Friday, June 24, 2011

What Makes a Professional eLearning Consultant?

In my travels I meet lots of "thought leaders" and other types who claim mastery at one thing or another. Sadly, the claims are often not backed by any real substance.

So what makes for a good professional eLearning consultant?

When I first got into the business world, circa the time of the dinosaurs, I was told by someone that a "consultant" was not a "contractor".  Then they proceeded to tell me how much they hated consultants because they delayed the Sales process (this person was a Sales manager). But his comment made me reflect on the differences between a "consultant" and a "contractor".

A "consultant" is a professional with expertise in certain areas. Consultants usually have 5-10 years experience, usually come from Management or vendor positions and have solid knowledge of vertical markets (i.e. Finance, Insurance, Manufacturing, etc.) A consultant is not just a "learnng" expert, they are a business, process and, incidentally, a learning expert. 

A contractor is someone that is hired to do task-specific things. They tend to be operational, technical or more production oriented. They are not consultants in that they do not have a broad range of experience or the Managerial background.

Being either a consultant or a contractor is OK. But often these get confused and the results can be quite varying.

For example, a consultant may know how to implement a global eLearning solution but not be able to author a course with an eLearning tool. A contractor may be able to author but not really know how it all ties together. That's a high level differentiator between consultants and contractors.  There are, of course, exceptions to this as some contractor can be consultants and vice-versa.

Getting back to our original topic, what makes for a real professional consultant?

In order to become a consultant, I'm not going to focus on contractors from this point on, you need to have the following:

  • Business experience. This means a broad understanding of how Learning can best be used within the corporation to improve that entity's bottom-line.  If you're wondering what the "bottom-line" is you're probably a contractor...
  • Vertical knowledge. If you work for a bank, make it a point to understand the processes, rules, regulations and departments that make up your specific Financial institution. The more you know about operations the more successful you will be as a consultant.  For example, if you have to provide Customer Service training for bank tellers, you would need to udnerstand how tellers interacts with customers, the computer systems they use, the audit processes that keep them honest, etc.  No matter what industry you work in, become an "expert" in that industry.  By the way, don't become a "thought leader", thoughts were not meant to be led around, they were meant to be acted upon...
  • Operational expertise. eLearning professionals often only know their core area: authoring tools, instructional design, multimedia, etc.  But beyond that, many don't know or strive to understand how to parlay that knowledge into the goals of their organization. Become familiar with the way your company runs (operations). Enlarge your viewpoint from a task-oriented one to a departmental and then to a global one. For example, if you work in a manufacturing company, become familiar with the roles and responsibilities of the different departments and the personnel in them. You may be in Training but become aware of what's in the warehouse or shop floor, look at the product creation process starting from conception all the way to a finished product and all the steps and hand-offs in-between.
  • Educate yourself. I know, you're thinking you already have a BA. BS or Masters in Training, HR or whatever. That's fine. But educate yourself in things like Systems Analysis, Project Management, Operational Management, etc. Get out of your comfort zone and go around your building and interview people to understand what they do and how it ties into what others do.  A knowledge of Systems will help you more logically analyze requirements.
  • Think like a business owner. In other words, don't just offer a Training or eLearning solution, offer a business solution that improves productivity, service, efficiency, revenue, etc.  All too often we are content just making a salary. But guess what? People who just make a salary are usually laid off first because they're not a crucial part of the organization. They do their "job" but don't add much value. Are you one of those people? If so, see the previous step and get on it before you're wondering what happend..
  • Be curious. If you have no curiosity, you will never survive as a consultant because you won't know what questions to ask or how to interpret the answers to the ones you did ask. Be curious as to how things run, how people function, how systems work, etc. Curiosity may kill the cat but it creates a great consultant. 

There are many other things that go into becoming a great consultant, but that would require a book, or two. Here is one final thing for you to consider:

Are you a consultant or a contractor?

There is nothing wrong with being one or the other. The skill sets needed are different. Above all be honest with yourself. Not everyone has what it takes to be a great consultant or a great contractor. Find the one you feel best fits you and then do what it takes to be the BEST you can be at it.

I saw a bumper-sticker years ago which said, "Unless you're the lead dog, the scenery never changes." It's your choice to lead, follow or get out of the way. A good consultant usually leads their clients.

Happy learning!

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