Tim Myall, of Frazer-Nash Consultancy, examines the factors organisations need to consider when choosing whether to use a consultancy to support their complex projects

The rapid pace of change in the transport sector means there are more demands than ever on your time. The speed at which advances in technology are developing can mean it’s hard to keep up with potentially beneficial innovations; while government goals on decarbonisation, together with the industry’s push towards digitisation can add further layers of intricacy to your already complex programmes. When you factor in the anticipated recommendations for reform from the imminent Williams Report, including the move away from franchising, and the multiple uncertainties generated by a global pandemic, the elements that need to be interwoven into programmes can end up tying you up in knots!

So, how do you decide whether to undertake a programme in-house or to draw support or specialist skills from a consultancy? What are the considerations you need to factor in when making your choice? The Cambridge dictionary defines a consultancy as ‘a company that gives expert advice on a particular subject’. Why might your organisation be seeking this expert advice? Perhaps you’re looking for a specific specialist skill set that you don’t have in-house, or your teams are too busy with commitments to other projects. Or, as you are firmly enmeshed in the day-to-day turmoil of a programme, you’re looking for someone who can take a step back and suggest alternative approaches and solutions. Maybe you want to understand how other rail organisations – or even other industries – have overcome a challenge.

Perhaps your first question should be, when is using a consultancy not the right decision? Ask yourself if recruitment to a permanent role or re-prioritising internally would make more sense over the longer term. Developing your people to have the expertise to manage your project for its lifespan is essential, and a good consultancy will help you to do this, but it takes extensive training and regular practise to build a good level of understanding, and time and commitment to maintain that expertise. So if time is a scarce resource, getting in help from organisations that have already developed this expert knowledge may offer a better, faster return, and enable you to complete projects that improve operational efficiency, customer experience or safety without lengthy delays.

Keeping pace with change

Despite the multiple, perhaps even conflicting, issues demanding your attention, falling behind isn’t an option when you are aiming to improve efficiency, performance and safety, and reduce costs. The rail industry must introduce new technologies onto the network, and the associated digitisation offers your organisation a range of benefits. These include streamlining of processes, better sharing and use of data, and digital twins that allow you to ‘virtually’ see the outcomes of a range of options before choosing the one that best fits your needs. New technologies such as machine learning are also being used to explore solutions to rail industry challenges – in our REPAIR project for the RSSB, for example, with the University of Hull’s Logistics Institute, we’re exploring how machine learning can improve performance and short-term planning on the rail freight network. Advice from consultancies can help your organisation to identify the art of the possible, specify your digital systems, integrate them safely into the rail network, and ensure their protection against cyber-attack.

Similarly, as the rail industry takes steps towards decarbonisation to meet the government’s Net Zero targets, it will need specialists in energy systems to support these activities. Increased electrification, and investigations into battery and hydrogen technology are ongoing – indeed, a hydrogen-powered train is already being trialled on the network – and expert advice will help you gain an initial understanding of hydrogen’s benefits, how to store and integrate it, and the safety cases needed for its use.

Strategies to search for solutions

So, when you do choose to use a consultancy, how can you ensure it is adding value? First, you need to consider what in-house knowledge you have available, and what skills you need to supplement and complement this internal baseline. These may be skills that you can’t justify maintaining in house, but which are essential to address your current challenge. Then, to get the broadest perspective on solutions, ensure that the consultancy you choose offers an impartial, independent, and technology-agnostic viewpoint. Keep an open mind: an independent assessment may not always say exactly what you want, or expect, to hear. Rather than just completing an activity and leaving, a good consultancy will consider whether the activity will solve the root cause of your problem, whether it will deliver the best outcome for you, and will question whether what you want is actually what you and your stakeholders and customers need.

This is one of the key things a consultancy can deliver – a holistic viewpoint. Sometimes, you’ve got so used to the way things are, you can’t imagine how things could be different. Through speaking to your people, and integrating with your teams, a consultancy can help you see the bigger picture and the interdependencies that exist within, and between, your systems. By doing this, they can make sure any new process or technology you introduce can be integrated successfully. A viewpoint from beyond the organisation can also bring clarity to organisational change programmes, and to the development or re-working of system and enterprise architectures.

While you will want to be sure that the consultancy you choose has a deep knowledge and understanding of the rail sector, depending on your challenge you may also benefit from using one that works across a range of sectors in addition to rail. This allows you to gain the insights offered by best practice and lessons learnt from other industries, for example in cyber security, asset management or cost modelling. With many organisations using frameworks to obtain consultancy support, there are opportunities for rail to draw upon solutions developed for, and implemented in, other safety-critical, customer-focused sectors. Modelling and simulation, used in digital twins created for energy companies, for example, can be adapted to a transport perspective, and help in the drive towards mobility as a service (MaaS), and integration across mobility nodes.

Sharing skills

As well as sharing up-to-date information and best practice, a good consultancy should add value by upskilling your people, particularly if you have asked them to help you with something new to your organisation. The remit of consultancies is to deliver expert advice on ‘a particular subject’, and this usually centres on providing support for discrete projects or programmes, or solutions to specific problems. If you’re regularly using consultants to undertake longer term, day-to-day activities, rather than to fill a gap, then you may want to consider hiring permanent resource.

As consultancies deliver discrete packages of work, they can also help you to avoid project creep. With deliverables scoped up-front you know what you’re getting for your money. While there is an initial outlay to employ a consultancy, the right company can help you to save money in the longer term, whether through uncovering potential efficiencies, improving equipment and system performance, or simulation and analyses that forecast outcomes and your return on investment. The modelling software tool we developed for one client, for example, helped reduce its capital expenditure on a rail depot upgrade, as we were able to show rapidly where capacity could be reduced without hindering depot operations.

So, if you’re considering using a consultancy ask yourself, what value will they add? Will they deliver solutions that save you time, and money? Will they help you address the root causes of your challenges, and capitalise on the opportunities of the future? Will they leave you better positioned to address the challenge yourself next time around? But most of all, will they help you to meet your commitments to your passengers and clients?

Frazer-Nash Consultancy Ltd

Frazer-Nash is a leading systems and engineering technology company. With over 800 employees, Frazer-Nash works from a network of eleven UK and four Australian locations. Our consultants apply their expertise to develop, enhance and protect our clients’ critical assets, systems and processes.

In an uncertain world, we contribute to national security in a huge number of ways. We help make sure that power is generated and distributed to everyone who needs it. We support moving people and goods around and between the big cities of an increasingly urbanised society. We work to make the world a more sustainable place. We ensure governments save time and money when public spending globally is under huge pressure. And we help our clients wrestle with the challenges and opportunities of an ever-accelerating digital revolution.

Our people use their combined strengths to deliver technical solutions to some of the most challenging problems out there. Sometimes these challenges are difficult technical issues, and sometimes they are difficult because of the environment our clients operate in. Our great strength is our ability to rise to these challenges and deliver.