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Tips For a More Successful Higher Education-Consultancy Relationship

Consulting to institutions of higher education is a unique and, at times, complex process. Consultants and clients have a variety of perspectives, objectives and expectations that must be considered to ensure the success of an engagement.

With the increased use of consultants to address institutional concerns, it is useful to both university managers and the consultants they hire to understand some of the key elements that guarantee effective consulting engagements as well as the pitfalls to avoid.

Over the last 20 years, higher education managers increasingly have sought the expertise and services of consultants. Several factors have contributed to the growth of this multimillion-dollar a year industry: increased external pressure for change, fewer resources available for full-time staff, increased state and federal regulations and politicization of the faculty. Today, institutions of higher education regularly utilize consulting services to assist them in strategic planning, technology implementation, organizational structure, financial management, fundraising and outsourcing.

In spite of the continued use of consultants as resources, consultancies at colleges and universities have resulted in both successes and failures. The failures include inaccurate definition of the problems, inadequate project investigation, impractical recommendations, and the consultant’s lack of preparedness and familiarity in working with the distinct characteristics and unique culture that exist on university and college campuses. Because most institutions of higher education cannot afford failed and costly consulting engagements, I was inspired as a university administrator to conduct a research study in 2002 to examine the consultative process and what makes it effective when consulting to managers at institutions of higher education.

A multiple case study approach formed the basis of the qualitative data methodology used. Three cases were highlighted involving consulting firms and corresponding institutions of higher education that effectively worked together during their consulting engagement. In each of the cases, consultants were effective in assisting the universities to meet their institutional goals, despite challenges incurred during the process. In the same vein, the logical question is, what is the source of the success of these consulting engagements? Findings of this study show that it is imperative that there be a clear understanding of client and consultant expectations and an open line of communication.

Why hire a consultant? Generally, managers who seek consulting services do so in response to a current or imminent institutional concern. Once the need for a consultant has been identified by the client, the next point of inquiry is, what are the expectations? Many consultants believe in the importance of providing excellent service; however, that is not enough. Clients want more, and the irony is that numerous consultants that are hired by higher education managers are often mystified about what is expected of them.

To gain insight into what managers expect, I interviewed 10 university managers who were personally involved in the three case studies. Despite all of their differences, their responses were similar — they were seeking a defined skill set. Managers required that the consultants exhibit strong technical skills such as adequate knowledge and experience in the particular area being examined, ability to clearly identify the project scope and approach, ability to make suitable recommendations and familiarity with the higher education industry and its unique culture. Nonetheless, technical skills are not the only ones consultants need. Managers stress the importance of solidifying client-consultant relationships by building credibility with the client and gaining client trust. These are essential soft skills that are less obvious and definable. Instead, they are complementary; they can unlock the potential for highly effective consultant performance.

In exploring the consultant perspective, understanding the nuances of the higher education industry has never been easy. Some of the roadblocks experienced by consultants in engagements involve dealing with client anxiety and decision-making processes. Consultants encounter problems in a university-based project when clients as well as their constituencies exhibit immense anxiety and fear. Another element faced by consultants when dealing with institutions of higher education is that they must take into account the decision-making process at the institution. To do so, consultants must know the answers to questions such as: Who are the decision makers? How do they affect outcomes? Which individuals must have buy-in?

Throughout the interviews, clients and consultants repeatedly cited that effective communication is the key to a strong clientconsultant partnership. Consultants and clients must grasp how to communicate with each other, and one way to accomplish this is by adopting formal and informal communication systems. It was unanimously agreed that both parties be obliged to commit to a partnership that uses functional communication channels and methods to achieve project goals. Indeed, effective communication and strong partnerships are important for successful consulting engagements.

— Dr. Marnelle Alexis is the director of the Duke Comprehensive Education Institute and an assistant professor in the practice of medical education in the Department of Surgery at Duke University (N.C.).

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