Your business enterprise is most likely to benefit from the services of a consultant if the strengths of the practice match your needs.

A qualified consultant can provide significant benefits to an enterprise. Those whose counsel reflects knowledge, experience and wisdom typically provide significant and lasting value to their clients in excess of the fees paid. One can classify consulting practices into three groups defined by whether the practice is based on knowledge and experience; processes, formulae and checklists; or technology. Generally speaking, it can be said that the most skilled consultants combine the attributes of at least two, and sometimes all three, of these groups, but always include the attributes of the first.

The knowledge- and experienced-based practice. These consultants acquire knowledge through formal education, and experience through line management directly related to the problems at hand. They are easily identified by their knowledge about the client's specific problems. Whether it is a facilities plan, marketing or sales administration issue, or a plant engineering or maintenance problem, they can talk specifics with the client. These consultants offer no magic bullet or generic problem-solving template. Their forte is a thorough understanding of the problems under discussion, how they affect the enterprise, and how to develop a real-world solution.

The process, formulae and checklist practice. These consultants are known by their highly defined and generic process descriptions and collections of checklists, which they are expert at applying to almost any problem. They are consummate facilitators using their predefined processes and templates. Their forte lies more in process skills than an understanding of the technical nature of the problem under study or the industry the client serves. Consequently, business plans are developed without understanding the client's issues or industry, relying instead on the process to take care of everything.

The technology-based practice. These consultants depend on software packages as the solution to all corporate ills. Software is indispensable to business today, but relying on software to provide everything that management needs to know about marketing, production, sales management and organizational issues can be hazardous to the health of a business. This can be aggravated if the software is installed with little or no understanding of the nature of the operations to which it will apply. I have actually seen operations all but shut down by such cure-all software.

Finally there is a subgroup of style without substance that, unfortunately, can occur in any of the three practice groups. Individuals in this subgroup confuse hours of activity with actual progress and accomplishment. They are routinely and regularly seen toiling away in 16-hour days, but their contribution is nil.

Qualified consultants have a lot to offer you. If you plan to bring in a consultant, here's how to match a practice with your needs.

• If you need a facilitator, and it is more important for the individual to be skilled in planning, managing and conducting meetings than to have detailed knowledge of the issues to be discussed, pick the process-based consultant.

• If technology is the basis of your problem, your best choice is the technology-based consultant. Just make sure you, as the client, have totally defined the problem and have a complete, objective understanding of what you want from the technology.

• If you have management or operating issues to address, and want practical input in developing and implementing effective solutions, the knowledge-based consultant is your best choice.

• Your best possible choice is to find a consultant with an appropriate mix of all three. Avoid like the plague any relationship with the activity-without-accomplishment subgroup, lest your enterprise suffer lasting damage.