Monday, February 23, 2009

Consulting for dummies

So, my friend Wendy contacted me yesterday and asked...
Can someone young, with a new Ph.D. make it as an independent consultant without much experience?
In my new found role as a slacker... uh, blogger, I have decided that this is a broader issue and I will make it the subject of today's post, but Wendy gets credit for the idea.

So, what is a consultant anyway?
I once heard that a consultant is normal person a long way from home with a nice briefcase. I have had consulting gigs in the past and some were close to home and I have never had a nice briefcase. Distance and accessories, it turns out, are not as important as expertise and network.

First, I have to admit a little amusement when undergraduate students come into the Career Center and say, "I want to be a consultant."

Me: "Oh? A what sort of consulting do you wish to do"

Them: "Um. You know. Like business stuff."

Me: "So, have you had experience with... uh, like business stuff?"

Them: "Um. Well, what do you mean experience?"

While it is not completely far-fetched that the exceptional undergraduate student might have enough experience and the skill set necessary to be a good process consultant. Not far-fetched, but still quite rare. A PhD student might have enough life experience to make the gig productive, but generally speaking, PhD programs are fairly insular and do not help students create the networks and breadth of knowledge necessary to effectively market their expertise. Following are a few thoughts about being a consultant.

What we have here is a failure to communicate.
Being a consultant can mean many things... perhaps, too many things. I went to my favorite Job Site, Simply Hired and typed in the word "consultant" it returned several thousand entries that included Verizon's consultant positions which included duties such as: "wears a headset all day" and "ability to perform in confined working situations for extended periods of time." (yecch!) From the same search, is the PeopleSoft consultant who will "Produce and develop business processes, procedures and training materials impacted by projects."

Verizon will take you if you are a moderately sentient being, but PeopleSoft wants you to have a college degree, experience with all PeopleSoft products, SQR, and 2 years of experience as a consultant. I will not even go into the consultant positions that required advanced statistics programming or five years of management experience or an MBA, plus ten years of experience, and a CPA license. Bottomline here is that many jobs are called "consultant," but they are hardly the same animal at all.

Form follows function. 
A quick word on the types of consulting that exist out there.  While there are many specific types such as: IT, management, HR, Strategic Planning, etc., most can probably be gathered under two broad categories.  Process or organizational consulting looks at the "way" things are done.  Consultants in this paradigm explore the ecology of an organization and recommend operational and structural changes to be more efficient or productive.   Specialty consultants typically have expertise in a single element of change such as human resources, software, marketing, etc.  Process consulting focuses on form, specialty consulting focuses on function. 

Freedom's just another word for freaking-out about your client base.
With apologies to Kris Kristofferson, I must point out that the positions described above are all "in-house" positions. That is, they are internal consultants who interface with customers/clients on behalf of their employer. Independent consultants work... well, independently. They report to themselves and this can be a very scary proposition.

In my earlier life, I maintained an independent practice and it was nerve-wracking. Vacation was a drag, because I knew my client list would be decimated on my return and nobody was paying me for my time off. Marketing opportunities often included speaking engagements for PTA's, professional associations, Rotary, etc. for which my primary reward was lemon chicken, cold rice, and the opportunity to meet people to widen my network. I had to balance my own books, ask for payment for services, control an impossible schedule, and remember that my livelihood depended on the "kindness of strangers." I'm not so sure I ever want to be independent again.

You may think you understand what I mean, but I don't mean what you think.
Internal consultants typically are dealing with fellow employees or customers of their product or service. They essentially speak the same language of practice and a widget or gizmo means the same thing to both of them. Independent consultants have to be multilingual in languages of practice. For instance, the way people in the Finance World talk is distinctively different from the language of practice in Higher Education and even within Higher Ed, Student Affairs folks use a different language from Academic Affairs folks.

Analogy Alert! People who use consultants are like travelers embarking on a journey to an unfamiliar, foreign country like Confusisbekistan. If they choose a local guide, they do not someone who only speaks Confusebekistani, they want a guide who, at the very least, speaks their language AND Confusebekistani. It's the old saw "When in Confusebekistan, do as the Confusebekistanis." Prospective consultants simply MUST avail themselves of opportunities to spend time with people in many different arenas and ask questions about their work practices, regulations, and other unique aspects of their disciplines.  

Uh, what was the question again?
Hopefully, the theme has emerged here, but I will try to recap.  The world of consulting depends on consultants' expertise and networks to create opportunities and reputation.  Wendy asked if a "new PhD...without much experience" could be successful as an independent consultant.  It is highly unlikely, however anyone wishing a career as an independent consultant can begin the process of building expertise, establishing a broad, diverse network, and developing the necessary business acumen, whether a BA, MA, or PHD.

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