One solution to the tech talent shortage is the hiring of IT consultants, from which organizations can effectively "rent" services to complete short-term projects or add expertise where it is found lacking in current employees.
However, the admission of "outsiders" into an organization can lead to friction, and there may be a fear factor involved in respect to current employees when there are more contractors hired — namely, that the contractor may ultimately replace the employee.
For organizations looking to integrate IT consultants into their organization in a time of tight IT talent supply, a comprehensive strategy is needed to ensure productive integration with the existing workforce.
IT consultants can help in a variety of ways, including:
- technology strategy and planning
- network design and implementation
- software development and implementation
- cybersecurity and risk management
- data management and analysis
- project management
IT Consultants Fill Multiple Needs
Sam Levy, a partner at Drake Star specializing in digital services, SaaS, and fintech, explains that organizations would look at IT consultants for a few reasons — to fill immediate resource needs within their staff or to support a project or initiative that requires specific needs or set of skills that they cannot find in-house.
"They can also hire consultants that have already dealt with similar situations with other organizations and can provide practical insights," he said. "Consultants can work as part of a team of employees, lead projects, or provide support and training, for example."
Some consulting partners might arrive with their own team in tow, while others might work as embedded consultants, according to Randy Gross, chief information security officer for industry association CompTIA.
"No matter the setup, collaboration between the consultancy and the business is critical to ensuring everyone's successful," he said. "If there isn't very clear role definition, you get people stepping on toes."
This means management must be very clear on who is doing what. Once those parameters are established, Gross said it's easier to collaborate and figure out how both sides can help each other.
"More communication is generally better and understanding what everyone's background is, and understanding where their most recent experience is," he said. "Every project is going to have rough patches. The ability to work through those in a constructive way rather than a situation where you're assigning blame is the sort of emotional intelligence you need to work with other people."
Fostering Trust, Establishing Roles
John Samuel, executive vice president and CTO of IT services at consulting firm CGS, added that consultants should have an internal leader to help focus the work and keep projects on track, as well as provide clarity for deliverables.
"Although there are no specific standards for how consultants should interact with corporate employees, it is important to communicate clearly, documenting progress in writing and emails," he explained.
This is especially important when consultants are spending a limited and specific number of hours on a project to make sure the project moves expeditiously and stakeholders don't spend too much time picking up where they left off.
"Employees may see consultants as a risk to their position; they may think, 'What if the company outsources my function?'" Samuel cautioned. "Employees may also see consultants as an impediment to their ability to learn new skills and enhance their knowledge."
There can also be the impression that consultants are a lot more expensive, and the overall cost will be much more than keeping things internal.
The responsibility for the integration between employees and IT contractors should be shared at many levels of the organization, including senior management, the IT department's management and the IT employees, and the contractors themselves, Levy said.
"Best practices for integration may depend on the organization but typically would include open and regular communication, clear role definition and expectations, transparency in decision-making, and project management processes," he said.
It's important to establish a culture of trust and respect, and involving employees in the process of selecting and working with consultants will help build trust and cooperation between employees and contractors, according to Levy.
"A regular process of feedback and evaluation may … further [reinforce] a culture of trust and cooperation," he added.
Gross agreed, noting that the company hiring the consultants is ultimately on the hook for the success of any consulting engagement, which means they must be "exceedingly clear" about what they want.
"There's a number of factors that go into that relationship — there's onsite versus remote, there's international location, there's time zone differences," he said. "Ultimately, the client has to say, with all those factors, here's what success looks like. It must be very open and frequent communication because we're all human beings. We hear what we want to hear sometimes."
The Role of the CIO in Integrating IT Consultants
If the organization is bringing in a large consulting firm to do a large engagement, the CIO or CTO really must pay attention to the overall relationship with the vendor, Gross said.
"If you treat people like partners rather than vendors on both sides, you get a better outcome," he said. "Rather than being fee for hire … a solution-focused approach … makes it a lot cleaner in terms of establishing that relationship."
When things don't go well, the same line of thinking applies, Gross said.
"If you have good relationships at the top level, that firm is going to be able to communicate with their resources, they're going to be able to pull the right leverage in if they have to go get someone different, or they have to surge, or they have to really clarify," he said. "Ultimately, I think the larger the deal, the more involved senior management must be."
Samuel agreed that the CIO should make it clear to internal employees how consultants can bring value and deliver strategies in a more efficient manner.
"Creating clarity and establishing a clear understanding why consultants are used can create a more efficient interaction between employees and consultants," he said.
A well-defined vision of roles and responsibilities will also help internal staff understand why IT consultants are being brought on board.
"Consultants should also have a clear understanding of what they need to deliver, as well as knowledge transfer requirements when their agreements are established," he added.
About the authorNathan Eddy is a freelance writer for ITPro Today. He has written for Popular Mechanics, Sales & Marketing Management Magazine, FierceMarkets, and CRN, among others. In 2012 he made his first documentary film, The Absent Column. He currently lives in Berlin.