Martin White reviews a book written by three experienced consultants that seeks to support information professionals in setting themselves up as consultants.
I’ve been working in information consultancy for over 35 years and not regretted for a moment my choice of career. It’s taken me to over 30 countries and the opportunity to work with an amazing array of organisations in temperatures ranging from 47C to minus 25C. I’ve had project meetings on the top floor of the United Nations building, on a boat anchored in the harbour at Cannes, a luxury hotel in Oman and in a London convent. I’ve flown on HP’s corporate jet, had lunch with Henry Kissinger and was inside the IMF in Washington on 9/11.
My first experience of information consulting was as the manager of an information broking business in 1977. The British Library kindly sponsored a trip to the USA to meet a range of information brokers in Washington, New York and San Francisco, including Sue Rugge, the founder of Information on Demand. At that time information broking and information research seemed to be the place to be, and in 1981 I wrote a book (long since out of print!) entitled ‘Profit from Information’ about how to set up and run an information research business.
The early 1980s were a good time to be in this business as online information retrieval services flourished. In 1983 John Gurnsey and I developed a set of guidelines for the Library Association that set out an ethical framework for consultants working in librarianship and information science. This led to us being approached by the Library Association to write a book on the subject and so Information Consultancy  was published by the LA in 1989. Subsequent pleas to write a second edition fell on deaf ears so the arrival on my desk of the book I am now reviewing was of particular personal interest.
I chose to be an information consultant. In 1977 I had a number of career development options but information consulting had a particular appeal. Many of the consultants I have met and worked with since then have not been so fortunate, having been made redundant by their organisations or found that there were no obvious career development routes. Cut-backs in library and information services in all sectors over the last few years have resulted in many experienced information professionals deciding to fly solo. Unlike learning to fly an aircraft, it is difficult to gain experience of life as a consultant whilst still in employment, so planning ahead for take-off is very important.
A good place to start is to talk to other consultants. However you will quickly find that everyone you talk to will have different objectives, different approaches and often conflicting advice to give. If they are potential competitors they are very unlikely to talk about the fees they charge. If they are working in a very different sector then even if they do talk about rates it will not be of much help. The key issues in setting a pricing strategy are how much do you need to earn and how many days you are able to work on fee-earning projects. The amount of time needed to chase prospects, undertake marketing and other promotional activity, as well as just keeping up to date with your sector, can come as quite a surprise to new entrants to consulting. It is this sort of very practical advice I was expecting to find in this book given the experience of the authors.
As a consultant you quickly learn the importance of the first impression you give a potential customer, who probably decides in the first couple of minutes of a conversation or a meeting whether or not to hire you based mainly on secondary evidence and not your professional skills. Opening up the book under review you are presented with seven pages of background information on the three authors. The first chapter is entitled ‘What is information consulting?’ This is a good question and one that the authors fail to answer. A fundamental problem with this book is that the authors seem unable to decide what they regard as information consulting. A paragraph on p3 takes about providing information based on the tools found in public, academic, special and research libraries. This is the classic information broking role. Four pages later and a very useful table expands the scope into what might be regarded as information management consulting.
Subsequent chapters cover the advantages and challenges of information consulting, business planning, the legal environment, marketing and client relations. In principle they are all very relevant topics. Chapter 8 offers advice from ‘veteran’ information consultants. They are not named and frankly the chapter is a waste of space as the topics are covered in other chapters. The same goes for Chapter 10, in which clients speak about their experience of working with consultants. An Appendix describes seven case studies of consulting projects which again adds little to the overall value of the book as (quite understandably) the clients are not named.
Two Is Company, Three Is a Crowd
This is a much quoted idiom and this book seems to be an excellent example. When John Gurnsey and I wrote our book we spent several months working with Alan Day, the Series Editor, on the structure and deciding which of us would write each chapter. Looking back at our book I find it very difficult to remember which chapters we each wrote as we also tuned and integrated our writing styles.
Regrettably this is not the case with the book under review. I sometimes felt that all three authors had been involved in one short chapter as the text changed direction and style in the space of a single page.
Much of the advice given in the book is of value but there are also some substantial omissions. A key issue for someone starting out as a consultant is whether to work as a sole trader or set up a limited company and the issues surrounding this decision are not considered. This is not just about legal and tax issues but also the image you want to present to potential customers. For example, most people know that I am the only employee of Intranet Focus Ltd, but for major corporations (my core client base) Intranet Focus Ltd is far more acceptable to procurement and finance departments than Martin White and Associates.
Another major omission is a discussion about technology options for sharing files and other project information with clients. Examples include BaseCamp as a project management application or Huddle or Dropbox for file sharing. The issues around project management are totally ignored. The authors also have virtually nothing to say about the importance of a Web site or social media in marketing professional services. Indeed there is no index entry for ‘Web site’ though there is for ‘bank account’ and ‘Appendix’.
Overall I get the sense that this book was written from the bottom upwards, with each author listing what he or she wanted to write about, rather than from a top-down perspective of deciding what a potential information consultant needed to know.
There is no doubt that the authors are experienced consultants and that the advice given is based on considerable practical experience. What their clients would say about a project report written in the style of this book is a matter for some debate. The list of References at the end mentions authors such as Mary Ellen Bates  and Reva Basch (who is no longer working in this sector) but includes no relevant bibliographic information on them. There is a reference to a 1995 paper on how to choose an information broker! Sue Rugge is also mentioned although the book she wrote was published in 1997 (pre-Internet) and she died in 1999. The index entirely fails to come up to the mark, including entries for ‘uncertainty’ and ‘scoop creep’ (sic). Chandos should look to its laurels.
At various points in the 198 pages of this book there is some invaluable wisdom about life as an information consultant. However if this is the only book you decide to read before setting out on consultancy as a career, then I fear your career prospects will be quite limited. In my view, Mary Ellen Bates has written the definitive book on working as a self-employed information professional , offering readers a style, authority and passion which is sadly lacking in this new work.
- John Gurnsey and Martin White. Information Consultancy. London, Library Association Publishing, 1989.
- Bates Information Services http://www.batesinfo.com/
- Mary Ellen Bates. Building and Running a Successful Research Business. Medford, NJ, USA. 2nd Edition, 2010.
Martin White started his consulting career with NPM Information Services in 1977, subsequently working as a consultant for Creative Strategies International, Link Resources, International Data Corporation, Logica and TFPL. He set up Intranet Focus Ltd. in 1999 as an intranet and information management strategy consulting practice but now spends much of his time on enterprise search projects. He is a Visiting Professor at the iSchool, University of Sheffield and Chair of the eScience Advisory Group of the Royal Society of Chemistry.