Managing External IT Consultants Effectively

One of the most commonplace complaints encountered within professional IT Departments working as part of a larger organisation is that they have somehow ‘lost control’ of a group of external consultants originally introduced to assist with a particular project.

The problem

There are many excellent IT Support Consultancies delivering real benefit to organisations.

Yet sometimes someone within the in-house IT Department (or the wider business sponsoring area) designated to ‘manage’ the external consultants’ activities suddenly finds that he or she has been bypassed in the management chain.

The reality becomes that the consultants are now de-facto reporting directly to someone at the top of the organisation on the business management side. This relationship is often at a senior partner level within the consultancy and executive sponsor level of the client organisation. The link is often built by a consultancy under the Trojan Horse auspices of ‘executive level relationship management’.

This can effectively blur accountability and result in nobody really being able to hold the external consultants to account for their activities, decisions, productivity and cost-effectiveness. The reality is that multiple communication channels are opened up to the client’s executive sponsorship level and the in-house project manager has become someone who can be easily bypassed when required.

The result is that the in-house PM becomes not the controller of the external consultants but rather an ‘administrative facilitator’ to assist with their largely independent activities.

Worse, blurring the lines of management accountability is sometimes used intentionally by consultants with a view to providing opportunities for cross-selling their services to other areas of the organisation.

Given that very significant numbers of major IT projects fail and post mortems often cite a contributory cause as being a failure to control and integrate external consultants, it’s imperative that organisations should be aware of this potentially very serious issue and address it accordingly.

What can be done

To ensure that the project remains under tight control and to reduce the chances of failure, the following governance steps should be taken:

1. It should be recognised that many external consultancies will naturally have an unspoken and usually unacknowledged objective to avoid being controlled and held accountable by senior management anywhere in the sponsoring organisation.

Their intention will usually be to secure an executive-level relationship with the sponsoring company whilst notionally recognising the project manager’s authority.

2. The governance structures of the client organisation should understand this to be ‘business as usual’ but also something which is fundamentally in conflict with basic project control disciplines and the need for the project manager to be the focus of communication and REAL total resource management.

3. If a senior partner in the consultancy wishes to have a direct engagement at relationship management level, the sponsoring organisation should insist this is through their appointed project manager. Insisting upon this will typically result in the consultancy’s senior partner rarely, if ever, appearing on the scene.

Removing exclusive project manager control of external consultancy communications and their engagement/relationship management with his or her own company effectively undermines the PM and removes his or her ability to totally control external consultancy resources on a daily basis.

To ensure project success, there should never be any doubt as to who is ‘in charge’ and that person should be at a senior operational management or junior executive level within the sponsoring organization.

Of course, it should also be recognised that controlling highly-professional and very well-qualified external IT consultants demands the highest calibre of internal project management. Asking someone with relatively little experience of managing a major project to deliver it safely and to take control of powerful external provider organisations in doing so, may be unrealistic bordering naïve.

However, even the most experienced and capable project managers must have the full and unqualified support of their executive level if they are going to successfully manage and rein-in those occasionally difficult-to-control major external consultancies.