28 Feb, 2006By: Ed McCallum
Specialization or Collaboration
For companies about to embark on a site selection or property acquisition endeavor, a difficult decision is at hand: Where should I turn for advice and assistance, and what services do I need? This can be perplexing question even for the most capable of executives, but it is one that must be answered. It is a rare circumstance where a location decision does not impact, and is not impacted by, other corporate functions. Engineering, manufacturing, human resources, finance, marketing, logistics, real estate, research and development are all affected in some way – and the list goes on. It would seem logical that in order to make a wise decision, specialist would greatly enhance the decision-making process. In fact, most good-sized companies have these experts in-house; however, the ability to access them is difficult – they too have full time jobs to perform. It would also follow that since so many functional areas of the company are impacted, a mutual understanding and respect for the importance of their respective responsibilities would be the focus and intent of participating employees. While this is highly desirable, in practice it is difficult to achieve. As a result, most companies seek outside help to either augment or perform this task for them. The following factors should be considered when selecting a consultant.
Determine Your Needs
First and foremost, as with any important project, define the objective. Clearly articulate what you are trying to accomplish and delineate the activities required to achieve the goal. Does the project require quick occupancy of real estate in a very short time period, or is it a substantial project that requires extensive planning and coordination? Are technical considerations an important component of the process or do supply chain logistics far outweigh any other factor. These questions, and many more, should be examined first. Understanding what drives the project and which factors will determine its ultimate success will provide the parameters for a needs assessment.
Generally speaking, the more complex the project, the more involvement from various disciplines will be required. For instance, in the quick occupancy of real estate example in the previous paragraph, finding a well respected broker would be logical and appropriate. They have access to extensive property listings and can expedite lease and/or sales transactions with speed. In contrast, if the project is very complex such as an aircraft manufacturing facility or an automotive assembly plant, it may be wise to consider additional experts as well. Engineering, environmental, human resources, finance, logistics, civil, architectural, and manufacturing could be important factors to consider. In some cases, this could be handled in-house by one service provider; in others it may require the co-operation and collaboration of several. Regardless, the steps required to achieve the ultimate goal will define the resources required.
Assess Your Resources
In the context of understanding the project goals and objectives, make a detailed list of the activities that are needed and determine if you have the people in-house who can, and should, perform the task. Typically, these are executives who have a big-picture understanding of their respective areas as it relates to the company as a whole, as well as a good grasp of day to day operations. Nobody understands the workings of a company better than those who work for it. They know the good, the bad and the ugly of their firm, and given the right venue, will tell those who would listen how to improve it. It has been our experience that most employees want to be involved. Most want to contribute and will even take on extra duties if they feel that they can contribute to a worthwhile effort. If they are available, make them part of the team. If they are not, take into consideration their availability and augment with additional outside resources in proportion to the importance of their input to the project. Of course, an employee’s willingness to help does not guarantee competence or abilities in the latest techniques or state of the art practices. If such a case exists, bring in experts to work collaboratively to both augment and provide a learning experience. In addition, while an employee may be the best at their job, this does not guarantee an objective assessment of the issues at hand will be forthcoming, nor does it mean that they are qualified to perform analytic investigations that explore alternative solutions. It does, however, mean that the employee can provide useful access to information and existing practices as a benchmark. In short, use in-house experts as part of the team if possible, and augment when necessary. The only complicating factor could be the presence of highly-confidential projects where information must be closely held or where the necessary expertise is very specialized and not readily available.
Identify the Gaps
After defining the objectives, identifying the steps necessary to achieve it and assessing the availability of resources in-house to complete the assignment, you are ready to identify gaps - or areas where a consultant can be of assistance. Every company is different in this regard. Some companies will hire consultants from the outside to both lead and execute the required activities and analyses. Others will hire different experts to be part of a team lead by an individual within the firm. And still others will take an incremental approach, hiring consultants in a sequential fashion, with primary responsibility retained in-house. Each company will perform this in a manner that is consistent with their culture, general practices and time requirements. The gaps are those areas where there is either an absence of expertise necessary to properly complete the task at hand, or where an outside party would greatly enhance the objectivity of the process. There is no right or wrong way to do this, unless it is done out of convenience or expediency – in which case the old saying, “dollar wise, pound foolish” would apply. If it seems too good to be true and costs you almost nothing, odds are that it is not and in the end will cost plenty.
Evaluate Service Provider Candidates
While evaluating a service provider may seem like an easy process to perform, it is not. It is very difficult, particularly when it comes to selecting a consultant(s). We feel it is necessary to first evaluate the firm’s core competency and business focus to assess how will it fits with your firm’s needs. Many companies claim to be able to perform a wide range of services, when in fact their ancillary services are meant to be an early positioning approach for other work. Ask yourself, “Are they providing the service in which they are absolutely the best”? If this is not their core business, then it is prudent to take a very close look at resources, capabilities, experience and especially referrals.
Next, assess their experience working in a team-oriented environment. Their ability to assimilate quickly and seamlessly into a project environment will determine how well they work with your employees or with other outside service providers. Some firms are so structured in their service offering that they cannot adapt to the needs of their clients or able to participate in a creative approach to collaboration. Typically, this is a barrier to performance optimization and impacts the process significantly – and ultimately the results. In today’s environment team players should be the de facto requirement, not a distinguishing characteristic deemed something special. Loners are usually that way for a reason.
In addition, does their service have the potential to create a conflict with other business services offered? No doubt, one advantage of a very large organization is the depth and breadth of their capabilities and global reach. In some cases, however, the multitude of service offerings and various levels of expertise could inadvertently create conflicts that were initially unforeseen or even intended. No company is exempt from this potential unforeseen circumstance; however, clarity of core business offerings certainly diminishes the possibility of it occurring significantly. By the same token, do not ignore the synergies and strengths inherent to working with a multi-service firm. Just make sure you know what it is you are getting and how it fits into the overall strategy of your project.
Finally, to what degree can the consultant integrate his (or her) service offering with current processes and also allow for a smooth transition for subsequent tasks? Try to avoid redundancy in both skills and services – there is no sense in paying twice for the service you receive only once. In addition, unless the project is a discrete study whose purpose is to define or investigate an issue with no subsequent actions required, most projects are only one piece of a series of activities. Make sure that the service provider can successfully pass on information to the next user in a way that is useful and efficient. There are huge advantages that can be gained in both schedule and cost when a smooth uninterrupted transition takes place from the one activity to the other.
Develop the Team
The composition of the team is a function of project needs and the amount of activities required. Make sure that each functional area of the company impacted will be represented. Typically, at a minimum, this includes human resources, marketing, logistics, finance and manufacturing; however, there could be more such as real estate and research/development. There should be a team leader, with roles and responsibilities clearly defined for all participants, particularly when more than one consultant is involved. While active participation and input is the highest and best that can be hoped for in any project, keep in mind that shared leadership is tantamount to decisions by committee and can get mired down without a leader to press ahead. It is also important that the objectives of the project are clearly understood, and that there is a minimal overlap in responsibilities. Select and involve those service provider consultants that are most appropriate and provide the best value to the project. The best way to get the highest value, and subsequently results, is to think of the "paredo principal" when forming a team, where 80% of the resources will be devoted to 20% of the critical items that require attention. It would be very unwise to focus most of the project’s efforts, resources and expertise on the only one facet of the project and expect everything else to simply fall in place – it never does. Instead, take a balanced approach and focus on the main project drivers while still addressing other critical elements
Execute the Plan
In order to execute the plan, there should be a defined scope of work, with milestones according to a defined schedule. Actually, this should be one of the activities performed up-front when defining the project goals. So in a sense, this is a continuation of the first step of this process. The chart should show project activities outlined, with beginning and ending dates for each. In addition, it should provide detailed steps with assignments delegated to the responsible parties. The program execution plan should also serve as a qualifier when selecting a consultant.
Unfortunately, some consultants see themselves as advisors with no direct tie into the execution of program activities. In today’s reality, they will not be consultants for long. When selecting a service provider, keep in mind that their expertise should manifest itself into a deliverable that provides a solution. Whether the consultant is actively engaged in solving the problem or simply advising on a means to solve it, the motivation and intent should be toward resolution – not simply its identification. The implications of this are apparent. Those consultants who are motivated by finding solutions that are client oriented are by nature collaborators – whether it is with the client or another consultant. They have aversion to working with other consultants and their goal is to provide a means to a solution. In this regard they are seen as allies, not competitors. So, the next time you are faced with a site selection or property acquisition endeavor, think about creating a team, much like a coach would in sports, and filling in the slots. If the slots can be filled by one consultant or requires the cooperation of a team of experts, the objective should be toward successful project execution to achieve the intended goal. Following these basic steps will assure that you select the right team for the right job.