What is the difference between Internal and External Consultant?

An internal consultant is usually professional services employee (i.e. HR, Finance, IT, ect) who is employed full time by an organization, and who reports to a general manager or other senior manager. This person can be an individual contributor who works alone, or may have others reporting to her/him such as specialists, the internal consultant works exclusively within the domain of the employing organization, and at the behest of the manager to whom he/she reports.

Comparisons are made between the general world of consulting for planned change, as typified by the external consultant, and the specific world of internal consulting – a perspective rarely surfaced or discussed.

Entry for External Consultants is often one of the most difficult stages, involving marketing, the building of client relationships and clarifying the organizational issue to be worked (Harding, 1992). Making cold calls, attending professional meetings and public speaking are common ways used by externals to obtain clients. The Journal of Business Strategy (1993) states that externals must be fast on their feet to grasp quickly an organization’s jargon and discern it from language in common usage in order to communicate with the client. Further, every external consultant knows that the problem presented by the client is usually a symptom rather than the cause of the real issue (Block, 1981). This stage can be time-consuming and personally stressful for the consultant. Much energy can be expended before a contract is signed or the external decides not to take the project.

Internal Consultant as an insider in the organization the internal consultant spends little, if any, time on entry (Walton, 1969). Unless new at the job, relationships with organization members are usually established, and can grow into client relationships as opportunities arise. “Presenting problems” are rarely confused with true root causes because of the internals’ intimate knowledge of the organization’s people, processes and operations. The internal knows where the sacred cows, waiting guns and sources of power rest. She/he is up to speed and comfortable with company anachronisms and jargon.

On the downside, an internal consultant may be assigned to a project by the senior manager in which the internal has no interest. She/he is unable to refuse or walk away. The internal is expected to work – and work well – with any and all employees in the organization, regardless of personal preference or style.

The work may be with the immediate supervisor, peers, functional managers or departments at any level. Occasionally the senior manager will assign an unenthusiastic internal consultant to a manager who does not want help or value the service. Both must make the best of a bad situation, delivering the required results on time in a conscientious and courteous manner.

While this article and presentation identified characteristics and challenges of the internal consulting world, greater exploration is needed. How best to address these challenges? What competences are needed? It is hoped that this article will serve as a springboard for internal consultants to engage in useful dialogue in order to develop the comfort and conviction necessary to act with courage and grace while consulting for planned change within their organizations.


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