Companies benefit from a consultant relationship that builds staff skill sets during contract.

November 4, 2022

5 Min Read
The Rise of the Consultant
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By Cameron Hatten

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Cameron Hatten

How do you teach your employees new skills? The conventional answers involve practices such as hiring training firms or paying for workers to get certifications in technologies relevant to your business.

Here’s an alternative approach to upskilling your workforce: Working with consultants. Although most consulting firms aren’t — and don’t try to be — professional training firms, a good consultant will transfer key skills to employees as an intrinsic part of the consulting relationship.

Because consultants work side-by-side with employees to help them solve problems unique to their business, the skills transfer that takes place within the context of consulting relationships centers on communicating more practical and relevant skills than employees would obtain through formal training programs.

Here’s why consulting relationships play a unique role in skills transfer, and how businesses can leverage consultants to upskill their workforces in a practical and cost-effective way.

Contextual Learning

The funny thing about skills transfer within the context of consulting relationships is that education is, in many cases, not an explicit part of the consulting program. It’s something that happens organically, at least for businesses that choose consultants who build new solutions with their employees, rather than building them for employees.

There are several factors that drive skills transfer in unique ways as part of consulting relationships.

Learn new skills in a low-risk way. Consultants often provide guidance to employees who are already experts in a certain domain, but who need help learning specific new tools or practices within that domain.

In this situation, the role of the consultant isn’t to teach employees a set of brand-new skills, but instead to help them master specific new skills without making mistakes or facing a steep learning curve. The consultant has already conquered the learning curve, so he or she knows how to get employees up and running with a new technology without having to go through the pitfalls and iterations that newcomers would otherwise face.

As an example of what this means in practice, Asperitas Consulting worked recently with a company’s IT team to help them increase process automation. The IT engineers were familiar with the concept of Infrastructure-as-Code (IaC), but they hadn’t used it before in the business, and they didn’t have experience with specific IaC tools. Part of our job was to teach them how to leverage Terraform, an open-source infrastructure as code software tool, to automate infrastructure provisioning. We weren’t teaching them something completely new because they already understood IaC conceptually. But we helped them begin using a specific IaC tool quickly and easily, without making the mistakes (like security oversights within IaC templates) that teams often run into when they try to learn an IaC tool on their own from scratch.

Learn by doing. An effective consultant doesn’t build things and then turn them over to the client to run. Good consultants work side-by-side with their clients to design, implement and configure new technologies.

That’s critical because it means that employees get hands-on learning as part of the consulting relationship. When it comes time for employees to manage new systems on their own, instead of relying on just documentation or abstract training material, they’ve learned in a kinesthetic way.

Gain applied, relevant skills. One major shortcoming of formal training programs is that they typically don’t excel at teaching skills that can readily be applied to a specific business. Instead, they teach skills in a generic way, and leave it up to employees to figure out how to use them to manage their business’s unique systems and requirements.

Consultants do the opposite. Since the focus of a consultant is helping a business solve problems unique to that business, the skills that consultants communicate by working alongside employees are …

… tailored to the business’ specific requirements.

To put this in context, consider a technology like Kubernetes. Anyone could get a certificate in Kubernetes administration and come away with the basic skills required to define K8s deployments and manage access controls.

But translating those skills to the Kubernetes environment that your business runs is an entirely different affair. Your company may have special security requirements that affect the way your team needs to manage secrets (meaning passwords, access keys and other sensitive credentials) within Kubernetes, for example. Or, you may have a pre-existing observability stack that needs to integrate with Kubernetes, in which case generic K8s admin skills aren’t necessarily enough to ensure that engineers know how to manage Kubernetes as one part of your unique IT estate.

Reproduce, extend and build upon new skills. Experienced consultants don’t only teach employees new skills. They also document everything they do during the consulting program, so employees are left with the blueprints they need to reproduce or expand upon the systems and processes that consultants helped to put into place.

Consultants don’t just help employees learn a specific set of new skills. They leave them with the foundational knowledge necessary for continuous learning and ongoing creation.

Consultants Are Like Personal Trainers

If you like analogies, you can think of the role of consultants in skills transfer this way: Effective consultants are like personal trainers who help experienced athletes perform even better. Consultants don’t run the race for you; instead, they teach you how to run faster, and they leave you with the foundation you need to gain even more speed and agility over time.

Understanding the role of consultants in skills transfer is critical. Some companies make the mistake of assuming the purpose of hiring a consultant is to defer the need for employees to learn skills on their own by having consultants provide the skills.

That approach is akin to shooting yourself in the foot because the best consultants don’t just solve problems for you. They solve problems with you and ensure that your team gains the knowledge necessary to keep solving problems after the consulting relationship concludes.

Cameron Hatten is executive vice president at Asperitas Consulting. You may follow him on LinkedIn or @Asperitascloud on Twitter.

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