Internal and external OD & D consulting

A friend has just asked me what she can expect moving from being an internal to being an external consultant in the field of organisation development and design (OD & D) and how she should prepare herself for the move.

It’s too easy to look at two-column tables that highlight the differences.  I have one from Gary McLean’s book Organization Development: Principles, Processes, Performance . This tells me, for example that internal consultants ‘know the organisational culture better than an external can ever know it’ while external consultants ‘do not have pre-knowledge of the organisational culture, so do not enter the process with any preconceived notions.’   And, ‘[Internal consultants] have relationships established that can get cooperation more quickly’, while external consultants are ‘Often given more respect by insiders because they are not known except by reputation’.  You can see another table adapted from Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development here.

At first glance these differentiations look ok but take a more critical look and you’ll see several assumptions around the statements. For example, can we safely assume that external consultants do not come to an organisation with preconceived notions?

Additionally, the lists appear binary – know the culture/don’t know the culture.  In terms of giving support to someone making the transition from internal to external consulting, the statements are not that useful. They are superficial observations not actionable insights that would help my friend get to grips with a different take on what is often perceived to be a similar role.  Consultancy.UK, for example, states, ‘An internal consultant is, at first glance, just like an external consultant: a professional that is hired to solve an organisational problem and implement the solutions in order to improve the performance of an organisation.’

More importantly these types of comparisons don’t address how:

  1. Theories and approaches to OD & D are evolving
  2. Changes are being made to way the OD & D is being ‘done’ in organisations (assuming it is ‘do-able’ see last week’s blog)
  3. The evolution of theories of OD & D and the way it is done has a consequential impact on the role of internal and external OD & D consultants and the relationships and interdependencies they are part of

O & D is about changing aspects or the whole organisation.  As Sturdy and Wylie find ‘change has become normalised or business as usual in many contexts’ and, to paraphrase, that rationalist theories that suggest that ‘change’ is a ‘thing’ amenable to linear, planned and structured approaches, is shifting towards theories that change is complex, ‘fragmented and incoherent’.

This evolution is leading to thinking that OD & D is less of specialist/expert capability and more of a generic leadership/management capability,  or even a whole organisation one which is ‘dispersed and decentred’ in a number of ways including through various individuals, formal teams and informal groups.

If OD & D consultants are to migrate from structured approaches e.g. Appreciative Inquiry’s four step model of discovery, dream, design, destiny/deliver, and if OD & D is becoming accepted as both a management capability and an organisational capability then what does that mean for the expert OD & D consultant?

It means thinking about a different ‘offer’.  This is a challenge to management consultancy in general, as managers become less commanders, and more consultants themselves.  McKinsey, for example, is one consulting company changing its offer.  It ‘is targeting medium-sized companies, which would not have been able to afford its fees, by offering shorter projects with smaller “startup-sized” teams. As it chases growth, the firm is also doing things it used to eschew as being insufficiently glamorous. In 2010 it moved into business restructuring and it has also set up a global strategy “implementation” practice. That is a far cry from the days when its consultants stuck mainly to blue-sky thoughts in their ivory towers.’

This shifting landscape me wondering what I can tell my friend to expect as she moves from internal to external OD & D consulting.   Some thoughts:

  • On the whole context shift that I outlined above she can expect to have to keep a close watch on organisations she is interested in a see how their approach to hiring and using external consultants is changing, although for this she’d have to have access to insider knowledge.
  • She can expect to have to keep her own skills honed as the theories and practices of OD & D change.  I wrote on this topic in 2014 and re-reading the piece I can see an update is necessary as skills required have moved on since then.
  • As OD & D becomes a capability reliant less on individual expertise and more on collective capability she can expect to act more as a coach, mentor and support to managers (assuming her knowledge is current or even in the vanguard of thinking).
  • In terms of her own job satisfaction she can expect to feel a range of emotions that are different from those she might have felt as an internal consultant.  There’s the financial insecurity, the worry about business development, and the isolation if you go-it-alone.  These types of downsides are balanced against the autonomy to accept or reject work, the ability to develop skills and experience by working with a variety of organisations, and the opportunity to meet and build relationships with more people than you typically meet as an internal consultant.

What do you think she can expect as she moves from an internal to an external OD & D consulting role?  Let me know.

Image:  Henry Moore, Upright Internal External Form

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