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Tech Talk: Hiring a Consultant

Tips for hiring a technology consultant.

More than half the educational technology projects in the United States come in late and over budget. Many of these projects also are delivered with fewer features than originally specified.

Those are the findings of a recent research study, conducted by the Standish Group. The Chaos report cites lack of user input, incomplete or changing specifications, and unclear objectives as the major obstacles. This is not surprising; many educational institutions defer control of their plans to architects, engineers or vendors.

One way schools can better manage their technology projects is to hire a consultant that specializes in that area. By being independent of any manufacturer or reseller, a consultant can negotiate the best arrangement for a school or university.

In choosing who will carry out technology projects, schools often don't put enough emphasis on the scope of work desired. Technical skills are important, but shouldn't schools seek out someone with knowledge of current and future educational practices?

Consultants offer wisdom that usually is based on a mixture of research, training and, most important, real-world, hands-on experience. They understand their clients' needs and dispense advice when it's called for.

If you plan to hire a consultant, don't wait too long. There is a very short "half life" for technical knowledge. In general, you should provide yourself with as much lead time as possible.

Measuring up 

In the case of procuring professional technology services, how do you know a consultant fully understands the requirements of your educational and technical needs? The work may end up costing much more if you discover that your consultant doesn't understand how teachers or students will use technology. The project may be completed without a view to the future, and costs will increase greatly when you learn that portions of the system need to be replaced in a few years.

As a result, if you select based on technical certification only, rather than on broader qualifications, you may not obtain what you need for your project. If someone specifies many new technology tools for your school without asking the right questions, the only thing that will change is your electric bill. Make sure your technology consultant possesses a clear understanding of education.

After providing a consultant with as much information as possible, ask him or her a simple question: "Based on what you now know, how can you best serve us?" Then, everything will be on the table. You have made it easy for the consultant to provide help, and you know exactly what help you can expect.

Developing the RFP

If you are considering a consultant, your should first decide when and where you will need consulting services.

Consultants have their own biases. Remember that you are hiring them for their opinions. Take time to understand those biases. For example, do they favor a particular product or solution? Make sure you know about any financial interests a consultant might have in recommending a particular product or system.

Requests for proposals should include: - A statement of the problem and the issues involved, including the scope and boundaries of the project, the objectives to be achieved and tasks to be performed, and skills required to carry out the project.

- An outline of the institution's own contribution to the project, including the number, skill level and availability of in-house personnel that will be involved in the project.

- A statement of which services will be provided and the process to be followed.

- An indication of how the school wants the consultant to quote a fee. The consultant's fee proposal should normally be based on a fixed-price quotation derived from the accumulated daily rate of the consultant. The fixed price quotation should be all-inclusive.

- The deadline for receiving proposals and the number of copies required. Be clear that incomplete proposals will not be considered and that no proposal will be accepted after the deadline.

- The evaluation criteria on which the contract will be awarded - such as cost, expertise and timeframe.

- A school representative from whom a consultant can get further details and clarifications.

Is size important?

When inviting firms to submit proposals, do not overlook small firms in favor of larger companies with higher public profiles. Some people assume that a big firm will provide the best service. "Big" does not always mean "best." Numerous small firms specialize in educational technology.

The advantage of collaborating with a smaller firm is that your business may be more important to them than it would be to a larger firm. More pertinent than size may be determining which relationship can result in more personalized attention.

Ask for at least three references. A technology consultant should have a host of success stories highlighting his or her expertise. Ask about problem implementations, what went wrong, and how problems were rectified.

Differing costs

Costs will vary among consultants, from hourly rates to total time quoted; you're likely to see a wide range. The services also may be vastly different. Be sure a consultant's quote includes a turnkey solution.

Some institutions wonder why consultant fees seem high. Consultants have overhead such as employee benefits, life insurance and retirement. They offer a technical skill that may have taken years to obtain.

As a rule, the benefits provided by a consultant should be at least twice the cost of the consultant. A technology consultant should be able to save 25 percent on a technology package by offering unbiased oversight.

Evaluating proposals 

Give special attention to the evaluation criteria for awarding the contract. The evaluation process converts a subjective assessment into a quantitative comparison.

A good technology consultant is likely to have more perspective than your own in-house staff. This perspective comes from working with many different educational institutions.

Finding people who can talk the talk is not difficult; but finding people who also understand the educational and design issues can be challenging.

What should educational leaders be looking for when seeking expert help? What guidelines might reduce the likelihood of making a poor choice? How can educational institutions ensure that consultants present balanced points of view?

The following are typical criteria to apply in narrowing your choice to a short list of consultants:

- What are their experience and qualifications related to educational technology? Are they dedicated to education and technology in education?

- Can they relate to educators and industry personnel?

- What is their previous experience on similar projects?

- What methodology do they use to achieve technical, management and project-control skills?

- What is their reputation with existing clients?

- What is their current workload?

- Are they affiliated with any manufacturer or vendor?

- Are they compatible with your district?

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