HR Manager's Bookshelf
Books for advice on using consultants, or, better yet, becoming one

By Ray Brillinger
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/02/2001

No doubt the vast majority of readers of Canadian HR Reporter take a direct interest in questions about consulting, such as what is effective consulting, when and how can consultants be productively used, and how to become a successful internal or external consultant?

In my own career to date, I have worked as an internal consultant, and a manager of others in that role. I have selected consulting firms and managed the relationship with external consultants engaged to carry out projects at the companies where I worked. During recent years, I have been an external consultant both in independent practice and now at a large consulting firm.

While many books on consulting appear on the bookstore shelves, some recent titles stand out. They offer insight, guidance and tools for becoming a skilled consultant and for increasing the value you can deliver to your clients. Or, if you are a client, they are resources for effectively employing consultants and maximizing the results you obtain, while avoiding many of the errors and problems that can undermine the consulting engagement experience.

In this issue we take a look at the following three books.

•The new edition of Peter Block’s longstanding best-seller Flawless Consulting, which has provided fundamental guidance to countless practitioners in both internal and external consulting roles.

•The Consultative Approach, which offers a thoughtful approach to help you “partner with others to produce optimum results and simultaneously build trust and commitment.”

•A U.S. resource, The Consultant’s Legal Guide, which offers a thorough look at the legal and ethical issues affecting consultants.

Upcoming in the July 17, 2000 issue, there will be reviews of additional books of direct interest to consultants and clients, including those listed below.

•The Consultant’s Scorecard, by Jack Phillips, with a focus on “tracking results and bottom-line impact of consulting projects.”

•A book which addresses a current challenge, The Knowing - Doing Gap, all about organizations that “know too much and do too little” and some that are getting out of this trap.

•The 2000 Annual - vol. 1, Training and vol. 2, Consulting, with numerous tools, presentations and other resources for practitioners.

Flawless Consulting, 2nd ed.

By Peter Block, 371 pages (2000), Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer. At bookstores or (800) 567-4797, www.wiley.com

This title will be recognized by many: It’s an update of the landmark 1981 book aimed at anyone who does “consulting,” broadly defined, and this certainly includes many in the HR field.

Author Peter Block surveys basic concepts and practices including:

•roles of the consultant — expert, pair-of-hands, collaborative as defined by Edgar Schein — and the essential character and problems of each role;

•a 12-step consulting process with the appropriate client involvement at each step;

•understanding and dealing with resistance encountered along the way; and

•appreciating the important differences between the internal and external consultant role, relationships and dynamics.

Readers will find general guidance on four consulting phases, including:

•how to approach contracting, conduct the contracting meeting and dealing with the “agonies;”

•discovery and data collection, including a new chapter on whole-system discovery;

•feedback and the decision to act; and

•engagement and implementation, making the key distinction between “installation” and “engagement” models.

There are new chapters on implementation (barely touched on in the first edition, but recognized as supremely important now) and on strategies for engagement.

Block observes that since the original edition came out, “...change management and organization improvement consulting have become big business. ...The dark side of this commercialization of change is that client disappointments growing out of exaggerated consultant promises now take place on a much wider scale. The price we all pay for this is that each consultation that ends in disappointment breeds a cynicism that makes the next effort at change more difficult.”

This new edition includes new sections on ethics and the “Heart of the matter,” which will help readers recognize and avoid some of the negative impacts of consulting’s rapid growth in areas like re-engineering, leadership developmeant and performance management, for example, arrangements where consultants guarantee results in return for a fee, through in-sourcing or surrogate management.

The book offers many examples and checklists, and there are several more of the latter in the appendix on topics like “Before you negotiate your next contract,” “When you encounter resistance,” and “Before you go into the implementation phase of your next project.”

In the introduction, the author writes: “In some ways, this book is a long and detailed description of the landscape of authenticity. What has stood the test of time is that this rare act is not only food for the soul, but also works very well. An authentic consultant is not an oxymoron, but a compelling competitive advantage, if unfortunately a rare one.”

Also: “Valuing the relationship between consultant and client and defining how to manage that relationship is where this book has found its niche. The intent of this revision is to deepen and expand the white space between strategy, structure and technology, which we label relationship.”

The Consultative Approach

By Virginia LaGrossa and Suzanne Saxe, 190 pages (1998), Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer. At bookstores or (800) 567-4797, www.wiley.com

External and internal consultants alike can relate to the theme of this book: “Partnering for results.” The contents of this handbook range from conceptual descriptions to specific examples and practical how-to tips and frameworks.

The book provides a comprehensive definition of eight consultant roles and pointers for assessing and improving performance against them:

•facilitator;

•problem solver;

•coach;

•technical expert;

•administrator;

•influencer;

•strategist; and

•partner.

Readers will also find guidance for grasping what’s needed in a particular client project situation: roles, consultative balance, expertise, process and organizational culture. There’s advice on how to maximize learning from interactions with clients, and there’s a framework for assessing “partnering comfort factors.”

A section on listening and drawing out the client illustrates the thoughtful and pragmatic character of the book. Principles include:

•ask what, not why;

•talk outcomes, not problems;

•focus on the situation by asking what has been tried and what did or did not work;

•ask the client to be specific; and

•focus on the client by asking value-based questions.

There’s a chapter on each of four phases in an overall consulting process, including, creating the work agreement, defining key issues and solution ideas, implementing solutions and followup, and gaining commitment for recommendations.

The final part of the book gives a concise outline of all the steps with tips and reminders for every aspect. The style is reader-friendly, and the book could be valuable for consultant education on the role and process as a whole, and as a quick reference in the middle of projects.

The Consultant’s Legal Guide

By Elaine Biech and Linda Byars Swindling, 290 pages (2000), Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer. At bookstores or (800) 567-4797, www.wiley.com

Biech, is a consultant who authored a companion volume, The Business of Consulting, and Swindling is a lawyer who advises businesses on avoiding lawsuits. Their book provides an overview of legal issues, prevention and remedial actions in the United State’s environment.

Lots of practical areas are covered in the text, along with tools and templates which are also included on the computer disk that accompanies the book. For example:

•business description worksheet for a consulting start-up or strategy development;

•financial plan worksheet and marketing plan worksheet;

•questions to investigate regarding lease negotiations;

•questions for service providers;

•sample proposals and contracts; and

•steps for U.S. copyright, trademark and patent registration.

Canadian consultants will find many areas raise their awareness of risks, and where they should then seek advice from legal experts in Canada, and, specifically, in the provinces in which they do business.

Ray Brillinger is a senior consultant with the IBM Consulting Group. He provides change management, business transformation and organizational effectiveness services to client organizations. He can be reached at (905) 316-4646 or raybrill@ca.ibm.com.

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