The case for internal HR consulting

For organizations to achieve true organizational effectiveness, training and development can no longer exist in isolation. Instead, HR practitioners must meld T&D into larger issues of performance and organizational structure — enter the internal HR consultant.

Those with experience in human resources will probably agree that times have changed.

Fifteen years ago, “personnel” employees were seen as the paper-pushers, responsible for administering payroll and benefits, and doing “nice” things to boost employee morale. “Personnel” wrote the policies — and enforced them.

Over the next 10 years, as the field of “human resources” developed, we still had to handle these roles while at the same time developing programs to help organizations run more smoothly and to ensure that employees had the right tools and skills to get their work done.

In today’s organizations, human resource employees do all of this and much more.

Today, we are brought to the table to help make key business decisions. We’re asked to provide value-added services to help organizations meet objectives and goals. We’re treated like internal consultants — a role that can be difficult to manage.

What is an internal consultant?
Traditionally, training existed as a single function in the human resources department that was separate and apart from everything else. Training and development was often done on the basis of supply and demand. An employee couldn’t get to work on time so his manager sent him to “Time Management” training.

An administrative assistant was having trouble preparing memos properly, so her manager signed her up for a course in “Business Writing.”

Managers expected the training to improve the performance of their employees. If the employee didn’t improve, then the training was unsuccessful. The manager usually blamed the course or the facilitator, but didn’t look at other possibilities for the failure.

Rarely did a manager speak to the employee to find out if the right training had been offered or even if a training issue had existed. Instead, the employee was sent on another course, and perhaps another, to fix the problem.

Sometimes training “in a silo” was successful because it met the employee’s needs. Often, however, employees were frustrated because the training didn’t help them improve their performance, not because the course wasn’t any good nor because the facilitator hadn’t done his job, but because the performance problem was not a training issue.

As training professionals began to understand this link, the role of an internal consultant was born.

Internal consultants are dedicated to improving the business by developing both employee and organizational performance.

They are the “business partners” who work for managers and employees to create a skilled and productive workforce and a motivating environment.

As internal consultants, human resource professionals need to provide services that add value, while at the same time, meeting the time, accuracy and quality demands of their customers.

For internal consulting to be successful, human resource professionals need to approach situations differently. Consultants need to be more proactive and systematic when approaching performance issues, training needs or employee relation concerns.

They need to work with clients to identify needs, influence outcomes and deliver whatever program or solution makes sense.

The role of an internal consultant can often be difficult to manage as one tries to overcome built-in biases and perceptions that managers and employees may have, as well as dealing with managers who prefer to work with “external experts.”

What’s more, internal consultants are sometimes forced to take risks and manage multiple clients while maintaining a level of professionalism and confidentiality that can be stressful.

The advantages of internal consulting
Yet, as employees themselves, internal consultants have a number of advantages over “external experts.” They understand the business already, and are often familiar with the issues and concerns that employees and managers have. They have access to the organization’s key stakeholders and have developed a level of credibility that is crucial to the success of any consulting contract.

They understand the cultural environment and are committed to helping the organization succeed. In addition, internal consultants are well aware of the budget and staffing restrictions that business units face, as well as the internal “politics” that need to be overcome. Internal consultants can use their organizational knowledge and human resource (people) skills to develop unique solutions that are targeted to meet the various problems that individual business units face on a daily basis. By developing targeted solutions, internal consultants can successfully develop partnerships with managers and employees to improve performance, retention, morale and results.

The business case
Encouraging human resource professionals to become internal consultants will help an organization meet business needs in a variety of ways. Internal consultants earn credibility and respect, and get results, by:

•establishing working relationships with key stakeholders in specific business units or departments;

•identifying areas in the business (such as employee performance or skill gaps, team or structure issues, organizational development needs, and so on) that impact on the success of the business or department;

•negotiating a contract of expected outcomes and measures, based on identified business needs;

•developing an action plan, based on the contract and the needs, designed to correct the problem or fill the gap;

•helping managers and employees implement the action plan; and

•measuring results against expectations.

Internal consulting gives human resource professionals the opportunity to help managers and employees resolve an issue or develop a plan, through a series of steps.

The consulting process can be as formal or informal as necessary for individual clients; however, all consulting contracts should be based on a consistent, systematic approach to working with managers and employees.

Although much has been written about consulting (see list of suggested reading at the end of this article), it is generally agreed that there are six steps to consulting:

1. Contracting — an agreement is made between a client and an internal consultant to identify expectations, working arrangements and roles.

2. Assessment — data-gathering stage that allows the client to understand their true needs and allows the internal consultant to get a clear picture of the issues at hand.

3. Planning — this stage is critical to developing an action plan, determining timelines and gaining sponsorship and buy-in from the managers and employees who will be involved in the process.

4. Implementation — during this stage the action plan is finalized, communicated and put into place.

5. Evaluation — evaluation can happen throughout the consulting process, however, it’s crucial at the end of the process to gauge reactions, understand learning, identify changes in behaviour and measure results.

6. Closure — this phase of the consulting process is often left out; however, it’s a crucial phase that allows the consultant and the client an opportunity for reflection, feedback and learning. It also gives a chance to address next steps, if necessary and report back to key stakeholders.

Although contracting can be very informal, it’s still important for internal consultants to follow a set of steps to help maintain focus throughout the process, to encourage a proactive results-based approach and to allow internal consultants to manage the work that is done with clients.

Jayne Jackson is the manager, training and development/human resources with the publishing firm Carswell. She may be contacted
at [email protected].

Reading list
Want to learn more? Try reading some of these books:

•Flawless Consulting: A guide to getting your expertise used —Peter Block

•The Flawless Consulting Fieldbook and Companion: A guide to understanding your expertise — Peter Block, Andrea Markowitz

•Intervention Skills: Process Consultation for Small Groups and Teams — W. Brendan Reddy

•The Consultative Approach: Partnerning for results — Virginia LaGrossa, Suzanne Saxe

•The Consulting Process in Action (2nd edition) — Gordon Lippitt, Ronald Lippitt

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