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This column addresses emerging trends and issues in the development and implementation of human resource strategies. Please respond with your views and experiences to or

Are We Effective Consultants?

Executives and managers are increasingly looking to HR leaders to help develop creative solutions to people-related business issues that affect the organization's performance. Many problems we are asked to consult on are operational in nature, requiring the use of functional knowledge and experience to develop immediate solutions. Other issues emerge that are more complex, concerning organizational effectiveness, innovation, and strategic change.

What Is Consulting and What Is Not?

By conventional wisdom, consulting is helping others solve problems, rather than simply doing it for them. Consulting is a process of defining issues or problems, fact gathering and analysis, developing conclusions and recommendations, and implementation. While our specific HR expertise is important in our capacity as internal consultants, our greatest value is added through our effective questioning and listening, data analysis, persuasion, and commitment to action. HR consulting is a combination of process facilitation and technical expertise.

We consult with clients, generally managers who are willing to work collaboratively in this process. Yet clients often have different expectations.

Providing support to users--for example, performing administrative and transactional activities according to policies, procedures, and processes--is important, but it is not consulting. Support is considered effective when it meets standards of accuracy, consistency, speed, and cost. But the standards are typically set (to achieve optimum efficiency) by the provider, not by the user. Also, users are increasingly being asked to meet their own needs, through technology and direct access to vendors.

Providing service to customers is also important, but it is not consulting. Here, we seek to understand customer requirements and then meet or exceed them. We provide service quality as a link in the "value chain" of the business. Service is effective when customers are satisfied, in terms of value, timeliness, responsiveness, professionalism, and quality. Effective interaction with the customer is therefore very important.

It should be no big surprise after years of interacting with managers as customers that they expect service--not consulting. To provide consulting requires that we not only change the way we do our work with managers, we must also shape expectations of our managers as clients--and develop more collaborative problem-solving relationships.

When we consult with clients, we take a "we attitude." Clients sometimes expect us to bring ready solutions to problems, and then may challenge our data, our conclusions, and our recommendations. As users or customers they are accustomed to our providing "completed staff work"--support and service. And their perception of consulting is influenced by their relationships with external consultants, who often take an independent posture (although the trend for many is to work collaboratively with clients and client project teams).

Even with the restructuring and repositioning of many HR organizations, the demands for support and service often continue, and even grow. Even with shared services, vendors, and new technology, the work never seems to go away--instead, it expands. "The better job we do, the more they want us to do." Managers are delighted to rely on HR staff to solve their people-related problems and perform as many of the routine tasks as they are able. They are used to having us available to talk with employees, assist in terminations, handle the recruiting and selection, and other work. As one HR leader indicated, "If I had twice the time, I couldn't get everything done because there would be even more expected of me. …