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Avoiding Dangerous Intranet Consultants

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (22-Aug-2007)

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The IT consulting jungle is full of perils and possibilities—and it's a fine line that separate the two. You take the left fork and you get exactly what you're looking for; you take the right fork and you wake up with the IT equivalent of a black widow spider crawling up your back.

Unfortunately, not every organization has the luxury of in-house IT personnel capable of whipping up programs on demand. Smaller companies or companies without technical staff might have to rely on external consultants to build their intranet. It's vital that you choose the right consultant with whom to bestow this responsibility.

In order for them to do their job, an intranet consultant might need to work on-site and require access to sensitive company information. A lot of trust must be placed on that person or team, so you better know who you're dealing with before you open the doors to your company's intellectual property and security infrastructure.

Here are the five deadliest intranet consultant species to avoid:

The Snake Oil Salesperson

Modus operandi: Snake oil salespeople push you to choose one solution over another too forcibly and enthusiastically without providing you with any legitimate justification for their suggested solution. They will attempt to steer you to a particular product or technology regardless of whether it suits your intranet and business needs. Even if their recommendations aren't compatible with your current IT environment, they will try to convince you that a few tweaks here and there is all that's needed.

Field notes: Your intranet consultant must be vendor and technology neutral. It's their responsibility to understand how your business works, to listen to your requirements, and to come up with a feasible solution based on your existing IT infrastructure. And unless your current infrastructure is highly flawed or outdated, your consultant shouldn't tell you that you have to make drastic changes in order to implement an intranet. An intranet consultant needs to work in your best interest not for some vendor that's providing financial incentives to peddle their wares.

The Lonely Derelict

Modus operandi: Lonely derelicts don't seem to take their job very seriously, show little enthusiasm for what they do, act as though they don't really want to be there, and only accepts a handful of small jobs a year. Certain species are even seen using out-of-date technology because they can't be bothered to keep up with changes in industry standards or expanding their own skillset. It's believed that the lonely derelict is a distant cousin of the Maytag repairman.

Field notes: The manner in which intranet consultants treat their own business is a good indication of how they will treat your business. It's best not to entrust your corporate intranet to consultants who seem ho-hum about their own business because that attitude will carry over onto to the work they do for others.

In addition, an intranet consultant's client list should be proportional to the number of years they have been in business. If they have been in business for three years an you're only their second client, something's wrong. While an extensive client list isn't always an accurate indicator of consultants' services and performance, it can be a good sign that they're doing something right.

The Self-Proclaimed Idol

Modus operandi: Self-proclaimed idols are condescending, acting as though they know everything and you know nothing. They walk around with holier-than-thou attitudes and believe that you should be grateful simply to be in their magnificence. They expect a red carpet under their feet, rose petals on their workstation, and all their peons to bow before them. They tell you what you need rather than ask you what you need. They don't like to be questioned because they know what's best for you—period.

Field notes: Always remember that they're working for you, you're not working for them. Intranet development is a mutual process—which requires mutual respect—between consultant and client. A good intranet consultant is supposed to work with you and take the time to listen to what you need rather than dictating outright what you should need. Consultants may know everything there is to know about the nuts and bolts of intranet development, but they don't know anything about your organization's business processes, its corporate culture and politics, or its workplace dynamics. A bad consultant speaks, a good consultant listens.

The Doomsdayer

Modus operandi: Doomsdayers love to expose all the so-called faults with your current IT environment. They're extremely negative and like picking at, and highlighting, all your technological shortcomings. They tell you all the things they can't do because of your IT infrastructure and never offer solutions. They're best known for their high-pitched cry: "The sky is falling!"

Field notes: Good intranet consults never bring up problems without offering possible solutions to those problems. Some of those suggestions might not be feasible for the time being, but at least they're giving you the option. Consultants with a limited skillset often belong to this species. They will nitpick your Microsoft-centric environment because all they know is LAMP (Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP) or vice versa. They do this to shift focus away from their own limitations and tell you all the reasons why you shouldn't be using what you're using.

The Slacker

Modus operandi: Slackers appear for initial requirements gathering meetings and then disappear for days or even weeks at a time. They're almost impossible to find as they rarely emerge during the daytime. They often try to avoid having to work on-site because they will be too easily accessible. They take a long time to answer your voice mail or e-mail messages, and don't provide you with regular status reports. Slackers have a tendency to bring up development problems at the most inopportune time or will try to avoid giving you firm deadlines for deliverables.

Field notes: Steady communication between consultants and clients is crucial—especially if the consultants are unable to work on-site or if there are security concerns with having external personnel moving freely within the company. But geography should never be an excuse for not staying in touch. Even when there's nothing major to report, consultants should at the very least drop an e-mail every so often to let you know that everything's going smoothly.

A regular stream of communication allows you to deal with problems that can potentially upset your project schedule. There's nothing worse than having your intranet consultant call you up on the eve of a deadline—after two weeks of silence—with a major problem that will delay all deliverables.

Step Lightly

Identifying the good intranet consultant from the bad is not always easy. The best thing to do is ask for references. Speaking with past clients provides you with unbiased information about an intranet consultant. Ask them if the consultants delivered what was expected of them on time, if they were responsive to client needs and concerns, if they stayed in touch throughout the development process, and anything else that's of concern to you. But if your potential intranet consultants refuse to provide you with references, don't make any sudden movements and back away slowly.


Copyright © 2007 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.