Choosing a GIS Consulting Firm - Part 2 - What to Watch Out For!

By Marshall Payne

[ EDITOR'S NOTE: If you missed Part 1, read it HERE. ]

Choosing a GIS Consulting Firm - Part 2 - What to Watch Out For!

There is literally a sea of GIS consultants and consulting firms out there so how do you choose the "right" one? Well first, you need to understand the many types of consultants and services they provide. Consulting firms will range from a person working out of their house to small firms to large corporations. Some consulting firms are more traditional while others only offer outsourcing services. Some firms specialize while others offer diverse services. Some are software vendors that offer consulting services centered on their products.

So how do you choose? Well there are the obvious things to look for such as the depth and diversity of skills, years of experience, costs or rates, and references. But what about things that aren't so easy to describe like "does it feel right" or are they "trustworthy," "dedicated," "creative," "fair," "honest," and "hard working." Keep in mind that when you hire a consultant you are not only entering into a contract but also a relationship.Often time consultants are "fired" not because of their skill or qualifications but simply because there is too much friction or because "it didn't feel right". There are countless situations where firms far superior on qualifications and experience, competitive on cost, etc.have lost projects because they did not have a previous relationship with the client or failed to create the right "spark" with the client.

When hiring a consultant, make sure that they have what it takes to be in a relationship with your organization. Will the consultant's staff mesh well with your staff? Will the consultant be responsive and understanding yet fair? Is the consultant dedicated to seeing your organization successful? These are all important questions to consider when choosing a consultant.

When selecting a GIS Consultant you should choose one that has the breadth and depth to meet your organization's needs. These days GIS is becoming elevated in organizations and plays more of an integral part in enterprise and mission critical business systems. Having a consultant that not only has excellent GIS experience but also has experience with database and internet applications as well as network and security skills will be invaluable. Many firms are specialized and don't have these skills so it is important to choose wisely depending on your needs.

Some things to watch out for...
There are many pitfalls to watch out for when hiring or working with a GIS consultant.

  1. Beware of consultants that are vertically specializing yet promise "full service" GIS. Many claim that they offer "full service" GIS, but use this definition very loosely. For example, firms specializing in infrastructure management systems may not follow through on the "full service" GIS promise. Typically, firms like this will do one thing really well and other things will be marginal at best.
  2. Beware of consultants that are constantly reinventing themselves."Chameleon" consulting companies like this are usually unstable; constantly chasing the latest trends, and are usually very distracted and unable to provide a decent level of service.
  3. Beware of engineering companies providing GIS applications, software, and claiming to provide Enterprise GIS services. Increasingly, engineering companies are attempting to provide various levels of GIS services from applications to enterprise GIS solutions. As they stray from their core business, they become risky propositions for GIS services. Some are legitimate and provide GIS data development; analysis and mapping services as a value add service with their engineering projects. More often than not GIS services in engineering firms are considered support services and every attempt is made to keep them constantly billable when engineering work is slow. If you are a Public Works Manager for a City you probably should think twice before using your contracted engineering company for GIS application services. The old adage of using the right tool for the job still holds true.
  4. Beware of the endless needs analysis and strategic plans.Many GIS firms are all form and no substance. You may have a great relationship with the GIS firm you selected but one day you look up and notice that you're staring a bookshelf full of cost benefit analyses, needs assessments and fairly useless reports. You have just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and have no system or a single application to show for it. Good plans are used plans.If you are not using your plan you need to ask why? Are you suffering from paralysis by too much analysis? Are you getting value from your consultant?
  5. Beware of the scare tactic and "science" project. This is a very common strategy used by consulting firms in general.Consultants will sometimes use fear of the unknown as means to keep you codependent on their services. This is usually done in a subtle way when a consultant will imply that a particular technology or approach is risky or unknown.Usually statements will be made such as "we're puzzled too yet we can struggle together and get this figured out." Accepting this means you have just become a participant in a process where the GIS consultant gets to learn or "struggle" on your nickle.More importantly, by the time you have figured what has happened and realize that nothing has changed, except for an increasing stack of change orders on your desk, it's too late. A project that starts out as a R&D or prototype effort is one thing but when defined application or data modeling project becomes a "science" project you better start asking some serious questions. When things get out of hand you can either fire the consultant, take the blame and embarrassment or you can end up digging yourself a deeper hole and continue to throw money at the problem in hopes that it will go away.
  6. Similar to the above, you need to beware of scope creep.Nothing will cause project failure faster than scope creep. Unfortunately, scope creep does occur and can be initiated by the client or consultant.A good GIS consultant can manage this or better yet prevent this from happening by staying true to the project specification, having good change control management, or just doing a good job of managing expectations. Beware of consultants that can not manage project scope well or have a history of change ordering their projects.
  7. Beware of outsource companies. There are some really good high caliber people out there that like working through outsource companies. However most of the time you may not end up with the best person but rather one that happens to be available.It is not uncommon to have three or four people rotate on and off the project with limited or no continuity. When you use outsourcing, you often are really renting a person rather than hiring a firm.Staff that get outsourced are typically transitional and are looking for work elsewhere. With a GIS or IT outsourcing firms it can be difficult building a relationship with their staff. You also have to wonder how a person feels about the company they work for when they spend all their time at your site.
  8. Beware of you! Sounds odd, but often managers hiring consultants feel that they can relinquish complete responsibility to the consultant. Over time you may find that you are no longer a project manager but instead have become so dependent on the consultant that you are in essence a virtual employee of the GIS firm. This typically happens gradually over time and is a result of the business relationship becoming more personal. It is good to have a well-balanced relationship with your consultant but do not get too cozy. If the relationship becomes too personal, it will be hard for you to stay objective and make sound decisions. This is dangerous place to be and you may be risking your career.
This list can go on and on. Some of you reading this may recognize or know someone that has had to suffer from these situations. Perhaps the best advice to selecting a good GIS consultant is to simply find one that you like to work with and can trust. Find a GIS consulting firm that is professional, performs well, and has a great skilled and innovative staff. Find a GIS consulting firm that has a good record of accomplishment and has been in business for a while.Find a GIS firm that is willing to listen and spend time working with you to solve problems, build solutions, and make you successful. Find a GIS firm that provides the best possible value and service for your budget.If you have never worked with a GIS consultant before, you can start with a small project. Do your research and always check references!

Published Friday, June 13th, 2003

Written by Marshall Payne

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