What makes a great enterprise consultant?

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed April 17, 2014
Becoming a great enterprise software consultant might sound easy - but it's not. Here's my keys.

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Consulting has almost become a dirty word in the enterprise. Companies have grown wary of consulting-versus-software cost ratios. 'Trusted advisor' sounds good in theory - but then there is the continual need to sell more services - scope creep anyone? If those services have business impact, great. If not, where are we?

Oh, and what's wrong with the technology we bought a few years ago - solutions that are now apparently inadequate for the pace and requirements of digital business? Independent advisors can add a needed gut check and provide expert counsel on high stakes projects, but that's no cure all.

Appleby on consulting greatness

John Appleby's post on How to become a great consultant got me thinking. Cloud services may change consulting needs for some companies (not to mention BPO and process automation), but consultants are still in business. Why not hire a great one? And why not be a great one? Appleby's post is good material to riff on, so let's start with his recommendations:

  • Forget about formal education and certification
  • Be obsessive about deep learning
  • Practice
  • Ask Questions
  • Share your Knowledge

It's a deceptively simple list - deceptive because there is nothing easy about achieving excellence. This list is heavily impacted by online collaboration and sandboxing that wasn't part of a consultant's tool kit a decade ago. Today's tools make continuous learning much more viable - if we can triumph over constant stream of alerts, Facebook pings and deadlines.

This shift in work/learning also shines a different light on formal education. Appleby is not trying to dismiss degrees as irrelevant, but he is making a point about how field work and continuous learning trump degrees from yesteryear. He's also pointing out that many enterprise software certifications pale in comparison to bonafide field experience.

Espousing the virtue of restless curiosity, Appleby goes on to say, 'I'm a HANA Professional, and I download all the manuals and read them cover to cover.' He doesn't believe you will excel as a consultant without digging into deeper content. I've written before on the virtues of deep work as a differentiator, but I've overlooked this point about deep consumption/listening as a vital ingredient to creating work that matters.

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Appleby's 'Practice' step eliminates all excuses for not taking personal initiative - not when trial and experimentation is a click away:

If you're serious about your career then invest here. Get a working sandpit up with your technology of choice running and start tinkering. Build prototypes - in HANA, for example, there are lots of publicly available Big Data sets. You can get an AWS instance which you can stop and start at will to keep the cost down. Build. Get stuck! Work late into the night!

My keys to consulting excellence

The characteristics of a great enterprise consultant:

  1. Subject matter expertise is a given, reinforced by multiple go-lives
  2. Can bridge the gap between technology and business outcomes
  3. Doesn't just implement point solutions but is capable of advisory
  4. Understands range of implementation methods, including agile/iterative rollouts
  5. Has built an 'expert learning network' for continuous learning and skills referrals
  6. Is a teacher by nature, empowers clients to be more capable and less dependent

Pretty simple, true - but you could write a book about each one. I'll spare you the book, but here's a quick rundown:

1. Subject matter expertise - The classical core of the consulting skill set. Typically a consultant has a core of expertise combined with edge technologies and tactics that relate directly to the core (example: DBA who understands big data and in-memory architectures). Continually expanding that edge is where the lifelong learning comes in. Much of that edge is in areas of digital transformation, but the pure tech is less important than industry use cases, such as the impact of sensors on inventory and distribution.

The rest of the skill areas all involve so-called 'soft skills' that used to be optional if you were a brilliant technologist but are no longer optional whatsoever (the 'hired gun' who hunkers in a cube without team awareness is an endangered consulting species).

2. Bridge gap between tech and business - Business/functional consultants need to understand the tech that powers their recommendations, and technical types need to be able to speak in terms the business can understand - in particular, the ability to draw the real requirements out of business users and map solutions to fit is essential.

3. Capable of advisory - Consultants need to stop thinking of themselves as 'Workday consultants' or 'Oracle HCM consultants' and instead, think of their expertise in broader terms. Can they provide an informed view to their clients of where their industry is headed? An SAP CRM consultant should understand competitive solutions (in particular cloud solutions), but should also be on top of the latest trends in customer experience that are the rage in CRM circles.

Companies are less and less loyal to incumbents in their software decisions. They want to compare different approaches and understand open source alternatives before they plunge. Brian Sommer calls this type of consultant 'cosmpolitan', and he emphasizes 'awareness' and 'empathy' as two key characteristics.

4. Understands range of implementation methods - Multi-year waterfall is (mostly) on the way out, the ability to design and implement in quick, collaborative cycles that allow for the incorporation of user feedback matters.

5. Has built an expert network - Notice I didn't say 'Is active on social networks'! Networks can take many forms, but the best consultants have them. And they are not afraid to source those networks for outside expertise, and even refer that expertise if the client needs something beyond their capabilities.

6. Is a teacher by nature - Hoarding expertise is a fail, leaving teams smarter than how you found them is the win. Knowledge transfer is a clunky way of describing it, but you know a good consultant when you are performing better after they leave.


I left out 'thought leader', a hack phrase to be sure, but many of the best consultants have established themselves in their fields through content and code sharing, through speaking and blogging and how-to videos.

'Soft skills' is an extensive discussion that digs into specifics of process modeling and know-how, change management, design thinking and so forth. But the bottom line is: if you don't add value to the on-site team, why are you here? Answer: you probably won't be for much longer.

Some consultants protest about mastering the business-technical crossover. But fluency in both tech and business is one more reason why you're on-site and the rest of the tech team is not. If your work is easily bundled without added insight, it can be sourced from another (cheaper) location.

I could have included industry expertise on this list; most elite consultants are informed by industry-specific expertise they gained on multiple projects. I still see some exceptions to this (consultants who routinely jump from industry to industry) but it's a point to consider.

My final recommends:

  • Customers: Hire consultants with these characteristics. Don't allow your main consulting partner to offload consultants on your project you didn't personally evaluate and approve. Use social networks like LinkedIn to reference-check consultants based on their relevance to others you trust. Consider relaxing some of your social network firewalls/rules to allow for the possibility that some networking activity is a huge benefit to your employees and the consultants teaching them.
  • Partners: Reward consultants who take initiative; encourage them to establish their expertise publicly and to develop expert networks. Yes, you will lose some consultants when you support their public visibility. But you will attract other A list players who see your firm as a desirable place to work. Create space in your consultants' non-billable periods for skunkwork projects and experimental sandboxing.
  • Consultants: Do a quarterly 'skills gap analysis' based on this checklist and commit yourself to continuous improvement. Never get comfortable.


Image credit - Two architects man point at construction site © CandyBox - Fotolia.com

Disclosure - John Appleby works for Bluefin, which does not have a financial relationship with diginomica. Appleby has written for diginomica as a guest contributor. Appleby and I serve as volunteers on the HANA Distinguished Engineers Council.

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