The Role of the Internal Consultant
The Role of the Internal Consultant
For many organisations it is a perpetual dilemma whether to hire in expertise from outside in the form of an external consultant – or whether you already have the skills you need in house through the role of the internal consultant.
In this new era of drastic budget cuts for most organisations, it felt like a good time to take a closer look at the role of the internal consultant. In so doing, we have dusted of a significant piece of research we conducted here at Roffey Park Institute way back in 2003. A great number of the findings from almost two decades ago remain extremely pertinent to what the world is facing in 2021.
If you’d normally look outside your organisation but you don’t have the money to do so, here you’ll find some pointers on the pitfalls to avoid and the opportunities to seize on, when using an internal consultant.
The problem with internal consultants
There are plenty of challenging jobs in the average organisation, but the role of the internal consultant must rank as one of the trickiest.
Major issues stem from the consultancy role being too loosely defined, them having to play different roles to gain traction with their colleague clients, or struggling with their credibility and dealing with office politics. Perceived advantages of external over internal consultants may also make it harder for them to perform their job.
The original research
These issues and the continuing rise of internal consulting roles mean that one of Roffey Park Institute’s most consistently downloaded research reports is The Role of the Internal Consultant, by Barbara Kenton and Diane Moody.
Their existing insights into the role from their Roffey Park work on Organisational Change and our MSc in People and Organisational Development was augmented by targeted research, including interviews with 90 internal consultants and detailed case studies.
They wanted to know why organisations were increasingly creating internal consultancy roles, about the specific challenges and tensions and how internal consultants were developed. They also wanted to know if the internal consultancy cycle was the same as for external consultants and – crucially – how to offer consultancy services when you are part of the system in which you consult.
Kenton and Moody found the role did not usually include controlling budgets or other powers.
“The tools of their trade are knowledge, experience, expert skills and, especially, their ability to influence. In practice, the definition of ‘consultancy’ varies widely and is loosely applied. Consultants reported having to take a pragmatic approach and play different roles to gain entry with their internal clients. However, this has a downside: consultants reported lack of role clarity as one of the biggest challenges in their work.”
What factors make the role of an internal consultant more – or less – effective?
Some organisations were more likely to gain value from their internal consulting roles. Relevant factors were:
- Having a clearly understood strategic reason for the development of the role
- Visible senior-level support
- An understanding of the role by the consultants themselves
However, the research showed that a strong “internal customer” culture could make internal consultancy more difficult, as managers expected instant solutions to the problems they identified.
Kenton and Moody said:
“Particular challenges exist for the internal consultant over and above those facing consultants from outside. The skills and attributes they bring to the role are often overlooked when line managers look for support to achieve change so internal consultants can find themselves busy with mundane operational tasks whilst external consultants get the more challenging, strategic projects. This sidelining is a function of many factors, including the credibility of the consultants themselves; their ability to market their offerings; the micro political landscape and status; and value issues connected to consultancy use.”
An issue faced by internal consultants was that their previous role “casts a heavy influence over their perceived credibility and access to particular types of work. This was not helped by the way organisations ‘position’ the consultant role.
The research found that, in many cases, existing central service units had ‘rebranded’ themselves as consultancy groups without substantive changes to personnel, skill levels, or modes of working”.
Kenton and Moody found that over half of internal consultants classed themselves as junior or middle managers, and that they were being asked to perform “challenging and sophisticated roles, often to influence senior managers, without being perceived as having the credibility or authority to do so.
“Against a backdrop of increasing organisational politics, new internal consultants report feeling disempowered and unable to extend the range of their interventions.”
Another issue was that while an important part of the role of the internal consultant is to influence cultural change, being part of the organisation may help them to understand prevailing cultural norms – but may also mean they can be blind to them.
“High self- awareness appears to be a key requirement of an effective internal consultant.”
Kenton and Moody used a standard consultancy cycle to look at how internal consultants worked with clients, and found the contracting phase was vital for the success of interventions.
Unfortunately, many internal consultants overlooked the need for activity at this stage, instead making assumptions about client needs and how they would be met. While they found many good examples of strong formal contracting, problems occurred through miscommunication, emotional reactions, politicking and power play.
“This is not surprising: the nature of contracting for the internal consultant is complex, often involving multiple contracting relationships up and across hierarchies.”
The report adds: “It seems that those working internally are often faced with competing priorities and this, combined with a lack of perceived power and influence can mean challenges in defining the boundaries and priorities for work presented by clients. Internal consultants we spoke to identified the difficulties in ‘saying no’ to work even when it did not seem to be high priority. The culture of the organization will have a significant impact on the consultant’s ability to set priorities and manage the boundaries of their work as well as expectations of their role.”
Contracting for internal consultants tended to happen informally and with little attention to defining time and resources, while it could be difficult for them to go beyond presenting problems to get to the root cause.
The research also found little exploration of the role of the sponsor. “Contracting needs to include consultant expectations of the sponsor – again a difficult conversation potentially for those working internally. What would effective sponsorship look like? And how would this be demonstrated so that people throughout the organisation know the work has commitment and backing at the most senior levels?
At the contracting stage, emphasis was often placed on the “what” of consulting rather than the “how”. It was important to clarify the issues as presented by the client, but equally important to discuss early on how the consultant and client would work together.
The final challenge for internal consultants could be disengaging from projects: their strong relationships with clients could make it harder to refuse further involvement. Resource restrictions sometimes found clients – often overstretched managers – drawing the consultant in to deal with pressing operational needs, almost as an additional team member.
“Whilst this may be a legitimate role for the consultant to play, it has an impact on availability of time for other projects and on the consultant’s perceived role.” says the report.
What different internal consulting roles are there?
Kenton and Moody used three roles defined by Schein in 1969 to look at how internal consultants saw their work.
- Process consultant: true collaboration with the client, where the client owns both problem and answer and the consultant’s role is as helper
- Expert consultant: where the consultant’s currency is their expertise, and where the problem is defined and the solution offered by the consultant
- Pair-of hands consultant: where the client scopes the problem and the solution, and the consultant’s skills are used to solve it
They found that although the organisation and the consultants wanted process consultants, in practice they were more likely to operate as expert or pair-of-hands consultants.
The interviewees all said they continued to use external consultants, giving them the more interesting or challenging projects.
How can internal consultants overcome the challenges of the role?
What did the interviewees think were their biggest challenges as internal consultants? The four issues they mentioned most often were:
- Lack of understanding of the role within the business
- Lack of trust
- Lack of senior management support
- Lack of power to action projects/proposals
“We found many internal consultants very unclear about the boundaries of their role – particularly in the early stages of setting up a service. This has led to role ambiguity both on the part of the consultant and their internal clients,” says the report, adding: “As much time, effort and resource needs to be put into marketing an internal consultancy as would be needed to establish one providing for an external client base. It is a mistake to try and reconfigure an existing in company service provider into one offering consultancy without addressing the following fundamental business planning issues:
- What do we aim to achieve by being in business – year one, year three year five?
- What is our customer profile and how are our customers differentiated?
- What are the products we are delivering to our customer groups and what are the benefits?
- What brand image do we need to support our business aims?”
Kenton and Moody found evidence that the internal consultant’s self-image was a strong influence which could help overcome barriers and this could be developed through internal consulting skills training.
“A strong self-image, and sense of entitlement to a place at the strategic table can be supported through personal development for the consultant, through mentoring (to decode the political systems), and through team-based ‘shadow consulting’.
“Having a clearly identified skills/competence framework helps embedding consultant-specific development. Over 60% of those surveyed reported having specific consultant competences, with the most highly used competences focused on change facilitation and relationship building, together with business and technical competences. Interestingly, few frameworks incorporated competences related to contracting, handling conflict, and closure – areas reported as bringing most challenge to the consultant’s role.”
Brand image in the role of an internal consultant
The research suggests identifying any gap between the internal consultancy’s current brand image and the one it aspires to. An internal consultancy needs to plan activity to ensure it interacts with their brand objectives, including the business culture. “If this is based on status and hierarchy, do they mirror this or make a statement of their independence and freedom by operating in a way, which reflects their own values and beliefs about consultancy. If the brand objective is to be seen as independent and objective the brand statement and action might be ‘that we use the most appropriate person to do the job based on their expertise and experience.’”
What is the business case for moving into internal consultancy?
The interviewees mentioned:
- Strategic alignment to improve the alignment of people management practice with business goals and help managers understand their people in the context of the organisation’s change requirements
- Service to provide an accessible point of contact for clients and to improve overall service levels
- Financial to provide improved services at no extra cost and control burgeoning costs on externals
How can organisations make the most of internal consultant roles?
The research says external consultants tend to have new recruits shadow and be coached by a senior colleague, but internal consultants tend to work solo, with few opportunities for co-consulting and knowledge transfer.
It suggests organisations would benefit from creating these opportunities and could do more to learn from the external consultants they continue to use, through collaborative working and explicit capability development programmes for the internal consultants.”
The report suggests that the internal consultancy role can bring strong benefits.
“There is undoubted value in having ‘inside’ agents who understand what is going on, who have strong, established relationships, and who are skilled in their interventions.”
However, organisations which want to gain value from internal consultancy need to:
- Clarify aims: Understand the culture and values context for establishing the role
- Foster support for the change: Help to create client readiness for consultancy skills throughout the organisation by developing their skills and marketing the benefits
- Establish who does it: Be clear about the specific consultancy skills required for the role, and select individuals on the basis of this
- Build the competence: Provide consultants with ongoing development at both individual and team/group levels
- Act like externals: Build credibility by contracting effectively with clients
- Be prepared to act as “expert” as well as “collaborator” Help clients with anxieties they may have around taking on extra responsibilities
- Know your limits: In terms of capabilities and skills and what’s realistic against what the client is asking for
- Pay attention to the politics: Get to know the internal politics
Benefits for the organisation included the chance to maximise the knowledge and skills currently existing within the system and for individuals, stretching professional development.
What are internal consulting skills?
“Not everyone in the “old” team will be suitable for the new consultancy role. It is important to consider if the skills can be built internally or whether you will need to recruit people with an existing skills set. There may be people in other areas of the organisation who have key skills/expertise that could be trained in the consultancy role and would benefit from being developed in this way,” says the report.
The most prevalently reported competences used by organisations for their consultants included:
- relationship building
- maintaining a long-term perspective
- active listening
- self knowledge/self-awareness
- tolerance of ambiguity
- facilitating change
Other core skills for internal consultants identified in the report included:
- facilitating and understanding the nature of change
- relationship building
- active listening skills
- data gathering
- challenging the status quo
- conflict handling
The research concluded:
“In practice the most widely applied competencies are those relating to change management, communication and relationship building. Competencies relating to the skills involved in contracting and disengaging are less used.”
How relevant is this research into the role of the internal consultant in the current context?
We have to conclude this research still has a value and a resonance when we consider the current climate and the growing need to “make do with what we’ve got”. It will be important for organisations to use their in-house capability more effectively, and we feel there would be tremendous value in finding new ways to formalise even a temporary switch from “one of the tea” in one area of the business to “internal consultant” in another.
Given the value add of moving someone into a consultancy role, it will be beneficial to conduct a skill gap analysis and provide support, particularly in areas such as facilitation, presence, and contracting.