No More Consultants: asking the half-a-million pound question with David Gurteen, Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell

SLA Europe member Marja Kingma has kindly written up her experiences of attending David Gurteen’s Knowledge Cafe, which took place on the same evening of the SLA Europe Summer Soiree.

I was spoiled for choice on what to do on the evening of Tuesday 6 July: join the conversation at David Gurteen’s knowledge café with Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell on the topic of ‘No More Consultants’, or head for St. Brides where the SLA was having its Summer Soiree, or watch the football (semi finals Germany v Spain). I opted for the knowledge café, but left when the group went to the pub, rushed down to Bride’s Hall to grab the tail-end of the Summer Soiree and picked up the final score of the match on the way.

The David Gurteen knowledge café took place in the beautiful offices of ARUP , the international, interdisciplinary design company.

It kicked off as usual. Once every one had taken up position at a table and thought they were comfortable there for the rest of the evening, David changed the formation of the teams, by asking us to engage in some speed networking, which simply involves talking to some one you haven’t met before for 2 minutes, after which ref David blows his whistle and you find some one else. We did this three times (no interval). It’s a great way to break the ice.

Then we could sit down to listen to David’s introduction of the concept of the knowledge café and the speakers for the evening.

We all know what it’s like to sit through a Power Point presentation and you get horrified when you see slide 1 is 1 of 25 (if you’re sitting close enough to the front that is). It gets worse when the slides are so packed with text, the people at the back can’t read them. The final blow of this ‘Death by Power Point’ as David likes to call it is, when the speaker just reads them out, so you sit there thinking: “A hand-out would have told me everything and saved me a lot of time.” It’s no surprise that at the end of this ordeal no one seems terribly inclined to ask any questions.

So, David decided to do things differently. He prefers short, to-the-point presentations of about 20 minutes, with no slides at all, or very few.

At the end of the presentation the speaker presents the audience with a question or statement. Sitting around tables in groups of four to six people the question or statement is discussed. After 10 to 15 minutes David blows his whistle and some people will change tables to continue the discussion at a different table. This happens three times, just like with the speed-networking.

Then there is a round-up at the end. The fun bit is, that David doesn’t care very much if groups talk about the topic; conversation is all that matters, and this can be about what people around your table work on, interests they may have, even football!

This evening there was a slightly different format. Chris and Geoff had cajoled David into pretending to be Chris Tarrant and play Who Wants to be a Millionaire with them as candidates!

The wall screens showed just the one slide: an image of the set of the famous show and David sounded the familiar jingle by pressing the remote, just before every question he asked. The questions were all about the latest book by Chris and Geoff: ‘No More Consultants’. Being consultants themselves this seems to be a suicidal title, but during the quiz it became clear why they had written the book.

They were concerned about the many bad experiences businesses seem to be having with consultants. The book’s aim is to make managers (potential clients) think about what they need from a consultant and take time to figure out what internal knowledge and expertise they have in house.

The quiz culminated in the half-a-million-pound question: Is there a place for consultants in companies today and if so, what is their role?

The possible answers they came up with were:

Is it A: No, there’s no more money

Is it B: Yes, but we need them for less

Is it C: Yes, but we need to know what we know and can do ourselves first

Is it D: No, we can do what they can

Here Chris and Geoff ‘asked the audience’ and that’s when the conversation started.

The tables I joined agreed on the core problem for companies when they think about getting a consultant in:

  • How to ask the right questions in order to identify the real problem?
  • What makes a good or a poor consultant?
  • How to work out what they know and don’t know, what internal expertise there is and therefore what the added value of a consultant can be?

Asking the right questions
If you don’t know what the real issue is, you’re not going to solve it, not with all the consultants in the world. Taking time to identify the real problem will save your organisation a lot of money, time and frustration. This is where a consultant may be able to help, because he or she will have an outsider’s look at things, or can take a neutral position, if the issue is politically sensitive. Where things often go wrong is when organisations don’t take the time to do the research and hire a consultant for a quick fix and if they hire a poor consultant that’s what he’ll come up with.

What makes a good or a poor consultant?
Chris’ and Geoff’s book has a watch on its cover. This is a reference to Robert Townsend who had this to say about consultants: “Consultants are people who borrow your watch and tell you what time it is and then walk off with the watch.”

Now, that’s a bad consultant, but there are good ones, too. Then again, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is relative: some consultants may be good at working on certain issues, or with certain types of companies and less well at/with others. It’s up to us as clients to determine what kind of consultants we need and that depends on the problem at hand and the type of organisation we’re in. I think it is fair to say that the best indication for telling if you have a suitable consultant in front of you, will be whether he/she starts by asking you questions about what the issue is. These people do not necessarily work for KPMG, or Gap-Gemini. These big companies often send their junior staff, fresh from uni, who may have an astounding amount of knowledge about finance, management, etc., but who may not have the experience to engage and motivate people, to build good relationships with all stake holders, including the work force on the ground and not just talk to higher management and who will give credit to all for their contributions.

How to work out what they know and don’t know, what internal expertise there is and therefore what the added value of a consultant can be?
A good consultant will find this out by talking and working extensively with all people within an organisation. Doing so helps him to find out what knowledge and expertise already exists within the company. At the same time he’ll build a relationship with his clients, which is crucial for the project to succeed. He’ll inject new energy into an organisation and engage people. This also avoids a situation whereby the consultant tries to create a dependency, so the company becomes a source of regular income for them.

I think that by the end of the evening we were all more aware of the traps and pitfalls of hiring consultants and about the importance of knowing what we know and what we don’t know.

So, after about 4 minutes the audience came up with the final answer: which was C: “Yes, but we need to know what we know and can do ourselves first”. No big surprise there! Harnessing the knowledge and expertise within an organisation is a task knowledge managers and librarians are especially adapt at.

Surely, we are all consultants!

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