The consulting industry as an information behaviour context: consulting engineering as an example
Madely du Preez
Introduction. Little seems to be known of how the consulting industry as a context shapes the information behaviour of consultants. The purpose of the paper is to shed more light on the elements present in an engineering consulting industry and to establish to what extent they affect the information behaviour of consulting engineers in that particular context. This paper reports on elements pertaining to the consulting industry from the author's doctoral study which focused on consulting engineers.
Method. Narrative inquiry (a qualitative research approach) was followed. Fifteen consulting engineers participated by sharing their stories of engineering projects.
Analysis. The narrative data was restoried into a coherent account of an engineering project. Data was also analysed thematically. One such theme was context.
Results. Contextual elements in the consulting industry context include consultants, clients, organisations, contractual agreements and tasks. Clients initiate projects and enter into contractual agreements with consultants. This requires trusting relationships. The knowledge and skills available in a specific consultancy determines the contractual agreements engineering consultants enter and in turn the time and effort they expend on information seeking and use.
Conclusion. As an information behaviour context, the consulting industry has the potential to shape consultants' information behaviour. The importance of trusting relationships were evident of the engineering consultants.
Information behaviour manifests within a certain context. As such, an information behaviour context acts as a ‘kind or time-space container where phenomena reside and activities take place, constrained by the boundaries of the context’ (Savolainen, 2009, p. 38). However, context is also viewed as ‘something that people do’ (Dourish, 2008, p. 22) and it is ‘embedded in action and practices’ (Savolainen, 2009, p. 39). Taylor (1991, p. 218) describes context as an ‘information use environment’. These three descriptions of context demarcate context in terms of the container or the social group within which information needs arise and which, in turn, have the potential to prompt information activities. The workplace or an everyday life setting are examples of information behaviour contexts (Pettigrew, Fidel and Bruce, 2001, p.44). Sonnenwald (2008, p. 645) added social contexts such as organisations and work teams to the list.
A context includes a combination of elements that are characteristic of a specific context and demarcate the boundaries of the context (Meyer, 2016). Also, Savolainen (2017, p. 2) noted that context could also include personal elements such as demographics, expertise and psychological factors. Meyer (2016) further noted that the elements of a context set the requirements for the information that is needed and used within the context. Examples of elements that act as contextual boundaries include space (Pettigrew, 1999, p. 811), time (Sonnenwald and Iivonen, 1999, p. 436), organisations (Aldrich, 2006, p. 1) and situation (Cool, 2001, p. 8). This observation is in line with the Concise Oxford dictionary’s (Factor, 2012, p. 413) definition for factors, the elements in a context that influence, motivate or determine the action that is taken by information users become factors affecting information behaviour.
The contexts within which information behaviour manifests can be very complex (Du Preez, in press). Multiple contexts can influence the information behaviour of users who operate within a specific context. For example, consulting engineers, in their capacity as consultants, operate within different contexts (Du Preez, in press; Lievrouw, 2001).
The consulting industry is an example of an industrial and social context affecting information behaviour. However, it seems as if very little is known of the influence the consulting industry has on consultants' information behaviour. Studies that did explore the effect of the consulting industry on information behaviour include studies by Du Preez (2008; 2015), Du Preez and Meyer (2016); Gralewska-Vickery (1976) and Ward (2001).
The following questions now arise: What does the consulting industry entail and which elements of the consulting industry have the potential to affect the information behaviour of people present in the consulting industry? The purpose of this paper is to, by means of an additional literature review find some answers to these questions. Whereas previous articles by Du Preez and Meyer (2016) and Du Preez (in press) focused on the role of social networks in collaborative information behaviour and the complexity of contexts, this paper will address the effect the consulting industry has on consulting engineers’ information behaviour.
The literature review first clarifies consulting industry related concepts before endeavouring to acquire some understanding of what the consulting industry as an information behaviour context entails. Thereafter some of the elements in the industry that shape consultants' information behaviour are identified.
The consulting industry is an example of an industrial and a social context within which consultants operate and within which information behaviour can be observed. Three concepts that underlie consulting industry require clarification. They are consultancy, consulting and consultant. Clients and consultants are collaborators in the consulting process (Van de Sanden, 2011, p. 2). The concept client will therefore also be clarified.
The concept consultancy refers to a dynamic process which rests on a discernible set of principles and practices (Stryker, 2011, pp. vii, 3). Consultancies are part of the broader field of professional and business services (Sturdy, Hanley, Clark and Stryker, 2009). They are knowledge intensive organisations that differentiate themselves by means of the specialised knowledge and services they offer (Kubr, 1996; Kunda, 1992). However, not all knowledge-intensive organisations render a professional service (Robertson and Swan, 2003, p. 864). This is because they do not necessarily emphasise typical features associated with a profession such as a standardised education, criteria for certification, and codes of ethics (Alvesson, 2001, p. 864). These are important features of consultancies that render a professional service.
Examples of consultancies rendering professional services include specialist law and accounting firms (Empson, 2001); engineering firms (Du Preez, 2008; 2015; Gralewska-Vickery, 1976; Ward, 2011); general management consultancy firms (Fincham, 1999; Glückler and Armbrüster, 2003); public relations and communication consultants (Alvesson, 2000; Johansen, 2017); educational consultants (Schachar, Gavin and Shlomo, 2010) and information consultants (Wilson, 2013). Since the professional service being rendered requires conceptual and task knowledge, the service being rendered by the consultancy demarcates the consultancy’s knowledge boundaries (Sturdy et al., 2009).
The verb consulting is described by Beckhard (1997) as ‘facilitating change or acting as an agent of change.’ In turn, Stryker (2011, pp. vii, 3) describes consulting as ‘an assignment [task] in which a consultant and a client seek to resolve a client’s organisational issue using a specified process’. The consultant and client’s interaction to resolve a problem manifests as a two-way interaction that is ideally perceived as a process of mutual learning and cooperation (Glückler and Armbrüster, 2003, p. 277). However, this process also demands high levels of autonomy and control whereby consultants operate freely while simultaneously regulating their own autonomy (Robertson and Swan, 2003, p. 831).
The nature of consulting therefore carries some uncertainty for both the consultant and the client. The consultants experience uncertainties about their work roles and differing work environments (Czarniawska and Mazza, 2003, p. 272) whereas management in client organisations are anxious over the uncertainty surrounding their careers, work roles and organisational environment (Sturdy, 1997, p. 390; Sturdy et al., 2009, p. 390).
A trusting relationship between client and consultant is required to deal with these uncertainties to ensure successful task completion. Trust then becomes embedded in client and consultant interaction and clients will tend to prefer transacting with consultants they have learnt to trust, where trust is based on their experiences of interacting with the consultant (Glückler and Armbrüster, 2003, p. 278).
Consultants are in the business of helping others succeed (Bellman, 2001). They are employed by a consultancy and consult for third party organisations (Weiss, 2005). They are experts (or experienced professionals in a subject field) who provide their clients with expert advice or solutions for a fee (Du Preez, 2008, p. 173; Sturdy, Hanley, Clark and Stryker, 2009, p. 3; Tordoir, 1995, p. 140). They are either working free-lance as self-employed professionals or as members of consultancy firms (Evers and Menkoff, 2000, p. 3).
Consultants are knowledge workers who work in a knowledge-intensive organisational environment (Glückler and Armbrüster, 2003, p. 277; Robertson and Swan, 2003, p. 831). They have access to information and experience (Evers and Menkoff, 2000). The services they render involve judgements based on scientifically tested knowledge whilst considering their clients’ present and prospective situations as well as the appropriate actions to be taken (Tordoir, 1995, pp. 5, 140). For this reason, consultants need to have expert knowledge of the subject, task knowledge and knowledge of the resources that are used (Allen, 1991, p. 7). In addition to their knowledge, consultants also require analysis, listening and questioning, writing and presentation skills (Nord and Wootton, 1996). An important part of consultants' skills pertains to their ability to adapt to various work contexts and tasks (Alvesson, 2001, p. 866). Also, they need to keep their clients happy while executing their tasks (Jackall, 1988, p. 172).
A consultant can either be an internal or an external consultant (Biggs, 2010, p. 146; Sturdy et al., 2009). As Biggs (2010) explains, internal consultants operate within an organisation and are available to be consulted by other departments or individuals who then act as their clients. In turn, external consultants are employed externally to the client by a consulting firm or agency whose expertise is provided on a temporary basis, usually for a fee. They are then accepted as outsiders who are able to confront their clients with outside views (Hoffman, Steiner and Jarren, 2011). Consultants therefore usually work in a different space than their own organisational environment and remain outsiders to their client organisations (Sturdy et al., 2009). They can also be simultaneously involved in multiple projects with multiple organisations (Mowshowitz, 1997, p. 7). Hence the statement that consultants’ information behaviour can be influenced by multiple contexts.
The noun client is used to refer to different things. It may refer to a client in computing where certain software access a remote service on another computer, or a customer who receives goods or services in return for money. However, when viewed from a professional service point of view, the concept client refers to ‘a person or group that uses the professional advice or services of a lawyer, accountants, advertising agency, architect, etc.’ (Client, 2018). A client is therefore someone who is ‘freely choosing to avail themselves for a service’ (Heron, 2001). They initiate projects (Atkin and Flanagan, 1995) and at the end of the relationship, the client has ownership of the outcomes of the project (Miller and Evje, 1999). In engineering, the client is the representative of the organisation initiating the project and acts with delegated authority on the organisation’s part (Boyd and Chiniyio, 2008, p. 5). Furthermore, the client involves a set of stakeholders with different viewpoints and different needs (Rowlinson, 1999).
Contextual elements in the consulting industry
In her paper, Meyer (2016) distinguished between information behaviour components and their elements. One such component is the context within which information users operate. In her literature review, Du Preez (2015: 45-67) established that elements in the engineering context have a notable effect on engineers’ information behaviour. The contextual elements that are present in the consulting industry that have the potential to influence consultants’ information behaviour that were identified by Czarniawska and Mazza (2003, p. 275) and Du Preez (2015) include organisations contractual agreements and task performance.
Organisations are ‘human gatherings at different levels who share certain values, beliefs, goals, institutions and processes’ (Zhang and Benjamin, 2007). Organisations can be classified as being formal or informal or by purpose (industry sectors, non-profit organisations, governments, etc.) (Allen and Wilson, 2003, p. 40; Zhang and Benjamin, 2007). Also, organisations provide natural boundaries that delineate the activities taking place within them (Aldrich, 2006, p.5). Furthermore, certain organisational structures are required to create a context or situations that would promote cooperation and trusting relationships among groups. Johnson (1997) describes these structures as ‘frameworks for interaction’. However, the creation of contexts that would promote cooperation can also splinter the organisation into different functional groups (Johnson, 2003, p. 744) which in turn has the potential to inhibit and prohibit actions that would support information discovery (Solomon, 2002, p. 232).
Organisational rules and the available resources in the organisation also shape information practices (Allen and Wilson, 2003, p. 40; Rosenbaum 1996; Solomon, 1997, p. 1110-1111). Du Preez (in press) subdivided the available organisational resources into cognitive knowledge and physical or external resources. She also reported that the availability of these resources differed between organisations. In turn, the organisational rules and practices are reinforced by the activities of individual employees. The physical context in organisations therefore not only stabilise individual’s information fields, but also determines the nature of the information they are exposed to (Johnson, 2003, p. 750). Individuals are also exposed to the same communication channels and networks.
In addition to the information that is available in an organisation, certain extra- organisational factors, such as regulations, industry-wide infrastructures and client expectations, also influence information practices in organisations (Lamb, King and Kling, 2003, pp. 104-105).
Organisations often employ consultants to bring new knowledge from outside into an organisation (Sturdy et al., 2009) or to develop and co-produce a product with their clients (Glückler and Armbrüster, 2003, p. 276). However, the knowledge consultants bring to a client organisation could be incompatible with the client’s needs and in such instances could be problematic to the consultant (Sturdy et al., 2009).
Certain persons, especially those in an organisation who make fundamental decisions about the organisations’ activities, act as the consultants’ contact persons within the organisation and are the consultants’ clients (Stryker, 2011, p. 3).
Some of the rules that shape consultants’ information behaviour can be found in the contractual agreements they are required to sign with their clients. The contractual agreement that is signed between the client and the consultant specifies the parameters within which the consultants need to operate. These are the ‘level of effort’ that should be expended by consultants (Consulting Engineers South Africa (CESA), 2003, p. 3), as well as the time frame and the budget that has been made available for the project (Glückler and Armbrüster, 2003, p. 276). The time and budget restrictions pressurise consultants in making decisions and in delivering actionable knowledge to their clients (Lee and Thomas, 2008). Due to these restrictions, consultants perceive the cost of searching and retrieving information from information systems in terms of the time and effort they have available to search for, sort through and interpret the available information (Hansen and Haas, 2001, p. 26). In order to save time, consultants then tend to seek information from a knowledge source that provides ready-to-use information (Hansen and Haas, 2001, p. 26) such as the information provided by personal contacts (Su and Contractor, 2011, p. 1258). In instances where the consultant is a member of a project team, the information is sought from their team members (Su, Huang and Contractor, 2010, p. 591).
Task performance dimensions of consultants
The tasks consultants need to complete depend on the nature of the tasks they have been contracted to complete which in turn are dependent on the individual consultants’ profession, personal knowledge and expertise. For example:
- Legal consultants advise clients on legal matters, develop strategies for clients which would minimise legal risk, identify opportunities or scenarios where legal action should be pursued, and draft or verify legal documents (Alton, 2016).
- Accounting consultants prepare, reconcile, analyse, interpret, store and communicate the implications of various financial statements to businesses (Petrick, 2018).
- General management consultants provide their clients with strategic, unbiased and objective advisory services which assist their client organisations in improving their productivity and overall performance (Management consultant, 2018)
- Crisis and communications consultants serve as coaches or personal advisors to the chief executive officer of the organisation in a crisis; make media contact, formulate messages, conduct question and answer (Q&A) sessions and write texts (e.g. press releases) (Johansen, 2017, p. 115, 118).
- The educational consultants in Schachar et al. (2010) study were contracted to support teachers in improving their teaching practices and to develop local educational leadership. These consultants needed to formulate and present in-service training programs, meet frequently with the teachers and write reports.
- Information consultants need to listen to faculty and students to learn about their feelings, concerns, resources and needs (Wilson, 2013, p. 16).
- Consulting engineers advise their clients, design systems, and manage, upon the directives of their clients, the completion of engineering projects (Du Preez, 2015, p. 101; Gralewska-Vickery, 1976, p. 266).
Haas and Hansen (2007, p. 1137) identified three task performance dimensions that are critical to ensure successful task completion. These are time savings measures, the quality of work output, and a signal of competence. They further noted that the contextual elements that are likely to affect these three task performance dimensions are the consultants’ use of electronic documents (information) and personal advice.
In order to enable consultants to complete their tasks within the parameters that are set by the contractual agreements they signed, consultancies should therefore ensure organisational structures and processes that promote trusting relationship and cooperation among groups are in place. The consultants’ activities and information practices should be focused on ensuring the quality of the tasks they complete and in ensuring the availability of information within the consultancy.
In a former investigation of engineers' information-seeking behaviour, Du Preez (2008) was realised that engineers are fond of telling stories of their projects. Narrative inquiry was therefore deemed the best research method for this study as it allowed the engineers to share their experiences without having to answer pertinent questions. Narrative inquiry is a qualitative research method (Creswell, 2013, p. 70) that studies the experience of people. It is reflexive and reflective research methodology (Clandinin and Caine, 2008, p. 4) which adopts a particular view of experience as the phenomenon under study (Conelly and Clandinin, 2006, p. 477).
A combination of convenience and snowball sampling was followed to sample the responding engineers. For this purpose, an architect provided the researcher with the contact details of the team members for a building construction project (Du Preez 2015, p. 180). All the consulting engineers on the list were contacted. With the exception of two engineers, all the invited engineers responded and some of them also suggested colleagues who could be interviewed. In the end, fifteen engineers shared their stories of engineering projects in narrative inquiry interviews that lasted for around ninety minutes. All the interviews were recorded and transcribed by the researcher.
Narrative data can be analysed in various ways. Rosenthal (1993) identified two levels of narrative data analysis that were important for this study. These are the analysis of the experienced life story and the narrated life story. Both methods require the organisation of the collected data into a coherent development account where data is synthesised rather than separated into different themes or topics (Polkinghorne, 1995, p. 15). This process then allows the researcher to retell the story by separating the interviews from their narratives and construct a more desirable narrative (White and Epston, 1990, pp. 41-48).
However, narrated data can also be analysed thematically (Riessman, 2008). This is when the researcher analyses what is spoken or written during data collection. Both methods were used in the study to support triangulation of data. With the exception of the data pertaining to the engineers’ organisational contexts which was analysed thematically, the rest of the data reported on in this paper was derived from the narrated story of an engineering project. The reporting in this paper is thematic.
Based on Du Preez’s (2015) study, the following discussion reveals how contextual elements such as elements in engineering consultancies, clients, contractual agreements and tasks influence consulting engineers’ information behaviour.
Consulting engineers are employed by an engineering consultancy. Du Preez (2015, pp. 246-249) found that not only did the number of engineers employed by a consultancy vary, but the knowledge capacity of each consultancy also varied and were determined by the engineering disciplines in which the engineers were involved. In addition to employing engineers, the consultancies also employ draughtspersons who need information from the engineers to support the latters’ task completion.
On average, the responding engineers confirmed that they were simultaneously involved in five to six other projects. Each project sets its own requirements in terms of knowledge required, the information that is needed and where it is sought from, the level of effort to be expended and the time frame.
The findings showed that the responding engineers' organisational backgrounds varied in terms of knowledge and experience as well as the information resources that are available in the consultancy. The availability of these resources determine the nature of the engineering projects the consultancies are contracted for.
Various methods seem to be employed to share knowledge, build engineers’ knowledge capacity and develop social networks. Engineer D explained that his consultancy has a training policy and provide funding enabling at least one person to attend a conference per annum. He also noted that they make a point of sending junior engineers to conferences because 'they are the ones that need to go [to learn from others], also for networking purposes'. In turn, Engineer F’s consultancy expect of the engineers who attended training events to share the information they had acquired with their colleagues. Engineer I reported that his consultancy organised regular networking evenings to encourage social interaction among the engineers and to create opportunities where engineers can share their 'lessons learnt' experiences and to 'learn from their elders'.
The outcomes of the engineers’ cognitive inputs in projects are reflected in tender documents and engineering designs. These physical resources are then a reflection of the knowledge and expertise that are available in a specific consultancy. Depending on the individual consultancies’ policies and available infrastructure, these resources and other important project related information are either archived in printed format or electronically. Engineers D and I reported their consultancies had a central server. Engineer I’s consultancy also uses FTP (file transfer protocol) sites and Dropbox to share information with colleagues working in distant locations. In turn, Engineer O’s consultancy also uses Google Drive to facilitate information sharing. The various archiving policies and techniques are employed not only ensure easy access but also timeous access to information that can support resource sharing. This is reflected in Engineer D’s statement confirming that these archiving practices ‘allow colleagues to learn from the project files what is happening on a project and enable them to use the same information on their own projects’. It seems evident that these day-to-day unspoken arrangements determine consulting engineers’ information behaviour to some extent.
Consulting engineers’ clients need facilities or services on a specific location. They initiate engineering projects. They contract and appoint project teams including consulting engineers from various engineering disciplines. They advise the appointees, design, and manage the construction of the facility or services.
The responding engineers reported on how their clients’ technical knowledge varied and how clients’ knowledge affected the consultants’ information needs. Engineer G explained that ‘… sometimes you will find a project manager [client] who has some technical background and who knows something of everything, just enough to manage and to ask the right questions’. In turn, some clients have no technical knowledge and are unable to define their design requirements. In the last case in order to proceed with their designs, the engineers would then propose certain solutions to the client’s perceived problem and motivate their solutions with cost. Engineer O noted that clients often identify other requirements they had not previously thought of which need to be provided for in the engineering designs. In such a case engineers’ need for listening and analysis skills as well as negotiation skills come into play.
In contrast to clients who are unable to formulate their needs, knowledgeable clients often ‘have a corresponding trade [engineering sections or disciplines] within the Department [e.g. a government department such as the Department for Public Works]’ (Engineer D). These clients have their own project teams who have come up with concept designs that need to be implemented’ (Engineer G). The consulting engineers will then ‘liaise with the clients’ engineer, develop their concept designs and manage the implementation thereof. Here is an example where the consulting engineers’ expertise is shared with the client’s project team and shape the latter’s understanding to alleviate the particular problem.
There are also ‘sponsor and owner clients’ (Engineer I) also known as ‘user clients’ (Engineer O). For example, the mining industry has project sponsors (e.g. a mining company), and project owners (e.g. a mine in need of the facilities). The scenario Engineer O described was for a department within an institution. In both examples, the user client or project owners have specific needs for the facility or service that needs to be constructed or implemented and for which the consultant was contracted for. However, the project sponsor or client institution controls the budget and sets certain design requirements that need to be met (e.g. the type of equipment that must be used). In order to proceed with their designs, the engineers need information from both the sponsor and the user client.
The contractual agreements signed by consulting engineers and their clients set the parameters within which the engineers should carry out their activities. The engineers can be contracted to investigate, design and manage the construction of the project or only for one of these tasks. From the findings it became evident that there are three parameters that form part of their contractual agreements. These are the level of effort, time and cost and the scope of works. These contextual elements that be discussed below to show to what extent they affect cons engineers’ information behaviour.
Level of effort
The agreed level of effort stipulates the amount of time the consulting engineers need to expend on the project. Engineer F provided a road construction example of how clients’ requirements affected the level of effort he would expend on a project. According to him, clients who are township developers want to save on costs and they are generally not interested in paying for roads that would last longer than for example three years. In turn, a national road agency client wants roads to last longer and their roads are required to carry heavier traffic than roads in urban areas. As a result, the township developer clients expect the consulting engineer to expend the minimum time and effort on the project whereas the national road agency client expects the consulting engineer to spend the maximum time and effort on the project. The consultants will then respond (according to their professional ethical code) by giving preference to products they trust rather than experimenting with new products that could have cost implications for the client. The level of effort to be expended is generally captured in the scope of works. The manner in which engineers deal with different requirements reflect on the ethical manner in which they deal with their clients’ resources.
Scope of works
The scope of works sets the parameters of the project. It stipulates what the client’s requirements are and establishes the deliverables – that is what the client will be getting once the project is completed (Engineers F and I). The level of effort, time and cost parameters of the project are captured in the scope of works.
Time and cost
The contextual elements time and cost seem to go hand in hand in a consulting industry context. In this context, time and cost parameters stipulate the available budget for the project as well as the timeframe within which the project should be completed. Engineer J explained that time and knowledge is consulting engineers’ biggest commodity and that they only make money when they ‘sell the same amount of knowledge in a little amount of time’. Due to this organisational need, the engineers are involved in multiple projects simultaneously. In order to cope with the time restrictions that arise due to this requirement, consulting engineers ‘borrow [designs] from one project to another’ (Engineer D). Another time saving measure was reported on by Engineer F. He reported that he would rather phone than send an email when a problem arises as a personal conversation enables him to sort things out more easily. The solutions and decisions taken will then be confirmed in an email. Despite the time saving possibilities social media such as WhatsApp present the engineers with, the use of this medium is not generally used as WhatsApp communications are not generally accepted as being legally binding. Engineer O noted that he would use WhatsApp to communicate with his contractors, but the outcomes of the message is always confirmed in an email.
Unfortunately, continuous changes happen on a project requiring redesigns. These changes often result in having the engineers spend more time on the project than what is logically viable (Engineer L).
The consulting engineers' tasks are linked to the engineering project they were contracted for and could be similar for all their projects. However, despite tasks being similar, certain information that is required is project specific. This includes information that pertains to the specific location of the project such as the project budget and timeframe.
Engineering contracts are completed in stages and each stage dictates the tasks requiring completion. For example, collecting information to complete engineering designs during the design stage of the project as opposed to managing the implementation of the design during the construction stage. Each stage in the project has ‘client acceptance’ (i.e. the client’s approval of the work completed) (Engineers F and I). Engineer F also noted that external approval could also be required as building projects that fall within a municipal area need to be approved by the local authority.
The tasks requiring completion during the preconstruction stages of the project vary and involve activities such as planning, negotiation and design. These tasks require information from various sources and include information from both formal and informal information sources. However, the tasks deriving from the construction phase evolve around managing the implementation of the engineers’ designs. The information that is required for these stages come from the engineers’ own designs and information from contractors and subcontractors.
Discussion of findings
In line with Dourish (2008) and Savolainen's (2009) definitions of context, the consulting industry can be viewed as a context where people do things in an environment that is ‘embedded in action and practices’. As shown by Meyer’s (2016) model, each contextual component is characterised by a set of elements that set unique requirements for information which in turn dictate users’ information behaviour. Especially four contextual elements act as contextual boundaries in the consulting industry. These elements are the consultant, consultancies, clients and tasks. Within these boundaries, consultants render expert services to clients who initiate projects and at the end of the relationship has ownership of the project.
In line with Savolainen’s (2017) findings, the context of the consulting industry includes personal elements such as expertise and psychological factors. This is evident from the findings which shows that the consulting industry is a knowledge driven industry where consultants are simultaneously involved in multiple projects (tasks) and are expected to complete their tasks within a set timeframe and budget. Each project sets certain requirements in terms of the knowledge and skills that are required to successfully complete the task. These requirements include the consultants’ subject knowledge, task knowledge, knowledge of resources to be used as well as their personal expertise. Furthermore, the consultants need to be able to analyse their clients' needs and to easily adapt between work contexts and tasks. They also need managerial skills. The latter is especially important as the consultants are required to manage both the budgets and the implementation of their projects.
Various aspects in their clients' (or the clients' representatives') knowledge and expertise could also shape consulting engineers' information behaviour. This is because knowledgeable clients are in a better position to express their needs for the facility or service and to understand the consultants' solutions to their problems. This is contrary to clients who are not knowledgeable and who find it difficult to formulate their needs. The consultants' personal knowledge, experience and skills then support them in providing the best solution to the clients' problem.
Trusting relationships are psychological factors. In line with Meyer’s (2016) information behaviour model, trust between client and consultant is an affective inner experience. This element is crucial to ensure successful task completion in a collaborative information context such as work teams. The importance thereof in the consulting industry is evident when considering that clients initiate projects and that they appoint the consultants they trust to successfully complete their tasks. In instances where task completion requires teamwork such as in an engineering project, the client determines the knowledge and expertise that is available in the work team. The possibility also exists that the appointed consultants had or had not previously worked together. Working with a new team not only has the potential to expand individual consultants' knowledge, but also supports them in developing their own social networks.
Furthermore, the trust relationship between a client and the consultant is based on the clients' experiences of interacting with individual consultants. By using information sources or products they trust, enable the consultants to ensure timeous task completion and the quality of work that is rendered. In turn, this signals their competence. So also does the use of physical and cognitive sources that are available in the consultants' organisations such as old tender documents and engineering designs save the engineers’ time and effort. In turn these sources are not only time saving mechanisms but also mechanisms consultants' employ to develop and maintain trusting relationships with their clients.
It seems evident that consultancies provide the organisational context for consultants' information behaviour. As such, the consultancy determines the information and skills that is available within the consultancy. Consultancies also demarcate the activities that take place within them and provide consultants with the required operational infrastructure (e.g. the servers to archive documents) to ensure successful task completion. Some of the activities in a consultancy are focused on developing consultants' personal knowledge and social networking skills which in turn also support the spontaneous development of social networks and individual's capacity to become involved in different types of tasks. In turn, the consultants' social networks become sources of information which can be used to satisfy their information needs when the information is either not available elsewhere or the consultant's task does not justify the time and effort searching for alternative sources. In this way, the interaction of contextual elements with elements in the personal domain help to shape information behaviour as revealed in the manner in which tasks are carried out and social networks are used to the advantage of the team.
Furthermore, although consultants collaborate with their clients, they remain outsiders to their client organisations and do not necessarily have access to information they need that is available in their clients' organisations. They then bring new knowledge to the client organisations.
The purpose of this paper was to show how the consulting industry as an information behaviour context influences the information behaviour of consulting engineers. This paper explored the consulting industry as a context in order to establish what the industry entails and which elements in the consulting industry have the potential to affect the information behaviour of consultants. This exploration can now confirm that consultants and clients are collaborators in the consulting process and that the core contextual elements in the industry include organisations, contractual agreements and tasks.
The contractual agreements such as the level of effort to be expended as well as time and cost along with tasks are contextual boundary elements which set criteria that are the mental boundaries with in which the consulting engineers can take decisions or adapt decisions thereby affecting their information behaviour. Trusting relationships between client and consulting is of utmost importance to ensure successful and cost effective completion of consulting projects. In addition to being important for task completion, trusting relationships contribute to the spontaneous development of social networks among engineers and their clients.
It is suggested that researchers investigating real life situations should consider the unique combination of elements that are present in a specific context when observing the information behaviour of individuals operating within the context. Practitioners who are tasked with the provision of relevant information services should also be aware of the effect context has on information behaviour.
Although the reported findings were focused on consulting engineers, the study leaves the door open to apply the same type of investigation in future research to consider the effect that the consulting industry as a context has on other professions such as legal, marketing or management consultants.
The continued mentorship, input and advice by Professor Meyer, a research fellow in the Department of Information Science of the University of South Africa, during the writing of this paper are highly valued.
About the author
Madely Du Preez is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Information Science, University of South Africa. She received her DLitt et Phil (Information Science) from the University of South Africa and her research interests are collaborative information behaviour. She is also interested in subject organization. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
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