Advice that's in tune with industry

It's not all hot air and jargon. Some consultants really do offer solutions, says Robert Nurden
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Industry is littered with examples of companies enlisting external advice only to find that the service they receive does not address their real problems. It's a wonder that management consultants have not joined lawyers, accountants - and journalists - at the top of the list of scorned professionals. Of course, they're not all as bad as the Feng Shui consultant who comes to your office and says: "Move that desk 2ft to the right. That will be pounds 2,000, please."

But the lack of in-depth investigation into what the client really wants and the cutting of corners instead of finding a realistic solution has done untold damage.

It was a problem that faced Kvaerner's Sheffield steel division when it found its role in the industry switching to one of overseeing the building of steel mills rather than manufacturing steel. Despite the shedding of some staff, the remaining job descriptions and internal structures still reflected the old business.

"Our organisation had certainly had experience of external consultants in the past," said a Kvaerner spokesman. "These were not always positive. On previous occasions we found management consultants took away with them a considerable portion of our profit in fees, without necessarily providing results to enhance our business. We hadn't the time, resources or frankly the skills to meet the challenge of re-aligning our organisation and business practices."

The company was referred to a consultancy, Hands-On, that would suit its needs, but it remained sceptical. "We gave them a tough time," said the Kvaerner spokesman. "We sought every possible confirmation that their approach would be different."

In this instance, the company's experience of "bespoke consultancy" was positive. Prior to that point there were more than 200 job titles among staff, whereas the number of duties was far fewer. It meant that non- performers hid behind the unnecessary layers and outstanding performers were hard to identify. No one knew what their real responsibility was, there was a lack of accountability and considerable duplication and inefficiencies.

After the makeover, the number of job titles was reduced to 50 and work efforts were more closely aligned to business objectives. And a software package designed to rationalise workforce practices was adapted to the particular objectives of Kvaerner's human resources department.

The software tool - called The Job Profiling System - is used wherever restructuring is required. It asks searching questions of human resources departments to find out what is required in the way of performance and development, both from the individual's and the company's point of view. It then runs these through a competency model, which factors in the ability of a staff member to perform above base requirements, say with a sense of urgency. The result is an enhanced job description.

Organisations have in recent years been jumping on the bandwagon of competency, embracing ideas such as drive, results, and maximisation. But often these concepts "float" and are rendered virtually meaningless unless they are tied to a core job description.

Experience has shown that superficial analysis - and therefore superficial solutions - can be extremely damaging to business objectives. The Job Profiling System can be used for all future job positions both in internal and external advertising, in the media and on the internet.

Every consultancy boasts of providing a need and "filling a niche in the market". But in the case of Hands-On, it looks as if the claim may have more credence than usual.

The big names - companies such as Arthur Andersen - will not normally close a deal of less than $1m. In the UK there are about 50 smaller concerns who ape the giants in their claims but do not have the necessary clout to attract the quality of consultant. Result: a competent graduate lacking in-house experience, is handed the job.

"We only recruit consultants who have more than 10 years' experience and with a background spent in a company," said Kathryn Matz, managing director of Hands-On. "The double dimension allows us to see problems from a number of angles. The genuine niche that we have found is to bring quality solutions to large and small companies that are feeling the pressure. They have little time to play with and need answers fast."

The pace of change that companies are experiencing means that they feel vulnerable from competition in areas where before they felt safe. In such situations there is a tendency for them to look over their shoulders too much, rather than concentrate on their strengths and to work out their own strategies, said Ms Matz. Given such a fevered atmosphere, consultancies have an additional role as confidence boosters.

It may be, she adds, that minor tinkering of procedures is needed, not wholesale change, and it is the consultancy's duty to advise accordingly. Kvaerner was lucky in finding what it wanted. But the company could well have run into a consultancy for whom smooth words play the same role that the glistening topcoat of paint does for the shoddy builder: look underneath and you find the same old problems.