An independent stance

When I started out as an independent computer consultant in 1980, I advised all sorts of firms including retailers, manufacturers, charities, solicitors and accountants. In the early days of small computers, software was in its infancy and integrated packages were rare. Switching from one sort of business to another was not a difficult task.

As the market for small computers developed, however, software became more specialised and the companies writing and supplying software also became specialised; this meant that knowledge developed in one field was not easily applied to another.

I discovered, for example, that a time recording program for an accountant was quite different from one required by a solicitor. Why? Because the solicitor handles a number of matters for a single client whereas accountants generally have one ongoing account for each client. Therefore the project numbering structure and the manner of reporting is quite different in the two cases. Neither do accountants handle legal aid.

Time recording is one example of the fact that most software now is specific to the business or profession concerned. It is difficult for any one person, whether acting as an independent consultant or as part of a large firm, to understand fully the needs and products of more than one market sector. The key thing is not the kind of organisation the consultant works for, but how detailed a knowledge the person who is going to be your consultant possesses.

The problem with using a large firm of management consultants is that it is difficult to know the particular skills of the person allocated to your project; the advantage of an independent consultant is that you know exactly what kind of skills you are hiring and you can ask for references for that person rather than the organisation as a whole.

If dealing with an individual consultant without the back up of a big name, it is important that you take references from other firms of solicitors that the consultant has advised. Has the consultant successfully completed projects of computer selection and setup, or marketing, or quality control or whatever is the subject of the consultancy? If references cannot be provided, you should not accept the consultant.

It is also helpful if the consultant is a member of an appropriate professional body for the topic in hand, such as the British Computer Society. The Law Society Directory of Consultants is a useful check of ser-iousness in the legal market. If you are looking for DTI funding (which is about to come to an end) then the consultant must also be on the DTI list.

There is another advantage of independent consultants. They are a great deal cheaper. If you think about the cost of providing the premises and the support staff of the major management consultancy firms, it is easy to understand why.

Delia Venables is an independent computer consultant working exclusively within the legal profession.