How To Hire The Right Consultant For
By Alexander Cohen and Elaine Cohen
So you are about to embark on
a new project. Although you would like to do the planning, setup, and execution
yourself, you can'tit is beyond your staff's normal workload, and you're
on a tight schedule. In this situation, a quality, specialized consultant can
make your project a reality. He or she can deliver specific work or a specific
product in a shorter time frame than is possible in-house. But with a strict
budget and so many consultants to choose from, how do you find the right one?
There are many types of consultants, and their expertise can focus on different
types of libraries, on IT, on Web sites, on space planning, on fundraising,
or on other disciplines. Library consultants are either librarians who have
developed their expertise by running or working in libraries, or they are people
from outside the field who have specific knowledge relevant to libraries and
information systems. (We are part of the second group.)
For more than 35 years our firm, Aaron Cohen Associates, Ltd., has been in
the library consulting business. Drawing on our experience, we've put together
a step-by-step plan for selecting the consultant that meets your library's
specific needs. As we see it, there are five basic things you need to do to
prepare to hire a consultant: clarify the scope of work and the type of consultant
needed, break the project into phases, outline the schedule and deliverables
for each phase, know how much time and money are available for the consultant's
services to be performed, and define your staff's involvement. Then you're
ready to take the necessary steps to finding the perfect one: 1) set up your
criteria; 2) make a list of available consultants; 3) submit your Request for
Proposal or Request for Qualifications; and 4) build consensus between staff,
management, and the consultant regarding the project's goals and implementation.
What a Consultant Can Do
The more experienced and knowledgeable consultants can act as technical expediters
and political activists. As technical expediters they can guide the administration
in the right direction while performing chores that staff does not know how
to accomplish or cannot perform because of insufficient time and energy. As
political activists, consultants can ask the embarrassing questions and take
the heat. A good consultant can be strategically used in the political process
to advance any number of controversial causes. For example, the staff may know
what to do, but cannot convince upper management, trustees, or funding sources
to follow its ideas, or that the projects warrant their support. Librarians
can use their consultants' expertise and credentials to build consensus. And
once management does give its consent, the projects nearly always go forward.
It is easy to hire a consultant, but not as easy to get the proper fit unless
you know exactly what that fit must be.
Knowing What You Want
It is important to begin by setting up your criteria. Knowing exactly what
youwant the consultant to accomplish is something you must establish before
you begin the hiring process.
What do you need done? Do you need oneand only onetask to be
performed or is the job more complicated? Do you need a professional, one who
is certified by the state and carries liability insurance? (Insurance is a
big problem for many individual practitioners, who often have to request that
it be waived.) Should the person or consulting firm be required to have many
years' experience on the job, especially when it comes to managing groups of
people, or is the task simple enough that just setting up shop will do?
What is your turnaround time? It is good to ask for a 3-month turnaround
for results, and a good consultant should have no problem meeting this deadline.
However, we have found that some projects need more time because upper management,
trustees, or university administration needs to run a series of meetings before
each sign-off can occur. Or perhaps the situation warrants far more than a
change of a few operations. For larger tasks, such as an intricate digitization
project, the deadline could be several years away.
In some cases, the project is much more complex than library staff initially
realized. Perhaps the Request for Proposal was for a step-by-step strategic
plan, but before the consultant can develop this plan, he or she sees that
a host of problems must first be addressed. Indeed, there have been times when
we were hired to perform one task, but upon arrival were directed to perform
another. In some cases, the encumbered funds were limited and the original
project was threatened with stalling. When this happens, whether because of
insufficient funds or lack of political will, a good consultant can break the
project down and offer a new initial phase that is easy to implement. As in
any organization, it is important to show success early in the process. The
idea is to "get the ball rolling." Unfortunately, the hard choices, the ones
that have to be postponed for several years, may eventually be performed in
Choosing the Right Consultant for the Job
Where do you start looking? Most people use word-of-mouth. They ask their
peers about their consultants. (Was the specific work accomplished properly
and on time? Was it well-received?) Another source is the lists maintained
by various state agencies; libraries; and national, state, and local library
associations. You can find experts' lists on specific subject matters on the
Web. Some of them are maintained by publishers and by universities. (See the
sidebar: To Start Your Search for the Right Consultant.)
Contact your prospects and explain what you're looking for. Then, to narrow
down your choices, there are the four major questions to ask:
Do you understand the project?
Do you have the subject matter expertise and qualifications
relevant to the project?
What is your methodology/work plan to accomplish these tasks?
Do you (and your staff) have sufficient time to meet our deadline?
Depending upon the institution and your "sign-off" ability, you may be able
to hire a favored consultant directly. More often than not, the regulations
of your funding body will require a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) or Request
for Proposal (RFP) to be sent to several consultants. You should have a budget
in mind, and the RFP should reflect that budget. All too often clients with
very small budgets have large project requirements and are disappointed by
the bids they receive. It is also typical for libraries to undertake technical
projects where staff has little understanding of the scope of work, and for
the resulting bids to request payment for additional changes. These changes
are often undocumented during the bidding stage and affect the bottom linethe
schedule, resources, and cost.
In the case of an RFQ, the fee may be set in advance. The idea is to create
a short list of consultants that best fit the agenda, interview themeither
in person or by telephoneand then check their references. In the case
of the RFP, the lowest bidder wins, provided the lowest bidder indicates in
the proposal that there is sufficient expertise to perform the required tasks,
and the references check out. Sometimes you can send an RFQ to qualified individuals
or companies in advance of an RFP to weed the list of competitors. At this
point you can create a short list of candidates and interview them to ascertain
if they really understand the project agenda. Whether you need to set up an
in-person interview may depend upon how large the job is and how much money
is at stake.
Several library associations and state libraries maintain sample RFQs and
RFPs so that you can get a good idea about how to write one. If you are in
an academic, public, government, or corporate library, your institution or
funding agency's purchasing department may use a standard form to which you
append a narrative explaining the work you want the consultant to do. At times,
you may have to change the form because the task has requirements that are
somewhat different from standard work. We sometimes receive standard forms
that are really meant for contractors and not library consultants, because
the purchasing agent has never worked with a consultant. (For example, building
contractors often are required to be bonded, for liability purposes. A library
consultant almost never is.)
Working Together to Get the Best Results
For small and preplanning projects such as writing needs assessments, requirements
specifications, and long- and short-term building programs, most consultants
believe that the number of meetings should be limited. However, we have found
that it is important to set up a process to meet physically as well as to connect
with one another over the Internet. Our clients normally have access to extranet
information to help the process move along and to share information such as
documents and calendars.
Building consensus for a plan is an important aspect of making a library
project successful, and one we had to learn the hard way. Twenty-five years
ago we installed one of the first "e-Commons" in an academic library. Although
the director gave us the go-ahead, the staff was not involved in the process.
Libraries were for books, not computers, they said. Within a few months, the
director received a vote of no confidence and was forced to leave, and the
e-Commons was removed. We feelthis might have been avoided with more staff
buy-in and involvement.
Adding operations or deleting long-standing ones needs input and involvement,
so that each staff member has a say in the future of his or her organization.
A small cadre of administrative executives can make the ultimate decisions,
but the rest of the staff needs to feel that it was involved in both the process
and the solution. The impact is at once managerial and financial. This is why
for certain projects it's important to choose a consultant with strong interpersonal
Working with many different people and groups requires hours dedicated to
moving the project forward, and that's where a good consultant really pays
off. He or she may have to hold many hands, but to paraphrase a very effective
congressman named Lyndon Johnson: If you want to win, you must do everything.
When you embark on a project that's bound to change the culture at your library,
you need someone who can help everyone who's involved to understand the change.
You also need someone who can provide decisive but understanding counsel during
the process. If you are lucky, you are that person. But sometimes that person
is a consultant who works along with you. And sometimes it is the consultant's
job to take full responsibility for the project. Using these steps will help
ensure that the consultant you choose is the right one to get your project
[Editor's Note: See page 62 in this issue for a listing of library
Cohen, a library IT consultant, is Aaron Cohen Associates' senior project
manager. He has extensive technical training from the PMI (Project Management
Institute), Novell (networking), Microsoft (software development training), and
Sun (object-oriented programming and development). Alexander balances his information
management experience in technical automation projects with his long apprenticeship
in the library services field. Elaine Cohen is senior author
and management consultant for Aaron Cohen Associates, with more
than 35 years' experience working in the library field. She has written books,
chapters, and articles on library space planning and design. The Aaron Cohen & Associates,
Ltd. Web site is http://www.acohen.com.