Consulting for communications

Why should you use a telecoms consultant and how can you get the best value from the consultancy assignment? First, let’s be clear on who we are talking about. My use of the term ‘consultancy’ means a person or firm that is consulted for their expert advice. They provide professional advice for a fee. They work to a specific brief, and their advice is independent. This is a very important requirement for any purchaser of consultancy services, not least in government procurement. The client must be confident that the consultant is able to give impartial advice, solely in the client’s best interest, and any potential conflict of interest should be declared.
    
“We supply best-of-breed kit right across the piece, so our consultants can advise you on your best choice.” “We will complete the consultancy assignment and then there will be a big discount if you buy the equipment from us.” These are not consultants by my definition, no more than the various forms of contractor offered by recruitment agencies: “Cisco IP Telephony Consultant required for 3 months.” “Mobile Communications Sales Consultant wanted.”

Focus of selection
The local government manager who seeks consultancy advice in telecoms should look for an independent ICT management consultancy. This does not mean just large high-profile practices – there are plenty of small companies or individuals who can deliver a professional service. Regardless of the size of the company, it is individuals who will do the work, and the individual should be the main focus of your selection process.
    
Even using my narrow definition of a telecoms consultant there are still many varieties in the mix. There are consultants in every telecoms specialism that you can name – unified communications, billing, contact centres, regulation, procurement and so on. Although I am writing from the business user viewpoint there are also many consultancies whose clients are on the supply side of the telecoms industry, requiring different knowledge and skill sets.
    
Why not do it yourself? You need to answer this question before proceeding. What are your reasons (there will probably be more than one) for using a consultant? The answers will inform your brief, aid your search for the right consultant, and help you manage the assignment or consultancy project. The most likely reasons may include some of the following:

  • Independent Advice – As explained in my opening paragraph
  • Technical Knowledge – This may be required in various specialist areas, such as network unified communications, design, cost control or security    
  • Relevant experience – How the knowledge applies to your specific requirements or problems 
  • Strategic view – To recognise the longer term implications of current decisions
  • Objectivity – Even where expertise resides within the client organisation, an external view can often provide a more balanced assessment
  • Resources – Maybe it could be done in-house, but not on the desired timetable.

Some other benefits of using a consultant are more obscure. For example, I have several clients for whom I have provided continuity services while the in-house team around me has completely changed.

Selection
Public sector buyers might make their first port of call Buying Solutions’ website www.buyingsolutions.gov.uk. The ICT Consulting Services Framework contains eight categories, many of which cover different areas of communications. However, finding names in relevant framework agreements should be regarded as the first step in a process where the buyer needs to be just as aware as with any other transaction. The framework suppliers are mostly larger consultancies with higher than average fees, and are often supported by smaller companies operating in sub-contract mode. Again, make sure you meet the consultant(s) who would be doing the work, and that their references relate to their experience.
    
BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, works to raise awareness of Professionalism in IT – that is, having IT professionals respected alongside other mature professions such as lawyers and accountants, to ensure it is at the top of the industry’s agenda. It has also recently updated its Chartered status as a result of input from businesses, for which it actively canvassed. The Institute has invested heavily in developing a range of consultancy services to support organisations interested in progressing people and processes. CMA, as part of the BCS Group, maintains a register of consultants who subscribe to its Consultancy Code of Practice.
    
Wherever the search takes you, be sure to obtain evidence of recent satisfied customers and expertise and experience relevant to your requirements. For example, it is not sufficient for a supplier to claim “experience of the NHS” even with a long list of hospital Trust customers. These might all be for Storage Area Networks in the community sector, while you are looking at an IP telephony roll-out in an acute hospital.
    
At the selection stage you will need a written brief for the assignment; your understanding of what is required and by when, objectives and deliverables. This document may change in response to a dialogue with the chosen consultant but will provide a starting point to managing the assignment, sometimes as the basis for a Project Initiation Document. It is important to agree and record in writing any changes to the scope of the assignment or fees.
    
As the client you must be prepared to make an input to the work of the consultant. Don’t expect to hand over the brief and see it all happen by magic. Managing a consultancy assignment has some differences to managing a contract engineer or an interim manager, but is just as essential. Plan how this will be achieved, whether through a project management methodology or by agreement on a less formal process, and allow adequate time in your diary for the necessary meetings and reporting. Regular monitoring of progress and expenditure should help to avoid any nasty surprises and foil the over-running project.
    
If you have a good experience with the consultancy you may want to use them again. The consultant is likely to have arrived at this thought before you! The cost of his or her gaining repeat business is much less than winning a new client and s/he will be well placed to see where you might need more assistance. So this can be mutually beneficial, so long as you agree what needs to be done and can afford to do it. If follow-on work is agreed, be sure to apply proper controls as for the original assignment.

The true cost
The trend to outsourcing, the convergence of data and voice communications and the decline of the traditional telecoms manager role together result in there being less in-house telecoms expertise than ever before. But this is a time when more and more organisations put effective telecommunications at the centre of their strategy – not seen as just a utility, but as a key platform in their service delivery.
    
Professional ICT and telecoms consultants can bridge the gap and add value. Indeed, the question may not be can you afford to hire a consultant, but perhaps more, can you afford not to?

For more information
For more information about BCS Consultancy service, contact Giles Vernon on 01793 417732.

For details of CMA Registered Consultants, contact John Taylor on 0118 942 9099.

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