What is information consulting?
This chapter defines the possible roles of information consultants, which is based on value-adding activity. They might be self-employed individuals or groups of individuals. The chapter mentions their possible names, their specifications from the aspects of market niches and the type of information they provide. The consulting involves a complex mix of professional, personal, interpersonal, financial and lifestyle elements. For all to go smoothly, many pieces must fall into place. A table describes the possible scope of different roles, from substitute employee to leadership positions, where the client is looking for concrete project leadership from the information consultant.
Information consulting encompasses a wide range of roles and activities based on the exploration of information resources and the use of modern information technology for the benefit of societal and business purposes. To be responsive to the ever-changing demands of the fast-moving part of society, within the provision of information, there is today a great need to offer various forms of information services and to have diversified aims and concepts of ‘service’ in meeting the demand of the various groups of users.
The role of the information consultant is to identify the information need of the client and to find relevant information for the solution of a task or problem. The impact and the value of information to the user is often dependent on the attributes of relevance, timeliness, accuracy, origin, form, etc. Enhancement in any of these attributes of information will increase the value of information. Thus, information consultants are often hired and get paid for adding value to the available information products and services.
They are self-employed individuals, or groups of individuals, who set up a business to provide one or a combination of information services. Their main personal characteristics are alertness, flexibility, friendly service ethics and enterprising spirit. Their professional strengths are extensive knowledge of information sources, information-seeking skills, terrific research skills, strategic thinking and planning.
Activities, characteristics and desirable qualifications for information consultants are discussed in the international literature, but any formalisation in these activities and attributes must be considered with caution.
By ‘information consultant’ we refer to a consultant offering knowledge- and information-related services, such as research, competitive intelligence, current awareness, web development and similar strategic activities to clients. It refers to consulting environments: the independent consultant operating a small business, offering services focused on information, and/or an information consultant working within a large corporate entity as an employee. Thus the book reflects the two cultures in consulting.
Definitions of who or what information consultants actually are remain varied, as does the terminology to describe them, e.g. information broker, freelance librarian, service, etc. Once one has waded through the various definitions and found that no single term is totally accurate and satisfactory to indicate the type of work carried out, in most cases it is up to the individual to decide which is the most appropriate. Below is a list of terms people in the field use to describe themselves:
More often than not they offer specific services based on serving client requests, relating to a specific subject or marketplace; for instance, they may specialise in a particular type of information, such as business information, health service information, environmental information, scientific information and so on. Usually they are one- or two-man bands, employing outside assistance on a subcontract basis as and when it is required. They will use various sources, personal contacts and tools found in public, academic, special and research libraries and depositories. A variety of formats will be utilised, such as hard-copy or electronic format mixed media.
With regard to the type of information supplied by information companies, it is assumed that the company information represents the largest volume. It is closely followed by market information, financial information and statistics. Other research firms specialise in legal research and patent-searching.
In the commercial world, objectives are generally based on financial criteria; therefore, the success for individual information consultants or companies is likely to revolve around financial issues. But this should not minimise the importance of the two other basic factors of ‘success’ which lie in the credibility within the sector they serve: peer evaluation and standing in the community. Our study clearly demonstrated that the most effective marketing tool in information consultancy is word of mouth. Thus, the recognition of colleagues in related fields and of those who are placed to make recommendations is directly valuable to all service providers.
It should be pointed out that the technical aspects and searching in information consultancy are not the scope of this book. This book concentrates on the client–consultant relationship as regards to:
An information professional: to be or not to be1
The lifestyle of an independent consultant has many attractive features and also many challenges. For some, it is the ideal combination of flexibility, variety and opportunities to leverage expertise and control over work schedules. For others, it is a never-ending concern about where the next cheque is coming from. Some ‘fall into’ consulting and never look back; others give it a try and gladly accept a steady job later on.
When the client–consultant ‘fit’ is right, it’s a win-win: the client benefits from the consultant’s expertise and experience; the consultant reaps the reward of being paid well for doing what they enjoy doing. However, consulting doesn’t necessarily suit everyone. Consulting involves a complex mix of professional, personal, interpersonal, financial and lifestyle elements. For all to go smoothly, many pieces must fall into place.
At the outset, we stress that consulting is not the same as freelancing. In the latter situation – although details differ with each delivery – typically, the researcher offers a well-defined range of services or products. In information consulting, usually the consultant assesses the client’s situation without any preconceived solution in mind and then goes about developing a set of recommendations. The working process between the client and consultant is a dynamic process where the consultant may or may not be asked to implement all the recommendations. In other words, it is not necessarily clear at the outset what the consultant ends up selling and delivering to the client.
If consultants did not exist, we would have to invent them. As individuals, we turn without giving it a second thought to a wide range of professionals in the course of the ‘business’ of our lives. So too businesses and government organisations routinely avail themselves of consultants to help address any number of situations. It just makes sense:
Consultants are a bargain. It would be impossible to keep on the staff the range of skills needed to address evolving business challenges. The benefits of just-in-time procurement of expertise are well understood when payroll is a major operational expense.
Consultants are outsiders. They come with a fresh perspective, unencumbered by the organisation’s culture, internal politics and unchallenged assumptions. Often, they can see what no one else in the organisation can see because they aren’t subconsciously blinded by the ‘way we’ve always done it’. Consultants bring experience from many other settings, a background beyond what anyone inside an organisation can accumulate.
Consultants are a communications device. Some managers know their ideas might not be accepted if put forth themselves; they hire a consultant to become the source of fresh thinking and the generators of buying in. Opinions coming from a consultant are not likely to have negative career implications for the manager and, in extreme cases, the consultant’s input can be deliberately ignored by executives.
If you are considering a career as a consultant, try to determine which of the many consulting roles has the greatest appeal. From substitute employee to guru, different roles are associated with different work styles and deliverables – not to mention fees. Assignments can be as cut and dried as ‘roll out this new content management tool’, or as open as ‘please help us determine what kind of business intelligence mechanism would work best for us.’ Favourite assignments may offer lots of scope, as in, ‘What should we do to ensure employees stay abreast of developments in their field?’
The roles we play as consultants, illustrated in the Table 1.1, dictate work characteristics such as how much time we spend on the client’s premises, how much interaction we expect to have with client staff, and the like. In some roles we are seen as ‘one of the gang’; in others, we are expected to perform miracles – quickly.
1Based on the articles:
– Wormell, I. and Olesen, A.J. (2005) Consultants and their clients. Highlights of a study of success factors in information consulting. Infotrend. Nordic Journal for Information Specialists. Vol. 60, No. 3. pp. 87–90.
– De Stricker, U. and Olesen, A.J. (2005) Is management consulting for you? – Part 2: The Practicalities. What are the steps you need to complete in order to set up and run a consulting practice? Searcher. Vol. 13, April. pp. 45–51.
– De Stricker, U. and Olesen, A.J. (2005) Is management consulting for you? – Part 3: Client Relations – the Key to Success. How does one manage the relationship with clients so that everything goes smoothly? How can the inevitable challenges be handled? Searcher. Vol. 13, May. pp. 21–26.