It is also clear from these three cases that consultants are playing an increasingly important role in the day-to-day running of the HR function. Consulting here is not a nice-to-have, an optional extra: instead, consultants are performing fundamental and necessary work.
The key here is specialist knowledge. As one of the more mature consulting markets, bound by regulatory barbed wire, consultants have to be experts in very specific fields. The MoD selected Right Management Consultants to work on the Career Transition Partnership because of the company's record in career management and counselling. At Evotec, HR Director Martyn Melvin made a similar choice:
‘By working with Penna Consulting, we were able to tap into real experience that made the project work extremely smoothly.' ‘We were immediately impressed by the professionalism and knowledge the group possessed,' says Jeff Bender, the Vice President of HR at Apache. ‘It was readily apparent that they had 'been there and done that', and could answer any questions we put to them.'
From the MCA's Awards Survey, HR clients appear significantly more likely to choose a consulting firm based on expertise in their particular sector. They are also much less concerned about having an existing relationship with the individual consultants or firm involved, and are less likely to pick a firm based on the recommendation of someone else.
The nature of specialist knowledge in the field of HR means that it is important that the consultants who possess it can work side by side with their clients as far as possible. HR consulting cannot be in a ‘black box' but requires client involvement every step of the way, and it is therefore not surprising that all of these projects involved joint client-consultant teams. Of course, it is one thing to put people from different organizations together in the same office, and quite another to get them to work together in practice. On top of the conventional barriers, Right Management Consultants found the culture of military life very different to that to which it was accustomed, but was still able to work with MoD personnel to resettle 30 per cent more people than originally planned, largely due to the openness of both sides. Similarly, Jeff Bender at Apache believes that frequent and effective communication between his team and that from Mercer was critical.
These views are borne out by the other projects submitted for the HR Best Management Practice Award. ‘I felt I mattered to the consultants as much as they did to us,' commented one client. ‘Communications were good throughout and they always delivered each part of the project on time. As the project progressed we became more used to their ability to contribute and consequently got more out of the project as a result. The relationship was friendly, professional and demanding.' According to another: ‘We have been increasingly willing and able to challenge decisions and actions on both sides of the relationship, thus improving the quality of the final process.'
Underpinning this, however, is a delicate balance between advising and doing. While relying on Penna's input, Evotec wanted to ensure that the participants in the focus groups and all those subsequently affected by the changes the company made, saw the project as driven by Evotec itself, not imposed upon it from outside. ‘We respected Penna's input, but it was still very much a company-led initiative,' said Evotec's Martin Melvin. ‘This made it a powerful combination for carrying out effective change at a critical time for the business.' ‘We worked hard to develop close working relationships,' agreed Penna's project manager. Rather than put in a big team of consultants, Penna chose to involve only a small number of experts. ‘From our experience, we've found that working in a collaborative relationship with a client always produces better results. It's essential that the client's resources are used where they make a difference for their people. In this example, a collaborative approach with carefully budgeted actions led to a tremendous and rapid improvement in results for the HR team.'
Other consultants make the same point. ‘The solution must be owned by the client and they are responsible for it. As a consultant, you need to be able to advise and challenge where appropriate on the basis of your previous experience. There is a fine line between trying various ideas and what you would do in a client's very specific situation. You also need to be able to back off at times and let things take their course - if you sell a long-term benefit you must be ready to measure it in the long term and not get sucked in to short-term meddling. Combining a light touch with a high impact is possible.' Not surprisingly, HR clients are much more likely to be concerned about finding a cultural match between themselves and the consultants they use, than other types of client.
The need for consultants to support their clients, but not dictate to them, is a mirror image of the challenge HR managers face with their internal clients. A consulting firm's input may involve advice, help with implementation or most commonly, a mixture of the two. But whatever the consulting firm's exact role, the project has to be owned and fronted by in-house staff if it is not to encounter resistance. The same is true for the HR function: success may involve supporting employees and carrying out administration on their behalf, but it depends on winning the commitment of those employees in the first place.