Should I hire a consultant to help with my intranet?

Between the Intranetizen team we’ve launched tens of intranets as part of in-house teams, and we proudly champion the role and work of intranet managers. But one of the most common questions we’re asked is if and when to get external help to deliver your intranet.

We put this to our network on the Intranetizen Slack community too. In this post we’ll combine their advice and ours to explain what value an external consultant can bring, and how you can build the business case to hire a consultant.

The benefits

  1. Extra resource. Delivering an intranet is hard; it will, we guarantee, be at least twice as much work as anyone expected. And more often than not you’ll have a launch date in mind, perhaps driven by an organisational change such as a restructure. During this period your team will be dealing with suppliers, designers, content owners, difficult stakeholders, all while becoming far more familiar with IT, Communications, HR and Legal than you ever thought possible. Having one or more additional pairs of hands could make the difference between success and failure, particularly if your team is still expected to deliver your BAU workload at the same time.
  2. Industry knowledge. Experienced consultants will have an in-depth knowledge of the vendor landscape, legal and compliance issues, best practice in communications, knowledge management, search, user experience or other specialist fields that add significant value and insight into your planning. This can be particularly useful at the planning and strategy stage. 
  3. External perspective. Good consultants will have delivered multiple, complex intranets, and have the scars to show for it. They can guide you through the potential pitfalls and challenges you’ll face, provide insight into best practice gleaned outside your organisation and challenge the existing team to think differently about the intranet. As Simon Thompson noted, “a good consultant can point out the pitfalls and come up with suggestions based on best practice or experience, but perhaps a better consultant can ask the questions that dig deeper and re-focus on the needs of the user, not the business”.
  4. Independence. “One obvious advantage for a company is that that they get someone external to state things which may not be fully acknowledged when said by employees” said Reg Lewin. An external consultant can bring much-needed objectivity to your Discovery or user research phase, allowing you to look at user requirements with a fresh perspective.
  5. Credibility. Those with responsibility for managing intranets are (unfairly in our view) often low down the management pecking order. Bringing someone senior and highly experienced in can add additional clout to your team, allowing you to have difficult conversations with senior stakeholders from a position of strength. There are two types of consultant; those who tell you what you want to know, and those who tell you what you don’t want to know. A highly experienced and credible external expert could be better placed to give challenging advice to difficult stakeholders than the existing team.

The downsides

  1. Cost. Good consultants don’t come cheap. They generally charge by the day. This can prove good value for a short, defined period, but if your intranet project stretches on for months longer than expected, as they often do, external help could make a serious dent in your intranet’s budget.
  2. Getting approval to hire. Getting budget for consultancy often means having to show workplace bean counters precisely what value a consultant will add, which – when they’re adding something as intangible as ‘external perspective’ – can be hard to justify.
  3. Short-termism. We’ve written many times about the problems caused by seeing intranets as projects, not products; bringing consultants in on a project basis only adds to the impression that the intranet is ‘finished’ as soon as its launched.
  4. Lack of organisational awareness. The best intranets are those which are designed around an organisation’s own users and culture. An external consultant won’t have the in-depth knowledge of your company and the way it works that you and your team do, and may find themselves recommending solutions that aren’t suitable. They may also spend much of their time trying to navigate the organisation in order to get things done.

The business case

If you’re looking to hire a consultant, think carefully about what value they can bring and the potential return on that investment. What experience or knowledge gaps are there in the consultant and the team? Show how bringing in a consultant can help to up-skill the in-house team too, through knowledge transfer during the project.

Highlight how you will combine both the external perspective and a firm understanding of the organisation to develop an intranet that’s designed around user needs and aligned to industry best practice.

It’s important to define what type of consultant you are after. Are they providing strategic oversight? Delivering a project? Getting buy-in from stakeholders and helping to develop the business case? Or helping the existing team to define requirements? Different consultants will bring different expertise depending on their background and experience.

An agile approach

Instead of one long contract, consider switching your contract management style to be more agile and secure a different consultant for each part of the project.

A strategic consultant will be particularly valuable at the early stages of the project, helping to research your requirements, understand user needs, select technology, and get buy-in from stakeholders. But this isn’t the skill set needed for end-to-end delivery of the intranet, nor can most businesses afford to keep this kind of resource on for months at a time. You may want to consider front-loading external help, then switching to a cheaper consultant such as a project manager, or back to an internal team, for the delivery and execution to make best use of your budget. Or you could keep your strategic consultant on a part-time retainer to sense check or act as a sounding board for the duration of the project once their full-time involvement is no longer needed.

Setting expectations

You’ll save yourself a lot of headaches and better justify spend on a consultant by agreeing a brief. This should set out the outcomes you want the consultant to deliver, as well as any inputs from the organisation, like admin support, dependencies or resources.

By having a clear picture of what your organisation and team needs you will be able to hire the right consultant for the right stage ensuring happy stakeholders, a happy team and most of all an useful intranet.