dr-gillian-evans-001An article in the March 26 Guardian (UK) questions the value of higher education consultants. Professor Emeritus Gillian Evans, the author, is not a big fan. Her problems with consultants include:

  • No way to review the research produced by the consultants in advance of hiring them.
  • The quality of the work is poor.
  • No experience working in higher education, either as faculty or management.

Essentially, this opinion piece argues that consultants should ‘stay out’ of academia because “they” don’t know how “we” operate. Not an original message, to be sure. However, higher education desperately needs new thinking and I believe that good consultants can play an important role in bringing about needed change. Nevertheless, the author’s argument that consultants often know very little about how universities work reflects my own experiences.

In my management role in university I’ve sat across the table from many management consultants seeking an engagement. Indeed, surprisingly few had direct experience managing or teaching in higher education. I suspect this happens more often with educational technology. Consultants and vendors that deal in educational technology for the corporate training and professional development markets often assume that the solutions they offer will translate into the higher education space. This is often not the case. Tthe economics and organizational models in online higher education are very different from other types of organizations.

Of course, there are many types of management knowledge and experience that work across different industries. But I’m not sure that this generic management talent is sufficient. Ideally, I want help from people that have dealt with the same obstacles I am facing. I want them to know (better than I do, preferably), the best ways to get things done in my field. Generic management talent is simply the price of admission for good consultants; I also want a higher education expert. Am I asking too much?

6 Comments

  1. I’ve been doing strategy consulting for many organizations, including educational institutions, in the U.S. and abroad, for many years. Criticism and praise of consultants to higher ed. are very similar conceptually to the criticisms/praise leveled in the for-profit sector.

    One can make compelling arguments on the debate about who adds the most value – someone who was “born and raised” in the client environment or someone from the outside who might bring a fresh perspective. Everyone has their war stories about what/whom works best. There is no one right answer other than a client should thoroughly vet the consultants before engaging them and, if they do engage the consultants make sure the scope of work and deliverables are very clearly articulated in writing. Additionally, the consultant needs to vet the client as some are great and others are nightmares.

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  2. Larry – you are absolutely right. It’s not necessarily the case that people from ‘inside’ the sector add the most value. Higher education is in rather desperate need of new blood, new thinking. However, experience suggests that it is very hard for someone that doesn’t know higher education to have immediate impact. The differences between higher education and other sectors are, I believe, far more substantive than the differences between, say, the insurance industry and pharmaceuticals. So, while I lament the resistance to ‘outsiders’ that the original article represented, I nevertheless feel that consultants should have a strong understanding of higher education before trying to work in this space.

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  3. The key point you make is that “Higher education is in rather desperate need of new blood, new thinking.” There are many places that can come from if entrenched players are truly open (i.e not lip service) to to trying new things and open to new people, be they from the inside or outside. If someone is coming from the outside they MUST understand higher ed. culture (or be very sensitive to its nuances). If they don’t, the best ideas on paper have a high probability of never being implemented.

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  4. Yes, it does make sense to use consultants that have knowledge of the industry — but a good consultant can also “pick the brains” of industry insiders and thereby acquire industry expertise and nuances. Reasons to hire a consultant include:

    1. Because of their expertise. Every client hires a consultant on the basis of the consultant’s track record. After all, if you are an educational organization that needs to develop new programs, increase admissions, create new revenue streams, cut costs, or find new ideas that work, it makes sense to hire someone who has already done it successfully for many other educational organizations.

    2. To identify problems. Sometimes employees are too close to a problem inside an organization to identify it. That’s when a consultant comes in to help out.

    3. To supplement the staff. Sometimes an organization discovers that it can save thousands of dollars by hiring consultants when they are needed for special short-term projects that are important but never seem to get done, rather than hiring full-time employees and adding to the regular payroll headcount. Orgnaizations save additional money by not having to pay benefits for consultants they hire. Even though a consultant’s fees are generally higher than an employee’s salary, over the long haul, it simply makes good economic sense to hire a consultant.

    4. To act as a catalyst or facilitator. Let’s face it. No one likes change, especially academic America. But sometimes change is needed, and a consultant may be brought in to “get the ball rolling.” In other words, the consultant can do things without worrying about the corporate culture or other issues that get in the way when an organization is trying to change.

    5. To provide much-needed objectivity. Who else is more qualified to identify a problem than a consultant? A good consultant provides a fresh viewpoint–without worrying about what people in the organization might think about the results and how they are achieved.

    6. To do research on new technology, methodologies. A consultant may be asked to research any number of different new possibilities, technologies or methodologies –and be ready to teach clients what they need to stay competitive. This could include SEO/SEM, DRTV, guerilla marketing, online education, call center operations, outreach in small markets and more.

    7. To do the “dirty work.” Let’s face it: No one wants to be the person who has to make cuts in the staff or expense budgets or to eliminate an entire division.

    8. To bring new life to an organization. Coming up with new ideas that work. At one time or another, most businesses need someone to administer “first aid” to get things rolling again. This could include team building, staffing analysis, recruiting new players and more.

    9. To create a new business. Not everyone has the ability to conceive an idea and develop a game plan. You may need the services of someone who has become an expert in this field?

    10. To influence other people. Do you want to create an alliance with other educational institutions or key industry players to increase your business? If so, you may need the services of a consultant who has experience implementing alliances, joint ventures and partnerships.

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  5. Yes, I agree that consultants must have sufficient professional knowledge of the field in which they are consulting. But a consultant need not know all what is required or expected of him. We live in the age of knowledge management. A professional consultant normally does a comparative cost-benefit analysis in his own way, of doing the things himself or getting it done from those who, he believes, know it well. And, of course, outsourcing must make a financial sense to them. It is here that sometimes his belief may turn out to be wrong and he may end up delivering unsatisfactory product to his customer. People in academics are those who know educational products thoroughtly and rigourously but may not have the ‘right connect’ with the market. Consultants with good market intelligence systems would prospect on them, obtain their intellectual property, attach their own private label and sell it to the most profitable customer available. In many cases, the cusultants have little idea of the actual worth of the academic output outsourced because of the lack of their own specialisation in the area.

    I have taught and researched for more than three decades in India and have handled a large number of assignments in educational administration including quality in higher education. I have interacted with a large number of outside education service providers and consultants in the field of management. Most of them approach education predominantly with business and revenue models rather than focussing on content quality. I find this is the a common scenario in several developing countries.

    I think education consulting can be best handled by inside academicians if they are given a right marketing orientation and a feel of the customer requirements.

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