Recently I read an article in Harvard Business Review titled How Consultants Project Expertise and Learn at the Same Time. The authors focused on how young management consultants (typically used by the large generalist consulting firms) are "sold as experts" when they don't have the in-depth situational knowledge they need to successfully complete a project.
Generalists Take Billable Time to Get Up to Speed
The authors go on to explain the techniques consultants use to "...rapidly and discreetly gain knowledge of the client's business while simultaneously giving an impression of competence and self-confidence." Of course these consultants are capable of gaining the knowledge they need, but it takes time — time that clients are billed for. Unfortunately, this is an unavoidable problem when your consultants are generalists.
Specialists Are Ready to Go on Day One
Specialist consultants, on the other hand, don’t have to “fake it until they make it” because they don’t face the same industry or technical learning curves. Significant years of subject matter experience and related technical expertise qualify these consultants to work for specialist consultancies at the outset. Instead of starting at ground zero to understand the technical issues at hand or the vendor/solution landscape, the specialist consultant shows up on day one with up-to-date knowledge of your industry and discipline — knowledge that is constantly being honed through ongoing vendor technical briefings and industry immersion through project work.
Specialists Have an Edge on Understanding the Distinct Qualities of Your Organization
Every consultant, even a specialist (if they haven’t worked for your organization before), will have to know how your organization operates differently than others in the industry to be successful on your project. Typically, this is still an easier task for specialists because years of experience have exposed them to a large variety of organizational cultures and processes.
The Difference in Dollars
Consider the example of a 12-week consulting engagement. The generalist firm might assign a team of 2 to 3 consultants, and that team might need to spend 30 hours per week on average, per resource – over 1,000 hours. The specialist firm might assign the same number of consultants, but those highly experienced resources might only need to average 20 to 24 hours per week – for a savings of 200 to 300 hours. In this example, you might be able to save $60,000 to $100,000 by going with a specialist firm that draws upon prior experience.
On occasion, you may find yourself needing generalists from a large firm because they can provide a lot of boots-on-the-ground quickly. But in most situations, you’ll get more value from using a specialist consultancy that employs seasoned, well-respected subject matter experts. They’re harder to find, but worth the effort.