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The Disappearing Generalist Consultant
When I joined the ranks of independent consultants 30 years ago, most consultants provided value by understanding a broad range of telecommunications services, options, and vendors. Much of the value offered to clients was the knowledge of how to get things done with the myriad of vendors -- not to mention the confusing bureaucracy of the big vendors (some things never change!). The most common telecom consultants were those who understood both telephone systems and telephone carrier services, including networking. A veritable one-man band.
When wide area data networks, became a common part of the clients' telecommunications landscape, it also became a knowledge demanded of the consultant. In fact, the gentleman that brought me into the consulting business hired me because I also understood data communications. As an old "telephone company guy," he did not have this background and knew that our clients needed the breadth of knowledge that spanned both voice and data services.
To be most valuable to clients at that time, consultants were often expected to have a combination of depth of knowledge and an overall understanding of the interrelated parts of the industry. Sure, specialists existed even then (such as bill auditors), but the consultants who were most in demand as the industry experts were those who "knew it all" -- or at least appeared to.
Fast forward to the present, and it is a different world. While the convergence of voice and data technology has required consultants to become familiar with a broader range of technology concepts, the increasing complexity and variety exceed the capacity of most individuals. No one can know it all, and we are suspect of those who claim to be experts in everything.
This has led to the (still) rising number of specialists. We see three general categories:
Technical experts have always existed, but now the required depth of knowledge and experience has forced those very experts to be more narrowly focused in order to remain valuable. In some cases, that focus is on a manufacturer (such as Cisco's CCXX designations), while in other cases the focus is on a product class (such as call centers) or even a specific technology (WebRTC). To fully leverage the capabilities of the solutions, often the depth of knowledge needed will require the individual to spend most of his or her time keeping current with the specialty area.
Of course, that last example leads into the third category, process specialists. Many of the consulting resources available will be most valuable because these professionals know how to execute. It might be that they are very good at implementation project management, carrier billing audits, data network assessments, business process automation, etc. There is always a need for experts who can produce the tactical results defined by the strategic plan. And, of course, some consultants define their specialty as the visionary expert delivering strategic thinking.
Some projects are focused efforts and can still be completed by an individual with the right talent. However, most large-scale projects require a depth and breadth of knowledge and skills that can only be delivered by a team of high-quality experts. Teams are far better equipped to apply the right person for the task at hand. A team is also better able to handle changes in schedule or workload, variety of locations (reach), or the unexpected complications that seem to develop with most large projects.
Today, most consultants who are self-defined as "generalists" have become adept at being a "general" -- developing teams specific for projects and leading those experts through the engagement. The primary consultant will own the relationship (a very important role and often no small task) and add the required skills from a pool of qualified talent.
A consultant's most valuable resource today is access to a broad variety of skills, talents, and knowledge. Yes, it is important to know enough to help clients, but more importantly, consultants need to know where additional expertise can be obtained when needed. It may be to solve a technical challenge, help with a remote or international location, take on work overload, or just bring in a second point of view.
This is one reason why the Canadian Telecommunications Consultants Association (CTCA) has elected to formally join the SCTC. The CTCA conference in early June used the theme "partnering for value" and many examples were given on why and how partnerships are the way to get things done. The SCTC is the biggest single pool of independent consulting talent, and now it is even larger.
Although the SCTC has long fostered cooperative arrangements with member consultants, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of project-based partnerships and ad-hoc teams created for specific clients. I believe this is because when a consultant is already comfortable with the quality working relationship available with a fellow SCTC member, it enables the creation of a harmonious team that can better meet customer expectations.
Today's consultant is usually more an orchestra conductor than a one-person band. And the music sounds better, too.
"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communication technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.