RESEARCH & RESOURCES

Ten Ways to Make the Most of Your Business Intelligence Consulting Partnership

Your company asked you to pull together a budget for your upcoming BI project, which includes line items for software, hardware, internal team spend/allocations—and, of course, external consultants.

Your company asked you to pull together a budget for your upcoming BI project, which includes line items for software, hardware, internal team spend/allocations—and, of course, external consultants. You would never try to fly a plane or learn a sport without a coach or an instructor, but consultants do not feel like they should fall into the “instructor/coach” category when assisting you with a new process and/or software platform. You and your team perceive the consulting firms who come in to pitch more as a necessary evil—and treat them accordingly. This article offers 10 suggestions to ensure successful interaction between your team and your external consultant.

Introduction

Heard this joke lately? How many consultants does it take to change a light bulb?

Punch line A: We don’t know. They never got past the feasibility study.

Punch line B: Three. One consultant to change the bulb, and two consultants to write the standards that tell the first consultant what he did wrong.

We consultants get a bad rap sometimes. We accept that this can be a result of our inadequacies, but just as frequently it’s a result of common behaviors of clients based on misperceptions about how the partnering process should work. As consulting partners, we see patterns in the way companies interact with us that enhance project success or lead to project failure.

This article provides suggestions about how to work with a consulting partner on a business intelligence (BI) or corporate performance management (CPM) project to improve the likelihood of project success. Half of our recommendations are similar to the “garbage in, garbage out” principle so famously applied many years back to computer programming: if invalid data or processes enter a system, the resulting output will also be invalid. In other words, structure your consulting partner process so you get the right partner for the job! The other half of our recommendations involve project execution, or what to do once you are collaborating with your consulting partner on a BI initiative.

Suggestion #1: Figure out why you’re asking consultants to assist with a project—and make sure everyone on your project team understands this rationale.

It is often obvious why you need an outside partner for a BI project. The most common reason is that an organization is implementing a new process or a new technology with which no one in the organization is familiar. However, we see companies where motivations are not the same for each person or group, and the project team has not vetted this rationale in a public forum. Not stating up front why your organization wants a consulting partner can, at the very least, lead to confusion, and at worst lead to an unproductive, toxic working environment for your project team.

Some of the best reasons for choosing consultants include:

  • requiring an independent assessment of plans, practices, and status
  • needing an independent, experienced party to challenge and advise the team
  • ensuring an objective, third-party voice to mitigate disagreements and facilitate project progress that transcends office politics
  • leveraging experience across sectors or markets to bring best practices to a project
  • identifying the “elephant in the boardroom” that no one at the organization feels comfortable pointing out
  • providing specialized knowledge transfer (the product or process knowledge that requires hands-on mentoring and training)

We also see some dismal reasons for bringing consultants in. If any of these behaviors are happening with a current or planned BI project at your organization, we strongly recommend you resolve this conflict before selecting a consulting partner: introducing a third party to assist in a “power play” or to “take down” another employee’s initiative; doing an “end run” around incompetent employees or groups perceived to be holding up a business process; finding a “fall guy” to take the blame for a faltering project or initiative; creating impetus by paying someone to work because no one internally will step up and own a process or initiative; and replacing long-term skills development by outsourcing maintenance when an organization should be developing skills as part of its longer-term BI or CPM strategy.

If an experienced consulting firm determines that any of these less-than-optimal behaviors are taking place during the bidding process, they may take you aside to discuss this situation. What will probably happen, however, is that many of the stronger firms will simply opt out of bidding because they do not want to subject their employees to an unpleasant working environment or set up a project for failure from its inception. This means you will be left with second-tier capability on what is generally a high-priority project for most organizations.

Suggestion #2: Budget for consultants as you figure out how to make your strategic initiatives a reality, and be open about your budget and project deadlines when you talk with consultants.

Many companies create a project budget for a BI or CPM initiative and omit (or underestimate) consulting costs. These organizations also can underestimate associated hardware and software costs—but that’s a topic for a separate article!

A good starting estimate for consulting costs in the BI/CPM space is (at a minimum) a three-to-one ratio of consulting to software costs. In general, your organization will also be asked to pay travel costs for consultants, which adds as much as 25 percent to the cost of the consultants themselves (larger organizations often have great travel support services and can reduce this to 10 or 15 percent if they make sure consultants use their corporate travel agents).

We are often asked as a trusted partner to assist with initiative roadmaps over the course of several quarters or years. The more we know about your budget or time limitations at the beginning of a discussion, the more helpful we can be. In addition, sharing your preference about your project-pricing structure as early as possible in the process (e.g., fixed price, time and materials) is very helpful, as many consulting firms prefer to operate with certain project-pricing structures. If you do not understand the consulting pricing models available, your potential consulting partner is usually happy to make sure you understand how pricing and invoicing work.

Compare “apples to apples” when looking at consulting bids. There are many types of consulting firms in the BI space, such as the “Big 4” systems integrators; the offshore or near-shore outsourcing vendors; regional or national BI boutique consulting companies; “body shops” that primarily provide staff augmentation through sourcing individual candidates; and BI software vendors, who maintain an internal consulting staff to focus on implementing the vendor’s software. Most of these vendors provide either staff augmentation or project-based consulting work. You will pay more for a project team model, but you generally get more support and knowledge transfer. If you are asking both types of vendors for quotes, you probably did not do a good job of figuring out why you need a consulting partner in the first place.

Remember, too, that most BI consulting firms are partnered with one or more of the BI software vendors. Do not create competition between the vendor’s services group and your potential consulting partners. This creates an unpleasant situation for all parties, and generally causes distrust, which can create issues with support and maintenance down the road.

If you want the vendor to be involved, ask about alternate project structures. Many companies have agreements so they can leverage the software vendor’s expertise at appropriate times during an engagement (e.g., during technical design, installation, and deployment). In general, most software vendor services groups are better leveraged to assist with ad hoc advisory services rather than providing a full end-to-end, project-based consulting offering, as most software vendors maintain a small, expensive services arm.

Finally, the BI consulting market is, in many ways, like an extended family. In other words, it is not that big a market. If you are secretive or less-than-forthcoming with potential consulting partners, word will get out. This could have a long-term impact on other consulting firms’ and software vendors’ willingness to work with your company.

Suggestion #3: Ask the consulting firm for a proposal or engagement letter if and only if you are seriously considering them to do work for your company—and skip the RFP process!

Purchasing consulting services is not like purchasing a car. An auto dealer can pull together a car quote in a matter of minutes because he is creating a list of itemized physical parts, while a BI consulting proposal usually takes several hours or days to pull together. This equates to serious lost opportunity (and hard) cost for your potential consulting partner. If you’re looking for comparative pricing; if you are focused on one vendor and want to make sure you get a decent deal; or if you are not sure whether a consulting firm fits your project and you want to explore a bit before officially getting into the bidding process, just let your potential consulting partner know! Generally, potential consulting partners will be happy to oblige with a ballpark or high-level estimate and are relieved to know where they stand in the process (and they are generally pretty good at giving you an idea on software and hardware costs, too).

In addition, request for proposal (RFP) processes are very time consuming and do not bring a lot to the selection process because most organizations seem to spend a lot of time reviewing documents instead of spending time with the consultants with whom they might work. Choosing a consultant is somewhat like dating—you want to spend time with someone you like and trust—and a lot of that comes down to gut instinct and intangibles (along with references, previous experience, etc.). If you must go through an RFP, try to structure it so you spend more time in person with as many people as possible from your target consulting partner, and less time pushing paperwork.

Suggestion #4: Involve all key stakeholders at your organization in the consulting partner-selection process at the beginning of the process.

Key stakeholders in this process usually include business/operations, finance, and IT sponsors, as well as the purchasing and legal departments. Consulting partners in the BI space usually interact closely with business, finance, and IT sponsors throughout the life of a project, so all of these groups need to feel comfortable with the selection, even if one group is driving the choice. If all these groups are not currently involved in your BI initiative, get them involved now, as they all have lots to give in terms of making an initiative successful. We have seen several consulting partner selection processes derailed because groups either did not feel “bought in” or they had voting power and no one thought to consider their needs.

Also, the purchasing/legal groups in your company usually maintain “preferred provider” designations and master-services agreements that must be completed before a consulting partner can start a project. This may come as a surprise, but sometimes consulting partners simply don’t fit the corporate profile for these kinds of agreements! It is much better for you and your potential consulting partner to learn this immediately than two months into negotiations. In addition, these contracts usually take weeks or months to negotiate and sign, and letting your “short list” of potential consulting partners review these documents mid-way through the selection process often helps to identify areas for focus or opportunities for improvement. Areas for concern generally include intellectual property ownership; travel and expense policies; mutual non-disclosure agreements; and background checks for potential consultants.

Suggestion #5: Assume your work to date (e.g., business or functional requirements documentation and/or technical design documents) is not complete and/or up to best-practice standards.

No matter how hard your team has worked on the project documentation, you are generally hiring a consulting partner because you are inexperienced at something, you need to speed up the project, or you need more advice. As a result, assume whatever documentation you’ve already developed is not going to be adequate for the task at hand, and budget some time (i.e., money) for your consulting partner to work with the project team to validate and possibly enhance the documentation so everyone ends up with a better solution. This analysis and assessment usually takes, at a minimum, two weeks at the beginning of the project.

In addition, if your consulting partner suggests modifications to your current process or documentation—listen! Your consulting partner should have worked on similar projects many, many times before, and consultants offer battle-worn methodologies that are structured a certain way for a reason. Some of our more progressive clients have investigated our methodologies and have adopted them for all of their BI work.

Suggestion #6: Make sure that workspace and a software/hardware environment are set up at the beginning of the project.

This is one of the key issues for project kickoff—having somewhere for the consultants to work and making the right BI software available to them. Start this process concurrent with the consultant selection process (not two days before the consultants are scheduled to show up!).

Most consulting firms in this market are going to want to work on-site with your project team to ensure knowledge transfer and project success. Although consultants are famously resilient and comfortable working in suboptimal conditions, you are required by law to provide a workspace that meets federal standards. I call this the “clean, whole, neat, and appropriate” rule. If your employees are not comfortable working with four chairs crowded around one desk, inadequate natural lighting, little airflow, or no regular cleaning—chances are your consultants will be pretty miserable too. Uncomfortable people simply do not do their best work, and the physical environment you provide your consultants says a lot about the work output you expect from your project team.

If you are concerned that you will not be able to maintain a decent working environment for your consulting partner on-site, share this concern during the consulting selection process. Many firms can arrange to have some of the consultants working off-site from their offices. If you have one or more people working full-time on the project, consulting firms may also be willing to have your employee(s) work at their offices if they have more space and capability. Just make sure you take into account end-user feedback and testing and the hardware/software environment if you go down this road. Keep in mind, too, that this may add to overall project cost.

This software and hardware environment setup is particularly important in the BI market because the industry has undergone tremendous consolidation over the past 24 months. What appears to be a uniform software architecture during the sales process often is an amalgam of several acquired products, which can take several days to set up and install!

The best way to address this situation is to make sure the software vendor’s services team installs the product—no matter which consulting partner you choose for BI work. This forces the vendor to eat the cost if they have sold you a software configuration that is not easy to install or simply does not work in your environment the way they promised (as opposed to you paying a third-party consultant to liaise with the vendor to find this out). This creates a record by the software vendor’s employees in their own corporate lingo for the vendor’s maintenance staff, whom your employees will be calling periodically as you upgrade and change physical environments; and this allows your employees, who will be responsible for maintaining the application, to form a relationship with the software vendor’s support staff.

Suggestion #7: Ensure that your team and your consulting partner’s team both have a project management function.

Organizations need a project manager to liaise internally and to structure and manage the company’s project team. So does your consulting partner! Projects are much more successful when companies budget for their consulting partner to maintain a project manager as part of a project team. A consulting project manager assists in bringing your internal project management up to speed on best practices in managing a BI project and serves as a second line of defense if and when your team runs into tough issues or uncomfortable internal political situations.

Even better, the days of a solely process-oriented project management function are over. A consultant’s project manager on a BI project will generally roll up their sleeves and, for some percentage of the time, actually perform business analysis or programming or whatever needs to get done. This is a tremendous benefit to your team because you are getting more senior focus on tactical work, as well as experienced project guidance.

Suggestion #8: Put your consulting partner on your project steering committee.

You invited the consulting partner to be a part of your project because of the partner’s expertise. Let your partner come to the table as an equal participant in project direction. The consulting partner is there to make you and your team look like heroes—so it never hurts to have them speaking on your behalf in a public forum on the project.

If you are asking, “What project steering committee?” there is another item you need to think about. Several points in this article demonstrate that BI projects require a cross-functional team of IT and business resources. You need a structure to keep the project leadership in sync, and you also need to make sure there is a process to keep the senior sponsors and leadership involved in celebrating milestones and in helping your team make the final tough calls. This is where the steering committee comes in. Before the project kicks off, get buy-in that a steering committee of senior people, plus your organization’s and the consulting firm’s project leads, will meet on a regular basis during the initiative (usually every two weeks).

Suggestion #9: Hold your company and your consulting partner to deadlines, with a process for issue resolution.

This is the old rule, “When things are going well, communicate; when things are going poorly, over-communicate.” Companies need to hold their own people to deadlines just as rigorously as they hold their consulting partner, and they must work with the consulting partner to develop an issue-resolution process for the life of the project.

We consultants have become smarter about this in the past few years, as more and more companies are moving to a fixed price/deliverable model. Consultants cannot afford to have client “slippage” on the work plan, so many are structuring ways to hold clients responsible for missing project deadlines or deliverables. Creating a change-order process to protect your consulting partner in case of internal missed deadlines is one of the more generally accepted ways to address this issue.

Suggestion #10: Create a transition strategy as part of the project plan and budget.

Despite the stereotypes of consultants wanting to bill forever by just hanging out on-site, many consultancies face retention issues when they accept longer-term maintenance work in the BI arena. Work with your consulting partner to determine who at your organization is going to own the application when the consulting partner leaves, and figure out a knowledge-transfer and training strategy with your consulting partner at project inception as part of the project process.

As part of this suggestion, we urge you to make sure your employees are appropriately trained on the BI software you are going to use. Many companies try to cut corners by expecting their consulting partner to train their employees over the life of a project. This is akin to saying that children do not need to master the alphabet before trying to read.

No matter how good your consulting partner’s employees are at teaching, there are some basic skills that most software vendors recommend be taught through formal, classroom-based education before your employees can pick up tips and tricks from your consulting partner. Budget for training for your IT administrators and developers, as well as for your project leads and future application power users.

Most software vendors no longer certify third parties as official trainers on their product suites. The only area where your consulting partner should provide any sort of official training (unless they are certified trainers by the software vendor) is end-user training, which is generally custom training based on the business structure and process, as opposed to basic product know-how.

Putting It in Perspective

After reading through so many suggestions about improving your consulting partner’s situation, you may be asking, “So what’s in it for me?”

These suggestions really do have an impact on quantifiable measures such as expense reduction, time to project close, and BI solution end-user adoption and use. In addition, these suggestions also do wonders for some of the more “squishy” measures such as team satisfaction and retention and your own path to promotion and greater recognition at your organization!

Most companies already have some type of BI infrastructure in place. Many have already made several of the mistakes outlined in this article. You can think big, but start small through the application of whichever of these suggestions work best for your team and your organizational culture. As a well-known proverb reminds us, “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.”

This article originally appeared in the issue of Transforming Data with Intelligence.

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