A consultant is usually an expert or an experienced professional in a specific field and has a wide knowledge of the subject matter. The role of consultant outside the medical sphere (where the term is used specifically for a grade of doctor) can fall under one of two general categories:

  • Internal consultant: someone who operates within an organization but is available to be consulted on areas of their specialization by other departments or individuals (acting as clients); or
  • External consultant: someone who is employed externally to the client (either by a consulting firm or some other agency) whose expertise is provided on a temporary basis, usually for a fee. Consulting firms range in size from sole proprietor ships consisting of a single consultant, small businesses consisting of a small number of consultants, to mid- to large consulting firms, which in some cases are multinational corporations. This type of consultant generally engages with multiple and changing clients, which are typically companies, non-profit organizations, or governments.

By hiring a consultant, clients have access to deeper levels of expertise than would be financially feasible for them to retain in-house on a long-term basis. Moreover, clients can control their expenditures on consulting services by only purchasing as much services from the outside consultant as desired.

Consultants provide their advice to their clients in a variety of forms. Reports and presentations are often used. However, in some specialized fields, the consultant may develop customized software or other products for the client. Depending on the nature of the consulting services and the wishes of the client, the advice from the consultant may be made public, by placing the report or presentation online, or the advice may be kept confidential, and only given to the senior executives of the organization paying for the consulting services.

The range of areas of expertise covered by the term “consultant” is wide. One of the more common types is the management consultant. Consulting and the means by which the (external) consultant is engaged vary according to industry and local practice. However the principal difference between a consultant and a temp is generally one of direction. A consultant or temp is engaged to fulfill a brief in terms of helping to find solutions to specific issues but the ways in which that is to be done generally falls to the consultant to decide. An information systems or project management consultant is also referred as just a consultant who manages constraints such as budget and resources agreed with the client. An external consultant, on the other hand is normally fulfilling a non-employee role that usually exists within the organization and is helping to bridge a gap caused by staffing shortages, skills and expertise. They are directed by the normal management structure of the organization. There is, however, a hybrid form where a consultant may be hired as an interim manager or executive, bringing a combination of specialist expertise to bear on a role that is temporarily vacant (usually at a senior level).

A second difference is that temp is generally used for labor-oriented work whereas an external consultant is generally used for service-oriented work. Consultants and temps are those that work for clients. Both of them are non-employees of an organization and both work on the basis of contract terms. Some companies have employees of the company act as internal consultants and they provide cross-team advice. In most cases, however, employees of a company titled as consultants are those that work with the clients of that company and are external to the client. A manager at the client company, to whom the consultant or temp reports, does not have direct authority or responsibility over the outcome of the consultant’s work because they are external and are providing a service to that company. As long they are external to the company/team they are consultants, but as soon as they join the company/team they become employees/team members and are given job titles based on their skills.

Some consultants are employed indirectly by the client via a consultancy staffing company, a company that provides consultants on an agency basis. The staffing company itself does not usually have consulting expertise but works rather like an employment agency. This form of working is particularly common in the ICT sector. Such consultants are often called “contractors” since they are usually providing technical services (such as programming or systems analysis) that could be performed in-house were it not easier for the employer to operate a flexible system of only hiring such technologists at times of peak workload rather than permanently.

While many consultants work for firms, there is also an increasing number of independent consultants. Many of these professionals also join networks or alliances that allow them to find collaborators and new clients.

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