There is an old saying "lend a consultant your watch and he will tell you the time". Most of us who have worked in large companies have some stories to tell around this old chestnut.

One of my ex-colleagues joined a well-known systems integrator. On his first day on the job he was told to meet his new boss in a taxi on the way to a client meeting. A technical manual was thrust in his hand and he was told to have a glance through it. "We've told the client that you have two years of experience with it," said his new boss. Despite never having touched the technology in question, the meeting went fine. It is perhaps no coincidence that the word ‘consultant' starts with the three letters ‘con'.

Such tales are, hopefully, at the extreme end of the spectrum, and it can be argued that clients who don't bother to do the most basic checking on the skills of consultants deserve what they get.

My own company has recently completed a study into the current state of master data management (MDM) projects, and as part of this probed into the experiences of companies who had used systems integrators to help them. We also surveyed systems integrators that claim to specialise in this type of project, and compared the results. While two-thirds of the survey respondents were ‘satisfied' (or better) with their chosen systems integrator, this leaves a troubling one third of firms unhappy or worse. Moreover, only 59 per cent found their systems integrator to have had ‘adequate' or better experience with MDM.

I find this particularly worrying. Projects go wrong for a number of reasons and it is sometimes tempting for a customer to blame the systems integrator rather than admitting that their project scope kept shifting or that they had trouble getting the business staff properly engaged. But at the very least, if you are paying good money for consultancy, you at least expect that the people who turn up on the project will have some reasonably solid experience. Yet the survey found just 16 per cent of respondents felt their chosen integrator to be ‘very experienced' in the very subject that they were selling their expertise.

Such experiences do beg the question as to whether companies are really using systems integrators to their best effect. Certainly there are several reasons why it may make sense to bring in a consultant to help with a project. You may not have expertise in a particular area, or you may have resource constraints. A consultant who has worked on several projects elsewhere may bring valuable experience to help you avoid repeating the mistakes of others. A less satisfactory reason for using a consultancy is that they can make a case for something that you know to be true yet is unpalatable, or to have someone to blame if things go wrong.

However, assuming that you are hiring a consultant to bring expertise, then it is surely incumbent on you to check whether the experience is really there. It is no good listening to the silken words of the partner selling the project, who reassuringly points out that their firm has carried out oodles of similar projects. What you really want to know is what the people they are actually proposing for the project have done. The consultancy may well have some star performers but are you getting those people or just the ones with time on their hands?

When I worked for Esso I regularly carried out technical interviews of consultants, just to confirm that their claimed experience was all it seemed. In all too many cases it became immediately apparent that what was on the CV bore little resemblance to reality. I recall one ‘expert' nervously shuffling around when I asked some fairly basic questions on the subject in which he was supposed to have two years' experience, only to finally admit that he had "been in the same room" for a few months with others who were working on the claimed project. I wish I could say that was a one-off.

In another case I observed a company going out to tender for a major support contract and taking the sensible approach of getting four short-listed firms to provide small teams for three months in order to assess their competence. One firm sent four excellent candidates, who did a great job and duly won the contract. Yet the day after the deal was signed, the four were replaced by a platoon of new faces, some of whom could barely spell the technologies they were working on.

If this sounds like I am pointing fingers at sharp practice amongst some systems integrators, I am not. To me the people to blame for such problems are the companies doing the hiring, who failed to carry out basic diligence on the people for whom they were paying large sums of money, and failed to construct contracts that allow proper validation of the staff that the chosen systems integrator provides. As someone who has both run a large consulting team and hired plenty of consultants over the years, I have just two words of advice to you: caveat emptor.