Birds or Fish? Internal and External Consultants

Sky and Water is a 1939 woodcut by Dutch artist M.C. Escher. Courtesy of Wikipedia.org

Sky and Water is a 1939 woodcut by Dutch artist M.C. Escher. Courtesy of Wikipedia.org

By Kathleen Iverson

Sky and Water, by M.C. Escher is a tessellated image of birds changing to fish when they sink below the water line.  Depending on whether you see the background or foreground as dominant, you see either fish or birds at the water line.

To me, this image represents the relationship between internal and external learning consultants.  Like the birds and fish in Escher’s image, internal and external consultants are really one and the same, but have different environments.

Kathy Iverson is an associate professor in Roosevelt University's Training and Development graduate program. She teaches organization development, cultural diversity, research methodology, training foundations, consulting, and evaluation.

Kathy Iverson is an associate professor in Roosevelt University’s Training and Development graduate program. She teaches organization development, cultural diversity, research methodology, training foundations, consulting, and evaluation.

External consultants are the birds in the image, independent agents that swoop into organizations to provide a wide array of services in workplace learning and development.  They are contracted as needed to provide such services as assessment, training, performance intervention, and evaluation.  After their work is finished, external consultants migrate to other organizations in need of their specialized knowledge.

Although most consultants are external, we are beginning to see a larger number of internal consultants (fish) who perform similar duties but are permanent organizational members. They act as business partners guiding their organization toward optimal performance and work in areas of human performance improvement, training, and organization development.

What do think are the main advantages and disadvantages of internal versus external consulting? Which area interests you — would you rather be a bird or a fish?  Why?

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About Kathleen Iverson

Chair Graduate Program in Training & Development Roosevelt University
This entry was posted in Careers, Human Performance Improvement, Instructional Design, Learning Theory, Organizational Development, Technology, Training and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Birds or Fish? Internal and External Consultants

  1. First, I love this analogy because it fits so perfectly. I have spent most of my career as an internal consultant or a fish and I feel most comfortable in that role. The advantages of being an internal consultant are that there is a steady paycheck, a consistent team of people you work with, an opportunity to try new things and being present when projects are completed. The biggest drawback I see is that being with the same organization may get boring.

    And external consultant has many advantages: the work is more exciting because the consultant would change clients and projects more often; the consultant would be seen as a true expert in her field because she would concentrate in one area; she would build a large network. Some disadvantages would be having to go out and get business, not having a steady income, not really being a part of a consistent team.

    I think I would enjoy being an external consultant if I could get over my fear of not having a steady paycheck. Once a consultant is established I’m sure the jobs come one after another. But for now I will stay a fish and keep swimming.

  2. Working as an internal consultant the min advantage is having the necessary knowledge to navigate through an organization. Internal consultants are well aware of thier resources and the limitations that may affect a project. The main disadvantage is that the “norm” may not be challenged and it may be difficult to bring fresh new ideas to the table.

    As an external consultant is almost opposite of the internal consultant. External consultants have the advantage of being an outsider looking in and able to assess sitiuations in a different manner, therefore bringing fresh new ideas to the client. On the flip side, the disadvantage is not knowing how to navigate an organization. External consultants have a very limited view of an organization and may not always be introduced to the resouces they may need to be successful.

  3. abrazil01 says:

    Internal consultants have the advantage of having a better understanding of an organization’s culture and way of doing things. An internal consultant will have valuable insight when it comes to the implementation of changes throughout an organization. They may be better equipped to understand and deal with resistance. However, it is a disadvantage that they will have limited exposure within their field.

    There are several advantages to being an external consultant. One example of an advantage is objectivity. An external consultant will be able to provide a new perspective and may help to uncover issues that need to improve when insiders see these things as the status quo. Additionally, external consultants are challenged with a wide variety of problems and situations. They also work with various companies and numerous people. I believe this wide range of variability gives them a greater level of proficiency. However, it is a disadvantage that the consultant may receive inadequate feedback in regards to how the changes implemented have continued to effect the business over time.

    I would prefer to be an external consultant. I enjoy field operations and would love the broad range of experience.

  4. euellmr says:

    I would choose to be a fish; an internal consultant. I think internal consultants have somewhat of an advantage over an external consultant because they are ‘in house’ and most likely know the ins and outs of the organization where as an external consultant would have to take some time to learn about the client before they can do any work.

    • Hi Euellmr! I have the same outlook as you on internal vs. external consulting. I also feel internal consultants have an advantage as well as more passion in the work they do, due to being emotionally invested in their company. Thanks!

  5. After reading about internal and external consultants, I feel the advantages of internal consulting are getting well acquainted with colleagues and having a genuine interest in benefitting the company. However, disadvantages include limited variety in projects and limited exposure to industries. In my opinion, advantages of external consulting are broadening your consulting experience by working on several types of projects with different clients, as well as building your professional network. Disadvantages of external consulting include never feeling attached or connected with client-employees.

    I would be interested in being an internal consultant, being a fish, because I feel there is more stability and consistency in that job opportunity opposed to an external “bird” consultant. Stability is very important to me in feeling settled in my workplace. If I felt there would be frequent movement, it would be difficult for me to feel emotional investment at work.

    • euellmr says:

      Hi Mariam!
      Being an external consultant definitely has its benefits in terms of broadening your experience because you have the opportunity to work with so many different clients from all different fields which will help to expand your client base and build your reputation as a consultant as well. Great comment!

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