Joining Forces: Building a Great Virtual Consulting Relationship
[feat-img-left]”The economic recovery has been slower than we all had hoped. As a result, the business press reports, companies are hoarding cash and continuing to delay the creation of new jobs. But the upturn will come, and companies must be prepared with the resources and capacity they’ll need when it does. Learning and development projects are a critical part of that preparedness; workers must be skilled, knowledgeable, and adept at facing the next challenge. Project-based learning and development (L&D) consulting—what Clarity Consultants calls strategic insourcing—can help companies tackle critical workplace learning and performance issues while remaining cautious about adding to full-time head count. Opening your next Clarity engagement up to a virtual relationship can bring additional benefits. Although an onsite requirement restricts potential consultants to those who are local, a virtual arrangement opens up the entire Clarity network, bringing you candidates whose skills and experience are ideally suited to your project. Further, it can save you time, money, and rework. Despite the proliferation of technology in the workplace, some L&D managers still feel uncomfortable working with virtual consultants; they fear that the distance will manifest in communication problems or a lack of understanding. “Companies in general aren’t very good at setting goals and objectives. With onsite co-location, we can use our informal networks, body language, and water-cooler chatter to monitor the situation and reassure ourselves about what people are doing,” says Todd Hudson, principal of the Maverick Institute in Portland, Oregon. “Virtual relationships can highlight the weaknesses in our plans and methods.” Hudson notes that the L&D space has its idiosyncrasies. “The workplace learning profession suffers from feeling that contributors must understand the company’s people, its workforce, its audience.” External consultants, whether virtual or not, can lend valuable perspective based on their varied experience with multiple clients. “Organizations are better served by outside professionals who question things,” Hudson says. “They can identify problems and apply best practices from other organizations to solve them.” Leverage these best practices from the start of the engagement to get the most out of your relationship with a virtual consultant.
Recognize that your situation isn’t unique.
MariAn Klein is a consultant with more than 20 years of experience. She has been working with Clarity for about two years, providing project-based consulting services to such firms as Deloitte and Symantec. She has also worked on the client side, as director of learning design and strategy at Wells Fargo. “Clarity is a consistent source of very qualified candidates with deep experience,” she says. “By recognizing that their environment is not unique, clients open themselves up to benefitting from the consultant’s experience in similar situations. I encourage clients to use me as a sounding board,” she says.
Know what you want.
When Rick Vossman, who has worked through Clarity for eight years serving such clients as Wachovia, PepsiCo, and Wal-Mart, has his initial interview with a hiring manager, he asks three critical questions: How well defined is the desired deliverable? Do you know what you’re looking for? What kind of analysis needs to be done? Formulating the answers to these questions in advance is best practice regardless of the type of project or nature of the relationship. “Clients should have a crystal-clear, well-defined deliverable in mind. If they don’t, it can result in scope creep and missed expectations,” Vossman says. It’s also important to know what you need in terms of consultant ability, says Klein. Do you need a pair of hands? A strategic partner? A change agent? Especially for the latter, an outside perspective can lend credibility to your project and help generate internal buy-in, saving time and effort later on.
Select your virtual consultant carefully.
“Determine what competencies you need, and ensure that the consultant’s profile includes them,” says Beth Bogan, manager of commercial learning and development for GE Healthcare Information Technology. Bogan is responsible for a learner audience of 240 U.S. salespeople; she has been working with Clarity for about three years. When you conduct telephone interviews with consultant candidates, be sure to ask about previous projects that candidates have managed and ask to see work samples. Also, establish some priorities. For one project, Bogan needed an instructional designer with a clinical background. She decided that because her internal project manager had ID experience, finding a consultant with that clinical experience was more important.
Assign clear responsibilities.
It’s critical to have a clear picture of roles and responsibilities and how they will be divided between corporate L&D staff and the Clarity consultant, Bogan says. “I recommend having an internal project manager and regarding the consultant as an external project manager,” she says. “Then I try to outline what I expect the consultant to do.”
Set the stage for success.
“Provide virtual consultants with the tools and the knowledge they need to do the job successfully, says Hudson”. In addition, give them the people—resources, subject matter experts, partners they can call upon. Describe your corporate culture: what it looks like, what makes it special. “Clients must be prepared to give consultants the background knowledge they need to be successful,” says Bogan. She teaches new consultants everything she can about GE Healthcare’s commercial IT business, sending them links to WebEx sessions, videos, course materials, and reference materials.
Brainstorm and agree upon a communication framework.
Do you want to hold weekly conference calls? Receive daily written updates? Check a SharePoint folder for changes to storyboards? Anything and everything is fine, emphasize Klein and Vossman, as long as expectations are communicated clearly at the outset. Klein uses an email template with bulleted sections to report progress to clients weekly, whereas Vossman prefers an Excel spreadsheet that serves as a tracking mechanism. “I just ask clients up front, ‘What do you want from me in terms of communication?’” he says.
Be prepared to trust.
Although this isn’t a new idea, it’s one that bears repeating. As Charles Handy wrote in his classic 1995 piece on virtual relationships for the Harvard Business Review, the surest way to make employees (or consultants) trustworthy is to trust them. “Be comfortable in the fact that you’re hiring a consultant for his or her expertise; they don’t need to be managed,” Vossman says. Leveraging virtual consultants to provide strategic insourced services for L&D projects can open you up to a vast new network of experience and expertise—and it can save you time and money. “I have never had an L&D consultant work onsite,” says Bogan. “Our work is project-based, and there is a time lag, especially with subject matter experts. It doesn’t make sense to have a consultant onsite, waiting for information to come in. We pay only for a consultant’s productive time. I wouldn’t do it any other way.”
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