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Woody Allen wrote in his screenplay for the film Annie Hall, that “those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.” While there may be an element of truth in his thinking, there has to be a compromise.

And there is: the world of consultancy, where industry experts become critical friends to firms in need. Employed correctly they can revitalize a print organization and give it an edge over its competitors.

Major decisions

John Charnock, owner and director of Print Research International, a business development, growth and strategy consultancy, thinks that consultants should be used when there are major decisions to be made and where there is a risk to business. In his opinion, “when a business is wanting to make a change, and that change is out of the scope of day-to-day business, bringing someone in who has perhaps a wider or unique experience can reduce risk and speed up change.”

A similar view is held by Clare Taylor, owner of Clare Taylor Consulting, an environmental consultancy that mainly serves the print sector. But she adds that a firm “should [only] use a consultant for work that requires specific expertise that they do not have in-house, or to support staff when the volume or nature of work requires it.”

The reality is that, as Paul Sherfield, MD, Missing Horse Consultancy, that covers pre-media aspects of printing, graphic design and publishing, notes, “most companies have gaps in knowledge and skills”. He says the consultant’s role is to fill these areas especially where “smaller companies may not need, or be able to justify, full time roles”.

Using a consultant is about challenging existing assumptions and having a fresh perspective. According to Charnock, “any consultant that says they know it all is a fool.” Further, he reckons that experts are often already within a business: “Many of my clients have said ‘you didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, but you have confirmed our assumptions and helped us do it right’”.

A small firm might think that consultants are just for larger firms. But Taylor says otherwise: “For a smaller business with a tight budget, a consultant is still an option who can be used in a number of ways – perhaps as an ad hoc manager or advisor for a few days a year for a business too small to need someone full-time.” The same applies, in her view, to specific projects.

And it appears that smaller businesses are often the most in need of help. Charnock says that much of his work is with SMEs: “I think it is here that there is a real need for advice and support. They often reach a glass ceiling of growth and don’t know how to break through.”

Consultants can add value

The benefit of a consultant is in employing them for a project with a finite end. As Charnock says, “bringing in someone else without all the employment liabilities, that you can remove at any time, can be very flexible.” There is logic in this; employees within a business already are preoccupied with their day-to-day activities.

For Taylor, a consultant brings “immediacy” and can save time and expense and wasted training, as “a consultant with the right knowledge and experience would able to deliver what is needed far more quickly and easily.” She cites two examples: developing an overall environmental strategy for an organisation requires good understanding to avoid risks of unintended consequences; and setting up an environmental management system to the requirements of ISO 14001, that has a steep learning curve for those starting from scratch.

Naturally, a consultant’s experience can show clients that there’s more to life than their own sector or business – they can learn from best practices, trends and opportunities in other sectors. Charnock outlines: “What a consultant brings is a breadth of experience. Having been into many different businesses they can question the business differently and avoid common errors. Consultants can also challenge the business owner in a way that employees are unable to.”

In an ideal world, a consultant, says Charnock, can help educate individuals within the business so that the new process is maintainable: “I see it as a real success if I finish a project and am not needed anymore.” And Sherfield hopes that “completed project work will train and upskill the company that did not have the necessary in-house skills... most [consultants] aim to leave the client self-sufficient”.

By definition of working across a multitude of organisation, consultants have seen everything. As Charnock puts it, “I have been going into businesses for over 25 years and seeing brilliant best practice and innovation, but I have also seen the worst.” He has seen businesses with no documentation, no strategy and no one knowing where the business is going and what the end game is: “You can tell as soon as you walk into a business what the challenges are. If people don’t care for the environment, they work in – how can they care about the business’ growth?”

Helping the consultant achieve

The first step to success is to outline the task in hand. Taylor says “a project should be defined by what the client wants to achieve. The consultant should then be free to use their expertise to advise the best way to achieve the desired outcome and the key indicators or deliverables by which it will be measured.”

Consultants may be brought in with a view to shifting business culture, attitude or approach, or introducing new technology. However, they can be faced by, as Charnock says, “stern-faced individuals that have not been involved in the original decision who clearly think that they have better things to be doing”.

But just as the ‘stern-faced individual’ may exist, so it’s important that the whole business buys into the process. Here Taylor says that “to be effective, I need to be working directly with senior management, but I also need to work across all staff levels. The person who sweeps and tidies the factory yard is as vital to pollution prevention as the managing director.”

Of course, how she works depends entirely on what she is doing for the client: a research project and reporting, training or mentoring staff, or audits or assessments.

The cultural changes often needed within larger projects should not be underestimated, either by the client or consultant. Sherfield prefers that senior management communicate the reasons and aim of the project clearly to the staff and show commitment to the project. Even so, he says “consultants must be aware of the sensibilities of staff, but management may have to make difficult decisions if the project is to succeed.” He continues by noting that just one disruptive or toxic individual, at any level, can spoil a project: “Often these individuals, have been tolerated by management over a number of years. It is only when a consultant-led project is taking place that action is taken to correct this type of behaviour.”

To win the hearts and minds of staff requires a collaborative approach with the management team. Charnock, for example, usually discusses his review process and how firms can use this themselves in future. “Most businesses do not have formal processes, documentation or communication structures. They usually are very focused on equipment and factory processes, such as machine maintenance, but are less good at considering the customer requirements, staff development or product development.”

Firms must be organized to get maximum value from the consultant. Consultants need to understand the business. If they spend time finding out what others already know, or can find out quickly, the bill will rise and the project slows.

Allied to this is the need, highlighted by Charnock, to be clear on the scope of the project. He says: “Know what you don’t know and prepare the consultant so that they understand the expectations... be clear in advance what the project is about.”

And Taylor wholeheartedly agrees. She says that firms get the best results by knowing exactly what they want to achieve and why; by being honest about how much effort all are prepared to put into it; and by firms being open to possibly hearing things they do not wish to hear or do not accept. But to this she adds that firms must “free up the necessary staff time for training, audits and be prepared for intrusions.” After all, as she says, a consultant is there to advise and support, but the business needs to ‘own’ the project in order to be able to  move forward independently of the consultant afterwards.

Sherfield stresses that a consultant is neither supplier nor staff member. Further, “only those clients that give the consultant the required time and resources, including people and equipment, will ever see a project completed on time and to budget”. Those that don’t ‘comply’ are wasting his time and their money.

Wise clients know that post-project momentum is important. Charnock has seen a two-week project with no follow up go into a drawer and be forgotten in a month. He thinks it’s better to have a shorter project and then return regularly, say quarterly, to keep the project fresh.

Selecting a consultant

As with other elements of life, selecting the right consultant can be a personal decision. But ultimately, the choice will depend on what the consultant is wanted for.

Taylor reckons that the starting point should be to look for membership of a professional body in the area of expertise being sought. By way of example, she notes that “a chartered environmentalist will have academic and professional qualifications, have completed a required minimum number of years practising their discipline and will be bound to a professional code of conduct; they will also be subject to continuing professional development requirements.”

Professional bodies have registers to help firms find suitably qualified consultants, but the key is to consider what qualifications and experience they have in relation to the task they’re needed for.

While recommendations are also valuable, Charnock thinks that personality is a consideration too: “You have to trust and get on with your consultant.” Beyond that he suggests talking to suppliers as “you never know they may even be prepared to subsidize the project”.

Indeed, Sherfield has seen some suppliers provide consultancy, “but, of course, this is based on using their range of ‘goods’”. Alternative options he mentions are social media, conferences and the trade press.

Measuring success

There’s precious little point in hiring a consultant if the results of the project aren’t to be measured. Most consultancy is goal based so they should be established before engaging a consultant. But as Charnock notes, “sometimes projects like personal development of a management team are very difficult to quantify; that has to come down to trust”.

To finish

Some believe that consultancy in printing has had lacklustre take-up for years, while other sectors have a tradition of using consultants to help businesses develop.
However, in today’s professionalized print industry, where clients often require a long list of accreditation and the fine-tuning of processes has become mission-critical for many firms, consultants with the right know-how can deliver real value.