There are many factors to consider when choosing a communications consultant for a project. Making a "wish list" will help to ensure that nothing is left to chance.
January 1, 2001
What is a “consultant”? In the dictionary a consultant is defined as: “One who gives expert or professional advice”. I find this definition to be simple but accurate in highlighting the key components to consider while selecting a communications consultant.
Lets start with “advice”, which, in the dictionary, is defined as: “Opinion about what could or should be done about a situation or problem; counsel”. The definition describes advice as an opinion on the topic you have inquired about. In order to get a good opinion, you must feel you are dealing with a reliable source and understand what is being communicated to you. To do so, you must first establish a good path of communication or relationship with your consultant. This means getting to know the firm and individuals prior to making a decision.
You can often become familiar with a consultant through activities such as luncheon discussions, formal interviews, knowledge sessions or industry events. But prior to these activities, you may choose to issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) for the services you require. This process can take two approaches, depending on your schedule and the desired results. You can issue an RFP with a specific scope, which requires some planning and documentation, or you can issue an open RFP, which gives a broad project description with more emphasis on determining the abilities of the consultant. This latter approach is often used in the pre-qualification stage for larger projects.
EXPERTS AND PROFESSIONALS
After taking the initial steps, you may feel you have established open communication to the consultant candidate but, how do you know you are getting good advice? This is the time to go back to the original definition and look at the terms “expert” and “professional”. The definitions of both “expert” and “professional” refer to each other in the dictionary and often are looked on as one and the same. However, in developing criteria for selecting a consultant, it is important to look at each term individually.
Let’s examine the term “expert”. What makes the consultant an expert? What are the qualifications of an expert in this field? These are valid questions that are often misunderstood by those outside of our industry. Our industry has a number of designations floating around such as P.Eng., RCDD, LAN Specialist and EET, which represent formal training and can be used to establish a certain knowledge base. If you use designations as the only indicator in selecting a consultant you may find yourself in some difficult situations later on in your project.
In our industry, the most relative training programs are the RCDD and LAN Specialist programs, which are organized by BICSI and provide a level of competency. Those with RCDD and LAN Specialist designations are required to take regularly updated courses in order to maintain their designations. By selecting a qualified consultant, you will ensure that you are dealing with someone who understands the industry standards and provides advice that supports those standards.
However, if you can comprehend well, you can pass many formal training courses with limited industry knowledge. This is why you should never select a consultant strictly because of the consultant’s formal training. Think about where you have received some of you best advice over the years — often from those who have had the most experience. I know some people will be asking: “What about those bright young minds and innovative ideas?” This is also important. The next criterion for selecting a consultant involves choosing a firm that has a balance of senior, experienced staff and young professionals with innovative thoughts. How do you determine this? All reputable consulting firms offer Curriculum Vitaes (CVs) for any staff involved with a project. These CVs will explain the educational and practical project experience each individual in the firm has had. This information will provide you with a good basis for your decision. Many of the better firms have specialists who are up to date on specific topics. This is important, as our industry is diverse and changing constantly.
When interviewing a consulting firm, you should identify who will be on the team and what backup will be provided. This includes a full breakdown of principal, senior, specialty and junior staff including their roles and time allocated to the team.
A VOTE FOR INDEPENDENCE
But what about the term “professional”? When speaking about a professional consultant, I am referring to a consultant who practices with a code of ethics, has no ties, and is independent of specific products or services. This is an area that is clouded throughout our industry, and clients often misunderstand the importance of independent advice. Many of the corporations I visit every day claim they are already working with their own consultant, someone who is usually a representative of one of the leading manufacturers, network integrators or cabling contractors.
I do not know how many times I have heard that the consulting or design work is being done for “free”. We should all know by now that nothing is “free”. An independent consultant has nothing to gain by specifying any particular product or service, other than what is best for a client. The consultant’s fee is usually fixed, based on the scope of work being provided. That old saying, “the fox looking after the hen house,” comes to mind and is often what IT managers experience when selecting a consultant with other agendas. An independent consultant can not only provide you with unbiased advice but can also provide protection for internal auditing procedures and often settle internal politics.
INSURANCE AND DELIVERABLES
Another criterion that will provide you with some level of comfort in selecting a consultant is looking for one who carries Errors and Omissions (E&O) insurance. This type of insurance is often confused with the comprehensive insurance carried by contracting firms for the work they do on your premises. The E&O insurance provides coverage for negligent designs. All professional consultants and engineers carry this insurance and it is a mandatory requirement of the Professional Engineers Associations.
The next important factor in selecting a consultant centres around what you will receive as a deliverable from this consultant. This may include drawings, specifications or a detailed report. Samples of the consultant’s work should be made available for your review in order to examine the quality of the work. When reviewing work, look for things such as the quality of CAD drawings and details, including numbering schemes. Make sure specifications are not just catalogue cuts from manufacturers and specifications are clearly defined. Well-written specifications can eliminate the miscellaneous costs often asked for by contractors.
In evaluating a consultant, you must also consider the roles and responsibilities you require. The two typical roles a communications consultant supplies are design and project management. Design services may include structured cabling, computer rooms, network hardware, telephone systems and various other components. It is important to evaluate a consultant on both ability and experience in designing each component, as many cabling designers know little about the specifications of a router and network hardware.
As for project management services, you must rely on the experience of the consultant, since every project has it’s own challenges and items to deal with. In evaluating this criterion, I would recommend a consultant who has a background in the communications field and experience in other related fields such as electrical, mechanical and service provision. Good project managers will understand how their personal component integrates with the other processes and will be able to help find solutions as challenges are presented.
One of the final tools in evaluating a consultant involves getting current references and taking the time to talk to those references.
In summarizing the key components in s
electing a communications consultant, you can break it down as follows:
ability to communicate
synergy with your project team
quality of product
Remember that a good consulting firm will be willing to provide all of the information you require in order to make a quality selection. Consultants usually present themselves formally through a written proposal, which will include all of the information mentioned in this article. You will also be able to request a fixed fee if your scope is defined, along with hourly rates for any additional work. Additional work should be defined by the consultant in a proposal and be limited to work on additional space, delays in the schedule or changes to the approved design for construction. You will also want to know what disbursements you will be charged for, as all consultants charge for costs such as printing, courier, parking, mileage, travel, accommodation and meals, as applicable to each project. All of the major consulting firms base their fees on the time estimated to complete the project and often define the number of meetings they are committed to attend. It is important to ensure you are comparing “apples to apples” when evaluating two proposals. All hourly rates for services are typical in most firms and do not vary greatly.
As indicated, many other factors are more important than price in selecting a consultant. Since the average design fee is less than 10 per cent, and is often saved by a competitive tender process for contractors and manufacturers, the consultant’s fees are often negligible to the project budget. Of course if you get poor advice, the costs can be endless. This is why it is important to take the time to determine which consultant best fits your project.CS
Michael Spencer is President of IntegCom, an independent Electrical/Communications consulting business in Toronto that specializes in engineering, design and project management for all data and voice networks.