The Advantages and Disadvantages of Consultants

    verb [trans.]
    seek information or advice from (someone with expertise in a particular area)
  • Advantage: Additional skills.
    The usual reason to hire a consultant is to get access to some of their skills that are scarce or nonexistent in your own company. Beware that the more narrowly a consultant defines himself or herself (e.g. "I develop mail-order catalog website back-ends with Ruby on Rails"), the less helpful they will be. When you hire a button-pusher, don't expect miracles — expect buttons to be pushed.
  • Advantage: Intelligent advice.
    This is the original and best reason to hire a consultant, and where 'miracles' can occur. Real consultants are people you can consult. Sadly, the art of asking good questions, gathering information about problems and giving advice based on experience and observations has almost become a lost art among today's see of 'consultants', who technically should call themselves independent contractors, not consultants.
  • Advantage: Outsider perspective.
    "The imaginative user of "outsiders" can encourage each of the types of mindfulness just mentioned. [...] Just as a traveler to a foreign culture notices what people indigenous to that culture take for granted, an outsider in a company may notice when the corporate natives are following what may now be irrational traditions or destructive myths."
    — Ellen J. Langer, Mindfulness
  • Disadvantage: Cost.
    Consultants can be expensive, but usually this is only a problem when you are hiring a consultant to be doing something that an employee should be doing. Most of the value you will get from consultants is from their advice, observations and some focus work, so a couple hours from a consultant could save you months of wasted employee/contractor time.
  • Disadvantages: Quality control.
    If you're hiring a stranger, you really know nothing about whether their skills will help or hinder your project. And consultants often work on their own time, in their own way. This lack of visibility, necessary for good consulting (and a legal requirement for independent consultants), can also hide shoddy work. Hire consultants based on referrals and give them smaller initial projects so that you can judge them based on results rather than marketing glitz.

To learn more about consulting, read The Secrets of Consulting. This is an excellent book for anyone who gives advice, works independently, or solves problems of any kind.

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