Benefits of consultancy services outweigh risks
The ISO 20700 Guidelines for Management Consultancy Services offer a wealth of information for delivery of management consultancy services. Here are some insights
Despite the unpredictable economic climate, there is still demand for management consulting services. At the same time, it is a cutthroat profession with a notion of survival of the fittest. Tom Lambert, author of High Value Consulting, maintains that the only reason for organisations to use external consultants is to gain significant added value. Certainly, any one venturing into providing consulting services knows that, without a value-added proposition, there’s no chance of winning a contract.
While I recognise that there are many good practices out there that govern management consultancy service providers (MSCPs), I would like to preview some of the highlights that the ISO 20700 Guidelines for Management Consultancy Services, published in June 2017 by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), has to offer by unpacking a clause-by-clause approach.
Clause 4: Principles
The clause introduces the principles by stating that critical phases of the typical consulting process take the form of contracting, execution and closure, which together form the foundation on which the structure of the guidelines is based.
The foundation is augmented by additional aspects that the MCSP should take into account, including responsibility for resources with the proviso that, ultimately, the client remains accountable for decisions, outcomes and deliverables. These aspects are usually outlined in contractual obligations.
This clause further suggests policies that should guide MCSPs while carrying out their respective assignments, including those that relate to regulatory frameworks, stakeholder engagement and commitment, code of ethical and professional conduct, project governance, capability, communication, data protection and confidentiality, protection of intellectual property, social responsibility, health and safety, risk and quality management.
Clause 5: Contracting
The guidelines view the contracting phase as critical, since this is where the rules of engagement between client and MCSP are written. The rules form part of the agreement and usually include – but are not limited to – scope of work, cost breakdown and payment terms.
It is vital to remember that the standard does not indicate certain prior activities before the contracting phase. Activities may include marketing of services to be provided, expression of interest, or even requests for quotations. Thus, the contracting process provides opportunities for MCSPs to assure clients of added value.
Clause 6: Execution
The execution phase is a follow-through of the agreed services outlined in the contracting phase. It is expected that during the execution phase, deliverables will be tracked through regular feedback and project meetings, with recommendations made.
There are instances where goalposts will be shifted. ISO 20700 refers to this as “refining the agreed work plan”. This tends to be a subject of contention, especially when it comes to additional or reduced man-days. Hence, flexibility in implementation of the assignment is unavoidable.
In sub-clause 6.5.3, Implementing the Work Plan, the standard expands on the steps a MCSP should follow with the client, namely prepare, analyse options, recommend, obtain decisions and implement. In my experience, I have found that the preparation stage offers a chance to assess the limitations of the assignment. This relates to a fact-finding exercise when “no-go areas” can be excluded.
Here is a practical scenario I once encountered: I was informed by a client that the risk management department had already identified risks and opportunities. Therefore, there was no need for me to identify them during the management system development project.
Incidentally, this awakened a reflection on my part on what consulting role I could play in the project, with the circumstances dictating my role. The lesson learned is that one might need to adopt and adapt to multiple consulting roles.
It is also a reminder that a client owns the consulting assignment and could keep certain areas out of its scope. In the guidelines, the execution phase is quite comprehensive and it’s worth spending time understanding what it entails.
Clause 7: Closure
It is assumed that the assignment is completed and value-added deliverables achieved. The client should have benefited from the knowledge, expertise and impartiality of the consultant’s engagement.
However, the guidelines state that the MCSP should not consider the assignment closed until the final closure topics have been addressed. These include legal and contractual matters; final evaluation and improvement; administrative matters, including payment of agreed fees where applicable; communication; intellectual property rights; and outstanding minor issues.
Also, don’t forget to reflect on the following question: Did you add value and influence change when solving the basic problem for which you were contracted?
Neil Flanagan and Jarvis Finger (2004) in The Management Bible, remind us that change in organisations comes slowly and depends not only on the quality of the consultant’s advice, but also on the ability to implement the advice.
The ISO 20700 guideline will remind MCSPs to keep in their professional lane when working with clients, so as to reduce risks in their consulting activities – but still add value. As O’Shea and Madigan remind us in Dangerous Company: The consulting powerhouses and the businesses they save and ruin: “Good advice is priceless – and bad advice can quickly lead a corporation into a threatening expensive world of dangerous company.”