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A consultant can work with the client in three different forms of relationship: in an expert role, a pair-of-hands role, or a collaborative role. The choice depends the individual differences in management style, the nature of the task, the consultant’s preference, and the client’s preference.
In this scenario, the client elects to play an inactive role, holding the consultant responsible for results. The consultant makes the decisions on how to proceed based on his or her expert judgment. The consultant gathers information needed to analyze the problem. Technical control rests with the consultant. Collaboration is not required, and frankly does not happen. Two-way communication is limited. The consultant plans and implements the main events. The manager's role is to judge and evaluate after the fact. The consultant’s goal is to solve the immediate problem.
There are two major problems with this approach.
First is the assumption that the problem is purely technical in nature. This assumption is invalid. Business is a human endeavor, so all business problems contain human elements. If a prevailing organizational climate of fear, insecurity, or mistrust exists, people can and will withhold or distort essential information. Without valid data, an accurate assessment becomes impossible. Second is the assumption of the commitment by people to take the recommended actions. Studies performed by outside experts never carry the kind of personal ownership and commitment required to deal with difficult management issues.
In this scenario, the consultant takes a passive role. Management makes the decisions on how to proceed. The manager selects or controls the methods of data collection and analysis. Control rests with the manager. Collaboration is not necessary because the manager feels that it is his or her responsibility to specify the goals and procedures. Two-way communication is limited. The manager specifies change procedures for the consultant to implement. The manager's role is to judge and evaluate from a close distance. The consultant's goal is to make the system more effective by the application of specialized knowledge.
The major problem in this approach appears in the discovery phase. The consultant is dependent on the manager's ability to understand what is happening and develop an effective action plan. If the manager's assessment is faulty, the action plan fails, and the consultant who provided the service becomes the scapegoat.
In a collaborative role, consultants don't solve problems for the client. They apply their special skills to help managers solve problems. This is a significant distinction. In the collaborative role the client must be actively involved in the data gathering and analysis, in setting goals and developing action plans, finally sharing in the responsibility for the success or failure.
In a collaborative relationship, the consultant and manager work to become interdependent. They share responsibility for action planning, implementation and results. Decision-making is bilateral. Data collection and analysis are joint efforts. Control issues become matters for discussion and negotiation. Collaboration is essential. There is constant two-way communication. Discussion and agreement determines implementation responsibilities. The consultant's goal is to help the client solve problems so the manager can be assured they remain solved.
Problems can occur in the collaborative relationship. Managers who prefer to work with consultants in an expert role may interpret attempts at collaboration as indifference or foot dragging. Managers with a preference to work with consultants in a pair-of-hands role may interpret collaboration as insubordination.