We used to call them Renaissance men, because they seemed to do everything. They didn’t come cheap, but if you happened to be a king or a pope and could afford to hire them, you could get some real return on investment. These courtiers devised military weapons, painted portraits, arranged parties
and offered all manner of strategic direction. Today, they would be consultants, and although they are still expected to possess a wide range of skill sets, versatility is no longer what distinguishes them.
As IT management becomes a discipline directed toward a series of related but sometimes distinct objectives, the firms offering services have had to find unique ways to highlight their individual strengths. The result is a number of “”practices”” within the large consulting companies, and in some cases a single, focused practice for the smaller shops.
Choosing the appropriate practice isn’t always easy. I’d be surprised if there isn’t already a meta-consultant whose job it is to help firms find the right consultant. I’m not qualified for that job, but I can offer the following questions to keep in mind:
1. Is this a practice, or a brand? Some firms go to the bother of commissioning specific logos or other forms of marketing collateral to advertise a practice, but put nothing in the way of dedicated resources behind it. Clients should find out not only who the principals within a practice area are, but also how cross-functional their roles are. Do they wear the security practice hat one day, only to wear the network administration practice hat the next?
2. Where did this practice come from? In some cases, consultants have simply shifted some resources around in the aftermath of downsizing. There’s little point in turning to a practice that is only disguising a corporate shuffle. Other firms begin by conducting studies with third-party researchers that help assess enterprise needs, then form the practices around them. If the research behind it is sound, and the consulting firm follows up with an applicable service offering, this can be an admirable approach to the market.
3.How much practice has this practice had? Obviously clients will want to look at a consultant’s track record, but in some cases what seems like a necessary practice might be obsolete within a few years. Compliance is a hot topic right now, for example, but if governance and transparency take hold they way they are supposed to, they should already be a part of a company’s DNA, and we shouldn’t need outsiders to facilitate it.
4.Is this a practice among practices? Those consulting firms that effectively home in on one problem may be able to do the same thing in other areas. If some parts of the organization are weak, however, you’ll end up with the equivalent of point products that don’t mesh together.
5. Does practice make perfect? Like any consulting engagement, practice teams learn a lot about a specific part of an organization and its culture. Clients need to identify during their hiring discussions how the consultant will manage “”knowledge transfer,”” whereby they pass on techniques that will allow processes to be managed internally. Without that, you become dependent on a third party indefinitely — and we all know that’s not a good practice.