Working With Consultants

Why Engage Consultants in Higher Education?

  • Need for an objective, external, non-institutional view: limitations of internal data-gathering, analysis, and interpretation; difficulty seeing things objectively when one is in the middle of them; restraints that history and relationships within the institution create on asking or answering difficult questions.
  • Desire to create an opportunity for reflection and longer-term thinking: need to shift focus from tactics to strategy; challenging the “tyranny of the immediate.”
  • Need to reassess or rework a persistent or difficult problem: engage a process of discovery facilitated by friendly critics; see something through a different lens; question the “conventional wisdom.”
  • Intent to seek external validity: take advantage of specific expertise of consultants who have broad experience in higher education.
  • Intent to motivate and plan institutional change: use objective, evidence-based assessment to guide goal-setting and change management planning; work on change as a specific goal and process.
  • Need to review institutional effectiveness: assessing the alignment among mission, strategy, goals, programs, outcomes, and resources; determining whether the allocation of resources matches institutional priorities; evaluating the clarity and integrity of a focus on learning.
  • Opportunity for improvement: review and renewal of programs, services, departments, divisions.

Sources of Frustration in Consulting Projects

  • Pre-determined purposes masquerading as a consulting project: especially, organizational reviews used to justify or support already-intended personnel actions.
  • Check it off the list: projects completed primarily for show, or to say it was done — without serious interest in the findings or outcomes.
  • Internal warfare: consultants recruited to take sides.
  • Right project/wrong people, or right people/wrong project: selection of consultants goes awry — missed opportunity to assess their competency, experience, stance, and principles.
  • Timeframe terror: thought-requiring process jammed into a tactical framework with a very limited timeline.
  • Lack of serious intent: limited possibility of change results in very little engagement with project.
  • The truth may set you more free than you wanted to be: limited tolerance for negative findings.

Questions to Ask a Potential Consultant

  • Competency: do you know how to do this?
  • Experience: have you done this before?
  • Results/Outcomes: what happened when you did this elsewhere?
  • Capacity: what resources will you devote to us?
  • Deliverables: what will we have in our hands after you have finished?
  • Team: who will actually do our project?
  • Philosophy and approach: how do you work with clients?
  • Stance: what is your stance in relationship to the institution? (K&A uses the stance of friendly critic.)
  • Risk factors: what could go wrong? How will you prevent that?