Consultancy: Where to go for unusual engineering challenges?
The concept of ‘consultancy’ conjures up a number of differing, and sometimes contradictory images. To some within the marine industry, bad past experiences have given consultancy a poor image, but intelligent use of the correct consultant for a particular project can add value and increase the capabilities of the client organisation.
What is meant by ‘consultancy’?
For a company engaged in naval architecture and ship design, it could be argued that all activities could be described as consultancy, as separate from the construction of a vessel. Alternatively, a distinction could be drawn between newbuild design and all other projects. In our company we frequently undertake small and medium sized projects, such as updates to fire and safety plans, stability work, and engineering to enable the fitment of additional cranes or boat davits. Generally, these projects are of a routine nature, but projects of a more unusual and esoteric nature are also undertaken. These latter projects, featuring unusual problems, or requiring more advanced engineering solutions are the subject of this article.
Which firms are equipped to do consultancy work?
For companies with an engineering capability gained through design or manufacturing it can be tempting to try to commercialise existing technical expertise by taking on consultancy work. This can be particularly attractive in an economic downturn when core business is at a low ebb. However, this is not always easy as, although the technical capability required is often similar for design as for consultancy, the way the services are organised and marketed, and the mindset required are very different.
Not products but answers
The manufacturer of a product is responsible for the delivery of the product, in its finished state to the customer. If there are any defects the manufacturer is responsible for putting them right, if there are any emergent works required as the product is being manufactured, the manufacturer needs to carry them out. This is the situation in shipbuilding, and engineers who have worked in shipbuilding tend to be very good at seeing the big picture and spotting emergent problems and fixing them.
However, consultancy is different to manufacturing a product. It is not the consultant’s job to take responsibility for all of the client’s problems (although a consultant should certainly alert the client to anything outside their scope of work which they think may be problematic for the client), but to answer the question they have been asked by the client. Typically, consultancy jobs are priced competitively, such that there isn’t scope to carry out additional work whilst remaining profitable. A consultancy project must not be open-ended, but focussed.
Meet and greet
Another difference concerns the way the business is marketed. A manufacturing business is selling a finished product, and the marketing effort is focused around the design, intellectual property and manufacturing technology. A consultancy is selling consultants’ time and the marketing effort is focused around the individual consultants’ expertise. This makes it necessary for individual consultants to engage in the marketing efforts of the company and make contacts and maintain their own relationships with clients.
Within an organisation where the majority of technical staff are not customer facing, it is possible for internal communications and reports to be functional. In a consultancy project, the final report is often the only deliverable and as such needs to be well written. Therefore it is necessary for consultants to have good writing and communications skills. Herein lies a potential pitfall—whilst a high value must be placed on marketing and the aesthetic qualities of materials and deliverables, the foundation of technical consultancy is technical know-how, expertise and experience and this shouldn’t be downplayed or neglected for the sake of good presentation.
Different clients, different approaches
The clients for marine technical consultancy work are diverse. The ship designer’s traditional clients, shipyards and shipowners are represented. However, the range of commercial marine interests including banks, lawyers and insurers are also consumers of these services. Often, these differing clients have different problems to solve.
A typical project for a shipowner was an investigation into heavy weather operability of a fleet of standby vessels. This involved seakeeping analysis of a number of vessels in the owner’s fleet as well as investigation of the efficacy of the steel shutters used to protect the wheelhouse windows from wave impact. A number of improvements to the design of these shutters was suggested . By contrast, a project for litigation purposes concerned a barge involved in civil engineering works on the East Coast of Australia, during the course of which a deck cargo was carried. Damage was recorded at the off-hire survey and a dispute arose between the owner and charterer. A full finite element model of the barge was produced and analysis of the barge subject to cargo, hydrostatic and hydrodynamic loadings carried out. A key difference can be seen here—a shipyard or shipowner usually requires whatever problem occasions the commissioning of the consultant to be solved, whereas commercial interests are generally only interested in an analytical service.
Non-contentious commercial work can involve due diligence work for banks, which may involve the condition and value of a second-hand vessel, or the capability of a shipyard to deliver a proposed newbuilding. It can also involve work for government organizations. In general, the consultancy activities of a given consultant will be dependent upon their experience and training, and often consultancy firms will have a specific area of expertise.
In addition to the varying topics, different types of clients require the consultancy deliverables to be presented in a certain way. Clearly, an insurance underwriter and the technical director of a shipbuilding company have differing levels of technical understanding, and so the consultant must be clear which audience they are addressing. This isn’t always easy, particularly when several different people may read the report, so it is helpful when clients can state who the consultancy deliverable is targeted at.
Understanding the question, refining the scope
I was once involved in a consultancy project for an oil and gas company where the brief was to write a report about LNG fuelled offshore vessels—and no more information was forthcoming. The subject of LNG fuelled offshore vessels is so large that it was difficult to know where to start, without further input from the client.
The beginning of a consultancy project is critical to its successful completion. At this stage the question which forms the basis of the consultant’s work is posed by the client. A vague question or scope of work will either result in excessive cost to the client (as the consultant attempts to cover all the possible definitions of the scope of work) or a consultancy deliverable which doesn’t actually meet the requirements. As a client, do you have a clear idea of the question you are asking—what do you want to get out of the consultancy work? If not, refine this until you have a clear and concise scope of work for the consultant.
A good consultant can add value in this situation as they can assist the client with refining the scope of work. An example of a better question than the one posed to the author would be “write a report about LNG fuelled offshore vessels, particularly the potential growth of this market and the market opportunities for selling LNG bunker fuel.”
Another possibility is that a reasonably focussed scope of work is presented, and the consultant thinks they know what they are being asked to do, but after discussions with the client it seems that what is actually required is not what the client is asking. In this situation a good consultant can ‘get behind the question’ to the client’s requirements and avoid unnecessary work and cost.
What should you look for in a consultant?
There are a lot of consultancy businesses in the market of varying sizes and costs. So how do you go about selecting a consultant for a particular project?
• Do you need to engage a consultant?
The first question to ask is whether engaging a consultant is the correct action to take. From experience it seems that many consultancy reports are commissioned only to show others within the client organisation that something is being done on a particular subject.
• Does the proposed consultant have a track record?
Can they give examples of previous projects undertaken? Do they have expertise in the particular field required? There is certainly something to be said for engaging consultants who have a wide range of experience and are not narrowly specialised, but the client needs to be confident that the proposed consultant can deliver a solution to the problem at hand.
• Can they prove their technical competence?
It wouldn’t be a surprise to find out that a designer of diesel engines has some useful insights regarding problems with diesel engines and the resolution thereof. That’s not to say that a non-designer doesn’t, but the client needs to have confidence that a proposed consultant is technically capable to carry out the work.
• After initial discussions with the consultant do they quickly get to the bottom of what’s required?
A good consultant will see the big picture and quickly understand the client’s needs—even if the client doesn’t accurately understand what they need.
• Bigger isn’t always better
Consultancy firms come in many different shapes and sizes, from one man bands working out of a spare bedroom, to large companies with hundreds of staff around the world. There are pluses and minuses when considering either, which are not just related to cost. The larger consultancy has a wider pool of experience than a single person, and theoretically more expertise. On the other hand, the smaller consultancy or one man band may have the particular expertise the client requires for a particular project, and the client knows who will be doing the work—which may not be the case when engaging a larger consultancy.
• Specialist or Generalist?
Does the project require a depth of expertise in a small area, or a breadth of knowledge across a variety of subjects? In most cases, good generalists don’t know a little about a lot, they know a lot about a lot and are often very experienced.
• Can you get on with the individual consultant on a personal level?
A good client-consultant relationship goes a long way to making a project successful, and while it isn’t necessary to be best friends with the consultant, the client needs to feel that they can trust and work with them.
• Don’t use a single consultant for everything
Many clients have a preferred consultant who they have worked with several (or many) times, who they get on well with and may even be friends with. The consultant has provided good work in the past, and so the client feels they have no need to change. This may not be the wisest strategy, as a consultant who has successfully carried out a series of dropped object analyses may not be the best consultant to analyse the effects of passing ships on a moored vessel. Again, that’s not to say that only consultants who are narrowly specialised should be engaged, but that the client needs to have confidence in the ability of the consultant to carry out the project in question.