Legitimizers and mine detectors: external and internal consultants

I've been both an internal consultant and an external consultant at various times in my career. My preference is for internal consulting and I'm often asked why: people seem to find it curious as 'internal management consultancy has traditionally been seen as the poor cousin of its external counterpart', (and still is in many quarters).

I like it because I get to know the organisation as an employee: I experience it in a way that an external consultant can only approximate – its style, culture, leadership – and yet I also have to keep a certain distance from it. It's a tension that means I both consult and have to live with the consequences of the work that I do and learn from it in a way that external consultants don't. I like that insider/outsider role challenging though it is.

Reading lists of pros and cons of internal v external consulting you get a feel for the differences. They're well explained, for example, by Consultancy UK and 9 lenses. What's interesting is that in this kind of comparison they are presented as a kind of either/or. There seems to be a tacit implication that you use internal consultants for different types of assignments than the ones you use external consultants for.

I think this binary response means organisations don't get the best of both consulting worlds. What works better is to think of the internal/external attributes as complementary and to pair internal consultants with external ones. Liken the interaction to that of putting on a play – you have people 'on-stage' on this instance the external consultants, and you have people off-stage (the internal consultants) – the play cannot be put on without both parties working effectively together.

When I've been an external consultant I've found life much easier when I work closely with the internal consultants as they pave the way, can give rapid reads of the context, and tell me the territory. When I've been an internal consultant I've been able to throw off the difficulties of being a prophet in my own land because the external consultants' credibility acts to legitimise my (same) recommendations.

In either direction where internal and external consultants work as a single team I've found that:

  • It encourages and develops organizationally consistent approaches to consulting language, terms, tools and methodologies. Having this avoids the multiple competing approaches that typically each external consultancy brings. These confuse employees and also run the risk of the assignment being seen as an initiative or fad that will disappear once the consulting contract has ended and the consultants have left.
  • The exchange of knowledge is more fruitful in both directions. My experience is that even with a 'transfer/share knowledge' clause in external consulting contracts without the internal/external pairing this often amounts to little more than a handing over of documents that the client has paid for and a one or two day workshop. With a true internal/external pairing there is day to day co-creation to design and deliver a piece of work which leads to a richness of knowledge share that brings additional benefit to the assignment and the various organisations involved.
  • Organisational power dynamics are easier to manage – the credibility that external consultants bring to bear on organisational issues and opportunities is useful, while internal consultants can facilitate, mediate and work to appropriately integrate the external consultants work into the fabric of the organisation rather than it just being a temporary add-on that can be blown up. I recently heard this relationship described as the 'legitimising role' and the 'mine detector role'.
  • The relationship can act as both a useful brake and a sensible spur. Often external consultants are looking for the next billable piece of work and work to a problem-finding strategy that involves major work rather than continuous improvement tweaks – here internal people can put the brake on. Conversely external consultants can bring innovation and expertise that will energise and re-invigorate internal consultants' work.

What's your view on internal and external consultants' collaboration? Let me know.