 9:59 pm, Blogger Blimpish said...

Been on the receiving end of all of them at some point, except 'poorly written and structured' - but the shit brief, the complaints of technicality or it being overly long... Oh yes.

But then I work in a similar area to you, so it shouldn't be such a big surprise really.

(By the way, knowing that area of work, it's good to know there's somebody else who thinks Florida's a twat too..!)

At 10:44 am, Blogger Angry Economist said...

Yes Florida, and various other arseholes - ever see this Florida inspired tosh:

Warning - do not read it whilst drinking coffee. It will end up being spluttered all over the screen & keyboard...!

At 2:34 pm, Blogger Blimpish said...

No I hadn't seen that one specifically, but I've come across the Work Foundation's stuff about Ideopolises, etc. Yawn yawn. Have you read any Joel Kotkin articles? - he's the self-appointed Anti-Florida, and very good at finding the annoying facts.

At 4:21 pm, Blogger Angry Economist said...

I'll check it out thanks Blimpish. Luckily where I work now - they aren't too crazy for Florida's ideas - they are not on the radar here (even though most of UK's creative talent is located here!).

Whereas before - I worked in Scotland and they were like rabid dogs on heat for the Florida stuff. Talking all sorts of guff about it. But actually doing very little. Luckily a lot of these people are now getting their p45s.

At 3:05 pm, Blogger Blimpish said...

Florida's work is the new Clusters... Oversold platitudinous trash that every second-hand no-mark can run with as if it applies to everything.

At 3:17 pm, Blogger Angry Economist said...

Funnily enough in Scotland before Florida the rabid dogs on heat were into clusters...!!! they are now reviewing all this trying to find out why they were so mad about it in the first place! of course their are probably several multimillion consultancy invoices in their case files...

I think clusters are an interesting way to analyse the economy, but in terms of mobilising government intervention locally or regionally in the UK they are not so useful.

Re: clusters - Some interesting academic work on labour-based industry complexes - which map industrial agglomerations with similar supplier bases and workforce skills but claim they are not clusters (e.g. Peters, Economic Devt Quarterly, vol 19, No 2, May 2005 pp 138-156). A bit more practical and relevant I found.


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