“We want a fresh perspective, so we selected a consultant who has never worked in education before.”
Thats something we occasionally hear from someone who is calling to tell us that they hired another firm. They believe a consultant who works with other kinds of clients will deliver a different solution, one that they wouldn’t get from us or other firms who work primarily with schools, colleges, and universities.
Pardon me, but I’m skeptical.
Its true that some consultants who work in .edu do seem to crank out work that looks very similar (though most dont). But much more importantly, I haven’t seen a whole lot of evidence of fresh thinking or new perspectives in the websites, viewbooks, brand work, and other products emerging from the partnerships with consultants with that vaunted experience outside education.
Why is that the case? Here are some hypotheses:
- Schools, colleges and universities are complex institutions. So consultants who haven’t worked in .edu need to learn the business. But more importantly, they need to understand the culture. And it’s not easy to understand how to operate within the unique culture of an institution where power is diffuse, decision-making is often unclear, and relationships can be complicated. Even with a firm grasp on these dynamics, it can be hard to move the needle. So consultants that don’t understand colleges and universities have a pretty steep learning curve.
- By their nature, colleges and universities are conservative institutions. Most are unwilling to step too far out ahead of their peers—to take too many chances. So even when some people at an institution say they want something different, when it comes down to final decisions, theyll likely opt for the safer option rather than the riskier one.
- Even if institutions are willing to sign off on a risk, key constituents aren’t. I can think of many examples in our own work where edgy designs–
considered front-runners by the staff members we were working with have been rejected after testing with target visitors and constituents. Or the college staff who told us “No purple on our web design!” and changed their minds when alumni missed their school color. And despite all the talk about the changing needs and interests of web audiences, there are certain standards and practices that work-and our testing shows that people want those standards maintained.
So, does experience in education really matter when you’re hiring a consultant? I believe it does. Here are some ways in which consultants with .edu experience bring value to a project:
- A consultants experience in working in education will help you avoid mistakes of regression specific to independent school, college and university projects. Having a history of what’s been done before and how best practices have evolved–
especially on the web and in print-can save you a lot of time and money.
- A consultants experience provides you with cover. You may know what you need (or think you do), but there’s a big difference between having the right solution and selling it to the people whose support you need to make it happen. Fair or unfair, hearing feedback or recommendations from a consultant with years of experience in education may hold more weight with your colleagues, helping you lay the groundwork for positive change at your institution.
- The consultants past work helps them to understand the culture of education and the challenge of building consensus in an environment where decisions are influenced by, if not determined by, many voices. A consultant with experience in education will be familiar with the way things do (and don’t) get done in an environment like yours and can be a strong ally helping you to navigate your institutions peculiar obstacle course.
What do you think?