10 ways that consultancies really add value to the education sector
Before I founded Pickle Jar Communications, I worked in-house at the University of Warwick. I’d never been a consultant, and my experience of most consultants, agencies and other “vendors” was that they’re the people who pester you on a regular basis with phone call after phone call to try to sell something to you.
Layer on top of that countless headlines expressing outrage at taxpayers’ money being used to pay for consultants, and it left me somehow feeling that crossing from client-side to consultancy was somehow something a little grubby. But I knew there was so much value that I could add to so many different institutions. Furthermore, I knew that by working with multiple institutions, I would get so much better so much faster at my work by learning from multiple sources.
So, in today’s post, I’m going to reflect for a moment on my 10 years’ experience of running a consultancy for the education sector and suggest 10 ways that I’ve learned we really add value to that sector.
1. Breadth and cross-sector experience
In 10 years my colleagues and I have worked with approximately 160 different institutions, including independent schools, international schools, colleges, universities, public agencies, membership organisations, and more. We’ve also worked in 20 different countries. That breadth of knowledge of a sector and the approach that different institutions take, the challenges they face, and the solutions they and we develop is second to none.
While clients have outstanding in-depth knowledge of their own institution, we complement that perfectly with a broad and extended knowledge of the sector at large.
2. Cross department and objective experience
Not only do we have in-depth knowledge of the sector by working with a large range of institutions, but in a consultancy such as ours, we tend to work across a broad range of institutional objectives and departments. Our work and therefore our experience touches marketing, communications, alumni engagement, fundraising, research communications, international engagement and marketing, community engagement, business engagement, public affairs, internal communications, and more.
The breadth of experience across a range of objectives means that we have insights and abilities to be able to draw meaningful connections between those areas, and clearly understand where one piece of work could benefit from or impact on the work of another part of the institution.
3. The “expert” badge
This is the one that leaves me with a degree of discomfort, but sometimes consultants carry the kudos of simply being a consultant and thereby being seen as an “expert”. That in itself carries a lot of weight with some stakeholders and can often mean that bringing in consultants to advance a project or an approach can help to get buy-in faster, or increase budgets allocated to your project, because “the external experts said so.” The awkward truth is that sometimes your stakeholders need to hear from us what you’ve been telling them all along before they actually start to believe it. You can see why that makes me squirm.
4. Moving forward fast
How many times have you had a project on your to-do list that you really want to get underway, but it just keeps getting pushed further and further back because the day-to-day of your role just gets in the way? Sound familiar? This is when bringing in consultants can really help to get that project off the ground and moving forward fast. They won’t have the same distractions that you have, and can and will offer ring-fenced time to getting that project done.
5. Bringing a different perspective
When you work day-in-day-out within the same institution with the same people and the same issues, seeing the wood for the trees can sometimes be a challenge. The context in which you exist can simply restrict your ability to see something different. Everyone has their own context and sees things differently, and that’s exactly what consultants can often bring to the table. They’re not always “better” than you at developing an idea or approach, they’re just able to see the problem and the solution differently because their context is different – perhaps even freer – than yours.
6. Connections and networks
Because we work with so many institutions and it’s important for our business as consultants to constantly network with and learn from others, we all tend to have pretty big networks and good connections. Befriending a well-connected consultant who has a strong network of contacts is a smart move. They should be able to recommend other peers in the sector for you to connect and share experiences with, and they should also be able to recommend other consultants and experts who can do the things that they can’t. This is also a way that you can often get value out of consultants for free. They shouldn’t mind, as it’s good for them too in the long term.
7. We die if we don’t stay ahead
Our business thrives or dies on the ability for us to stay ahead of the curve. This is especially true for a consultancy like ours. So, it’s imperative that we’re on top of emerging trends and constantly thinking about how they’re going to impact the sector and the roles of those within it. For this reason, tapping into our knowledge, insights and reflections on those trends can be a smart move, and a really efficient way for you to very quickly advance your own knowledge and learning.
8. Filling in the gaps
On the basis of a day-by-day cost, it’s always going to be cheaper to hire someone into your team than it will be to employ consultants. But what about when the skill that you need, or the task that you have, or the gap that you need to fill, just doesn’t warrant employing a whole person to do the job – or the fuss of having to get a role approved and actually recruit them? In those scenarios, consultants and agencies can add significant value by filling in staff gaps, topping up your resource, or just bringing an external skill or experience that you don’t need on a full-time basis, but you do need. That’s why a lot of clients choose to bring us in on retained on-going arrangements as a way of “topping up” the skills of their existing team and filling gaps where there are needs.
9. Openness and the therapy effect
This is my personal favourite, but it’s fair to say that I’d probably never be able to run a business on this basis alone. So, let’s call this one an added side effect of working with consultants…
Because we’re not working with you and your colleagues every day, and we’re therefore not part of the internal politics of maintaining a happy and stable ship, we find that stakeholders and colleagues tend to open up to us with a level of honesty and depth of insight in a way that they just don’t feel comfortable doing to their co-workers. Likewise, we’re not afraid to ask the difficult questions.
In turn this means that we are able to develop projects from a place of deep openness that is sometimes difficult to achieve internally without facilitation. In turn stakeholders often tell us that speaking to us is a little like therapy – it gives them a chance to really get their thoughts, views, opinions and concerns off their chest. Chances are, we’ve heard it all before anyway!
10. Depth of expertise
This is similar to filling the gaps, but sometimes consultants have a depth of expertise in a particular topic, or access to resources (tools, technologies, subscriptions) or contacts that you may not have or be able to have within your team. Generally as consultants we develop depth areas of expertise, and while we apply that knowledge in different ways and to different contexts, it’s still a deep dive into a particular topic rather than a broad-sweeping knowledge-base that you may be required to have in an in-house role.
Need help now?
If you think that we may be able to help you in any of these ways, do get in touch.
So, having got comfortable with crossing to the “dark side” and becoming a consultant, I realised that I was able through my role to shed a whole lot of light on my clients’ problems and projects. It’s a different way of working and wouldn’t suit everyone, but no less valuable in the education sector than the work done by those who work in-house. It’s a partnership that blends different skills, knowledges and expertise as projects require. It offers flexibility and fluidity to the work of in-house teams, and becomes an extension of the work they do.
I have the luxury of being able to help clients cut through a lot of challenges and barriers, but there remain some in our sector that I’d still love to be able to change and break down, and so that’s the topic of tomorrow’s post: 10 things I’d love to change about education sector advancement.