Alan Dowler offers top tips on how to deliver a constructive and effective consultancy programme
There are a number of reasons why a business may want to employ an external consultant to review and offer guidance on transforming internal processes and team structures. It is crucial that consultancy, of any discipline, results in tangible, measurable benefits for a business, whether it is to help with succession planning, improving services, or prepare a team for change.
Improving staff performance and service delivery takes time and energy, but many companies are willing to invest in their teams. In fact, research shows that employers in Britain spend approximately £49 billion per year on external training and development (UKEAS), suggesting demand is high for outside support.
For consultants delivering external training, the challenge is that a ‘one size fits all’ approach does not work for companies. Beyond boosting efficiencies and performance, organisations will have their own reasons for hiring a training consultant.
A call centre for example may want to ensure they are recruiting people with the right skill sets to improve the provision of customer service, whilst a small business may want to know how it can allocate teams effectively for the future.
For external training consultants that have been working in the field for a long time, it is inevitable that the way they work will evolve with each experience and extra piece of knowledge they garner. However, to achieve the best results, it is crucial they don’t rush to deploy a tried and tested method from their past without fully understanding the business they are working for. Incorrect perceptions, assumptions and a retreat into a comfort zone will create endless activity with little benefit to the client.
To this end, it is crucial to personalise a business development plan to suit the client and develop a programme that will adhere to its proposition and vision for success. For consultants, there is a natural tension between a creative and a systems approach. Both have their place. A creative approach is very open minded, artistic and can address a problem from any perspective, and in comparison a systems approach follows a step-by-step process that arrives at a logical solution.
To succeed, training consultants must adopt a level of sufficient situational intelligence to know which approach will suit a client. Systematic science usually produces a solid logical solution, but if blended with the right mix of creative arts, true innovation can emerge. For instance, companies in the financial sector must follow a series of protocols set down by the Financial Conduct Authority. This can be tedious for trainees, and can produce poor results. However, creating a training programme that comprises of creative techniques and follows a legal systematic approach for compliance will result in a substantial increase in performance.
Statistics show that only half of companies that outsource training services use hard data to support business decisions and measure the long-term impact on the company. However, for a strong consultancy programme to work, decisions about the needs of the organisation need to be based on a full independent analysis and real data, rather than opinion and speculation.
Years of research-led practice has resulted in the development of a systematic framework, with each stage populated with creative approaches entirely compatible with client needs. To this end, a consultancy programme should be split into stages.
Detailed context analysis
The first step is conducting a detailed context analysis that involves staff from all levels to help identify the ‘people culture’ that exists. Involving staff from the outset is really important as without determining what will engage people, it is difficult to create positive change and for any consultancy work to be effective. Listening to employees is particularly important during a business merger or takeover, as there is a risk that teams may resent their new co-workers and the way the business is now being run.
For example, a travel and tourism operator acquired two businesses in a very short time. As they were targeting different markets, all teams needed to be trained to align with the new company structure. By evaluating staff attitudes and cultures from the outset, it was possible to successfully bring the companies together and optimise service delivery.
Devise a project plan
At this point it is important to ensure all teams are on-board with the change and a detailed report of findings from stage one should be presented to senior management. The analysis should include a detailed design of the intervention, an evaluation strategy and recommended steps. At this point it is important to gain trade union support, and any proposed activity including new systems or staff training should be agreed. An exit plan should also be formed, which enables the consultant to leave the process seamlessly at the end of the intervention, whilst equipping clients with valuable tools to move forward.
This was particularly important for a UK-based company that would experience mass redundancy as a result of their production remit leaving the UK. Transparency was crucial here. The plan was announced to all concerned well in advance and a trade union was invited to be involved from the outset. The vast majority of staff remained in their posts until their allocated leaving date, allowing for a well-managed transfer of the business with both staff and union support.
Deliver the intervention
Now it is time to implement the intervention. However, in fast moving environments such as manufacturing, or where mass customer contact is affected by legislative changes, it is essential that the plan is flexible, but still robust and strategically beneficial.
Monitoring outcomes on an ongoing basis at both organisational and individual levels is crucial, particularly during long-term interventions when unavoidable external factors can affect the plan of action. For instance changes in legislation may affect a project in the financial sector, resulting in immediate re-design of the whole scheme.
Additionally, it is important that a plan is flexible enough so that it is possibly to change elements and produce more tangible benefits for the client. For example, when delivering mass training to a large number of staff over time, it may be necessary to vary the content plan as the organisation and staff can mature and change during the process.
Evaluate the outcomes
The next stage is to evaluate and assess all outcomes of the total project impact. It is vital to adopt two forms of evaluation to be fair to the consultancy. This comprises of goal-directed evaluation, which is based on planned outcomes of the consultancy, and goal-free evaluation, which is based upon intended outcomes. If monitoring has taken place throughout the intervention, then this can be easy to complete – however it is important to capture the successes and align those with the initial objectives.
For example, an external consultant was employed to study the failings of a manufacturing plant’s internal processes and introduce an appropriate training solution. By drawing together the monitoring and evaluation data, he was able to see underlying tensions between different ethnic groups that had never been vocalised in any form. The intervention dealt with the issue, but this also had a positive impact across the whole plant. An evaluation of the training course alone would simply reveal that its internal objectives had been reached, however return on investment calculations would detail the wider successes.
The final stage involves reporting achievements to senior management, and identifying recommendations for future sustainability. This can involve a very simple meeting following a series of short consultancies, or a full detailed report at the end of a major intervention.
During the meeting, the consultant should recommend a sustainability plan that will help produce long-term benefits for the company, and then begin to leave the process as agreed in any exit strategy.
Good consultancy facilitates organisations to drastically improve provision of service delivery. A tailored approach from an experienced external consultant who uses a combination of creative and structured methods can produce tangible results and long-term benefits for organisations.
Put simply, companies who successfully work with an external adviser will gain a workable plan to move forward with, and can reap rewards through improved efficiencies, better customer relationships and optimum staff performance.