Should Consultants Give Away Intellectual Capital?

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Jul 20, 2011
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Much of the value that HR consultants provide to clients is contained in their intellectual capital—their thoughts, ideas, theories and models that sometimes are captured in tangible form through presentations, PowerPoints, blogs, articles and the like. Many consultants build their credibility and boost their value by sharing these assets freely; others guard their assets fiercely, making them available only to clients willing to pay.

What’s the best approach? Each consultant will have to decide that based on their practice and personal goals, but sentiment seems to err on the side of sharing freely.

“We give away a lot of thought leadership material,” said Phillip Wilson, president of the Labor Relations Institute in Broken Arrow, Okla. “The basic purpose of our giveaway material is to illustrate our expertise and to make sure clients see us as leaders in the industry,” he said. “While our competitors also provide free material, we strive to make sure ours is clearly ‘head of the class.’ ”

That said, he added: “I don’t believe you can give away your way to profits. You have to be selling alongside the giving, but it does provide a lot of credibility to your work and makes people comfortable doing business with you.”

Erik Pelton said that he has three perspectives on how people should use and guard their intellectual property: as an intellectual property attorney, as a consultant attorney and as a consumer of information from other attorneys and consultants. Pelton, an attorney with Erik M. Pelton & Associates, PLLC in Arlington, Va., said: “Generally, my philosophy is that in today’s day and age providing a wealth of information is a good thing and is generally advisable.” In fact, for HR consultants, the strategic dissemination of information can boost business and bolster credibility.

Leveraging Your Intellectual Property

When building a brand, including a consulting brand, information is power, said Mike Schultz, president of RAIN Group in Framingham, Mass., and a faculty member in the marketing department at Babson College. “You’ll make a hell of a lot more money if you build a personal brand as an expert,” he said. “When it comes to sharing expertise through articles, blogs, social media and the rest: Give, give, give. We don’t hold anything back—that’s the kind of thing that brings in business, especially for people like HR consultants.”

Randy Phares, president of Dr. Box Consulting and Packaging Recruiters in Carson City, Nev., agreed. While some fear that giving away too much will devalue their information or provide potential customers with the ability to “do it themselves” rather than come to them for assistance, that’s generally not true, said Phares.

“It would be impossible to give away ‘all my secrets’ in a white paper, article or other medium, so I am never in fear of giving too much information,” he said. In fact, he noted, giving away information can lead to sales and, particularly in the consulting world, it is an important way to demonstrate value and earn the trust of prospects who might become clients eventually.

Phares tells of a situation in which he was asked by a corporation in Latin America to develop a training program for use at a plant they were planning to build in the U.S. He said he could help them do an in-depth market analysis, do a financial analysis, buy the equipment, install the equipment, hire their people and then put together their training programs. “I’m sure they had their doubts,” he said. So he sent them a list of the equipment they would need, the top three vendors for each piece of equipment and his concerns about their chosen market and building, and he backed it up with facts.

“After giving them all of the free information to help them, I simply let them know that if they needed any help with the project, I would be happy to help.” It didn’t take long. While they had never had the intent of hiring a company for a market analysis or using his firm for anything other than training, Phares said: “They now look at me as a partner in their success of a very important North American expansion project.”

Building value

Not giving away information and resources can make it difficult to gain new customers, said Phares. “You must build trust and value into your proposition. By providing good content you demonstrate your expertise and ability to provide value.”

Importantly, said Schultz, giving away information doesn’t preclude consultants from charging for information. With his firm, for instance, he said: “We give away content on how to sell as fast as we can churn it out.” In addition, he manages a multimillion dollar online business for people who decide to pay for additional services and information.

For consultants, it’s not so much the information itself as the application of that information to specific business issues, Schultz pointed out. “Whether or not somebody gets a particular piece of advice or even amazing research data doesn’t take away that they still might need them on site to do something for them. It doesn’t take away from any business to be able to give away great information.”

Pelton, who said he provides free information through blogs, podcasts and videos, said: “You may find something valuable in an article, but that can never replace having one-on-one, specific guidance or consultation for a real situation.”

Protecting Your Property

Still, while Pelton and others believe in the value of sharing information freely, Pelton advised HR consultants to take steps to protect that information through the proper use of copyright and trademark notices, something that he finds few do. “A fair amount recognize the importance of doing this, but a vast amount does not,” he said. The process can be straightforward and inexpensive. “Every time there’s original content, whether it’s an article or a video or audio piece, or even a graphic, they should use a proper copyright notice,” he said. HR consultants might choose to file a copyright notice with the U.S. Copyright Office or might decide to trademark their business name or aspects of their practices.

“What I recommend that consultants and other businesses do is every six months or so sit down and evaluate the most important things they’ve created and if they’re properly protected,” he said.

Finally, HR consultants should exercise caution in their use of others’ information. It can be very easy to cut and paste information from somebody else’s website, article or blog and use it in your materials. This should be done only with proper attribution and, sometimes, explicit permission. When in doubt, advised Pelton, ask. In many cases, others will be glad to share—they’re likely interested in building their businesses and brands too.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.

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