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When selecting a consultant to help you with your business needs, regardless if they are for strategy, operations, growth, or technology, how do you decide exactly what sort of consultant is best for you?

There are basically four kinds of consultants. They gravitate around their own personal backgrounds. The four kinds of consultant are:

  • Academic
  • Observer
  • Practical
  • Blended

So, how do you go about finding the right consultant and which type do you pick? Before we describe these four types of consultants, it is important to know how to deal with any of them first. So, here are a few questions and to understand the answers to before you pick a consultant to work with on your next important project.

Ask your friends. Seek referrals and find business associates who have used consultants and learn from them. Who was good? Who was bad? Did they provide the desired value? How easy where they to work with? Did they meet the schedule?

Check credentials. Does the consultant have the right technical and business background and experience to fit your needs? Maybe they need specific licences, certifications, industry affiliations – be positive that these capabilities are there. All sorts of problems can result if you do not check.

Communications. How well do they communicate? This is a critical point. It is vital that they speak in a language that maps to what you need and for your team to understand.

Availability. Many consultants take on too much work. It is a feast or famine industry so when opportunities come along they take them all. This is counterproductive to your needs. A consultant must have the cycles available to properly focus on your project.

Marching Orders. How clear is the consultant about exactly what you need from them and how best to deliver it. If the consultant is not properly aligned from the outset you should not expect to get the deliverables that you need at the conclusion.

Fees. How will the consultant be paid? Is the price capped? Is it open-ended? You must employ all of the best practices of project management to succeed with costs, schedule, and quality of the work.

Afterwards. Once the deliverable is completed, and we assume that it hits your targets and achieves your desired outcomes, the question that remains is, “what’s next?”. Consultants move from project to project. So, will they be available to help or simply participate in the construction of the strategy that they defined? Are they available in the future to how see a project through to the end?

Academic Consultants

Many respected consultants come from a heavy academic background. They are often professors with many impressive degrees. Their expertise is deep in theory. It is often heavily researched, and learned from massive volumes of books and lectures. When undertaking something that has never been done before, using this type of consultant can be effective as they bring history with them that can be applied to the unknown future.

Observer Consultants

Many of the larger consultancy firms, such as Accenture, Deloitte, BCG, McKinsey & Company, PWC, KPMG, and IBM offer a lot of junior consultants, often fresh out of university. They have very little meaningful experience. But, they are led by senior consultants who have strong reputations and stellar track records. These juniors learn by observing the senior consultants. They shadow the team leaders. Therefore, they should not be undervalued as a resource. If a consultant has been shadowing their mentor, a respected senior consultant, for three, five, or more years, they learn from them and adopt their habits, skills, capabilities, processes, and knowledge. When these junior consultants are the up-and-coming future stars of tomorrow, they can deliver immense value. And, at a lower cost.

However, if they are just months from graduation, then you may wish to rethink this approach. There prices may be attractive but their value will be low.

There is a disturbing current trend by the major consultancies to terminate the expensive senior talent and refresh their benches with young new hires and graduates. A lot of veteran knowledge and useful experience has walked out the door at these big firms over the past three years. So, be paranoid and check all resumes carefully. Conduct interviews and vet the juniors to determine their honest value to solving your issues.

Practical Consultants

A practical consultant is one who has ‘been there and done it all before’. They have led companies, built systems, developed technologies, and escaped death defying traps before. So they are powerful advisors if you are facing similar business and technical dangers. A practical consultant can share their expertise and experiences with you to help you navigate away from peril. They can be worth their weight in gold. Finding the right practical consultant can be tricky. Lots of consultants claim that they have vast experiences to call upon, so checking references and past clients is vital to ensure they are credible.

Blended Consultants

A blended consultant is the Holy Grail of advisors. They are rare. They possess all of the three characteristics of the previous consultants – academic, observer, and practical expertise. They can look at a problem from all angles and choose exactly the right approach to best solve your problem. They can jump between these consultant approaches with each and combine them at just the right degree to fine tune a strategy or solution for you. It is like magic when you find these consultants. But, they are rare to meet. One way to recognize them is the effortless way that they move between the three vectors and how easy and relaxed they are while they realign. It is fun to work with them. Most often, they rarely hoard knowledge and are happy to share all that they know with you. If you are willing to listen, you can become the observer yourself and acquire new capabilities to resolve your own issues should they ever reoccur again.

An Alternation Option

Since so many veterans have been departing the big firms, there is now an abundance of small firms forming to allow these top consultants to continue to work and provide professional services. Small firms and boutique companies can be a serious improvement over the larger global firms. It all depends upon your needs and how many consultants that you require. If you just need some strategy advice then a small consultancy is best. However, if you are implementing a major ERP or CRM solution, then a global firm might be the better option.

A novel approach that I have seen just twice, but I really like, is to hire a small firm consultant to provide oversight over the larger firm consultants. Most often these small firm consultants are ex-global firm consultants, so they know the game well and know from past experience how to wring the most value from the larger clumsy firms. A blended approach might just deliver the best value for your money.


Hiring a consultant can be difficult. But, if you hire the right consultant, it can be easy, fun, and enjoyable. The key word is ‘fit’. You must be out looking for the best fit in your candidate consultants. Do they understand the culture of your business? Do they know exactly what you do? Have they dug into your company values and do they appreciate who you are and what you stand for in life. Do they understand you and do you understand them?

If the answers are all yes, then you are on the right path to a meaningful work experience.

Consultants come and go. Normally, they are used for short periods of time and for specific project needs. Sometimes, they become lifelong trusted advisors and do work year after year for you. These interactions can evolve over time and you and your business can outgrow a consultant. So, finding the best fit does not always mean it is a fit for life. When it works out that way, it is a special kind of business relationship that needs to be cherished and nurtured by both sides. It can never be one-sided.

There are large, global firms and small companies, even one person consultants who are available to help you succeed. All have merit and can fit in depending upon your needs. One size does not fit all needs. So, mix it up a bit and have various consultants available to solve your problems.

In the end, it is always all about people and relationships. You need to develop trust. Respect is also essential too. Do they care about you and your issues, or is it just the next engagement for them? The very best consultants focus one hundred percent on you!

————————–MJM ————————–

About the Author:

Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for applications that use broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies. He is a business and technology consultant. He offers his services on a contracting basis. Over the past 15 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX). Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V).  He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology. He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario.  For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section.  He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 20 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.