Internet notebook about my work: deep listening to facilitate positive change


Thursday 28 June 2007

Hire a consultant!

“We are not really used to hire consultants or contract universities or NGOs. All these years we used to do all the work ourselves, or we would hire a new staff person. But since accession to the EU, there are more funds available for outsourcing. So now we work more with consultants and NGOs. Our experiences though are not always positive. The big question is when should we outsource and to whom?” Some years ago, this question came from a middle manager of a Central European Ministry of Environment. But it also could have come from his colleague in another country, an executive director of large NGO, or a mid manager from an international organization.

As our joint lunch during each mission had become for him an opportunity for some mentoring and coaching, I started to ask questions to explore the issue of formulating terms of reference and provide a proper briefing. By the way the CEPA toolkit gives some guidance on briefings on page 50 of section 4. But apparently that was not the problem. It had more to do with the criteria for choosing either a private consultant, a university, a commercial company or an NGO. Here follow my notes on our dialogue and exchange of experiences that followed.

There are two types of consultants. The one you hire because you do not have the time to do the job yourself, and the one you hire because you do not have the knowledge, skills or competences to do the job. In both cases the job can be formulated as a project limited in time, budget and with a well defined result.

In conservation examples of the first category jobs are e.g. the formulation of Terms of Reference for national or international conservation projects, writing or implementing a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan for a Ministry, or the evaluation of an environmental program for a donor. Quite often it is not difficult to find specialists in the networks of the Ministry. Often it are biologists who carry out these projects, either employed by a NGO or university that gets the contract, or as a private consultant.

The second category are professionals that are supposed to have a special expertise (e.g. management, marketing, communication etc.), the hiring organization does not possess. Mostly the organization is anticipating or undergoing change or facing a special challenge. These consultants have to deal with high and often rapidly changing expectations along the way, as new horizons become visible for the learning clients. Clients also quite often expect them to care about the impact of their work beyond their contract. The regular networks of the conservation units of a Ministry or international organization have much more difficulty to select a good consultant here.

I still have the two matrixes which I later made based on the scribbles on our paper napkins. One on criteria and one on matching the varieties of demand for CEPA expertise with the corresponding CEPA specialisms. Click on the matrix for better reading.

Our conslusion was that in theory TQM (the ability to provide the right quality within the agreed timeframe and budget) should be the main criterium. But that in practice often the budget was the criterium. With regard to CEPA we concluded that TQM would require looking properly at what expertise really was needed. But that in practice CEPA was seen as some form of education and mostly NGOs were hired. We ended our discussion that probably it would be ideal to contract a joint venture of an NGO, an university, private consultants and a commercial company and have the latter be the lead agency!

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