From independence to collaboration in historical consulting
18 June 2014 – Jennifer Stevens
Long before I had employees, I began my consulting career as an independent researcher. Although I fall into the introvert category on every personality test that I have taken, I am not your stereotypical introvert. I enjoy interacting with people and seek out opportunities to socialize and work as part of a team. Indeed, I believe that my desire for teamwork was one of the reasons I turned to public history. It gave me the chance to interact with more than just a remote editor in my research and writing. Consulting offers the opportunity to conduct regular face-to-face meetings with exceptionally diverse audiences, where I discuss my work, bounce around ideas, and get instant feedback. Because of the pace of consulting work, I actually have had more opportunities to write than I likely would have had in academia and on subjects that vary widely in both topic and scope. These are bonuses I didn’t anticipate when I turned to consulting as a career.
As the owner of a growing business, I recently have found it necessary to expand my notion of teamwork to include not just clients but also other researchers and writers. I admit that the conversion of my solo consulting career into a research-team-based enterprise has been one of my greatest challenges. Finding an appropriate balance among us on task assignments, making sure our work doesn’t overlap, and setting up procedures for effective team communication have tested me. I often find myself wondering how other historical consulting firms face these challenges.
At SHRA, we have grown to a team of five professionals over the past two years. Our historical research projects are defined by several characteristics. First, most of the research required is fairly expansive and requires us to travel to various archives around the country. Second, members of our team are usually engaged in research and writing on multiple projects in any given week or month. Finally, an important defining feature of most of our projects is that the client is often an attorney or law firm that is seeking a historical expert for a specific case. In such circumstances, they specifically ask me to be their expert. That means that I have to have a solid–no, superb–grasp on the key primary sources and narratives of many projects simultaneously. Figuring out how to coordinate the work of my team so that I can write a highly effective report and deliver the best possible testimony has not been an easy task. It has required creativity, the deployment of available technology, and the engagement and feedback of my team to come up with effective solutions.
Let’s start with the basics of teamwork in historical research. In a typical business consulting framework, there is a project manager and several team members that report to him or her. At SHRA, we also employ that structure. But what particularly vexed me in the early days of working with this approach was knowing that when a member of my research team had a cart full of archival boxes in front of her, it would be her eyes on those documents and not mine, even though it would be me, and not her, referring to those documents on the witness stand. How could I be sure she was analyzing the material appropriately and fully? How could I say for certain that I comprehended the contents of the boxes and that I was comfortable with the breadth of our research?
It was critical that we design a system that ensured a feedback loop that permitted both me and my researchers to develop a deep enough understanding of the contents of those boxes. Then came the writing. It was perplexing to solve the problem of merging several people’s writing styles into one narrative flow. Authors’ voices vary so much and having separate voices in a sectioned report can jar a reader, not to mention raise the possibility of having different argumentative slants. Ultimately, good project management, a custom database, and regular face-to-face discussions have solved our team research concerns. In addition, a model in which I do most of the actual report writing myself, using the rough sketches done by my research team to provide the structure and evidence that I need to make my argument, solved the writing issues.
Finding an overall system that addressed all of my concerns was no easy task. I realized along the way that I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. There were plenty of small business owners out there who had struggled with these challenges. I networked my way through many of them, asking questions about hiring and firing practices, pay scales, divisions of labor, and mundane things like vacation policies. Although a historical research consulting firm may be rather distinctive, if not unique, as a business enterprise, the hurdles it confronts are common. A consulting expert put on the stand by the client-lawyers typically relies in part on data generated by a team. The really good experts to whom law firms return again and again are those who have command of their research throughout the process. Finding a balance between using a team and keeping your own fingers in the mix is tricky. I have found that people are flattered when you ask for their guidance and are more than willing to share their own experiences to save you heartache.
The bottom line is this: As my own time has become ever more splintered, I have come to rely more and more on the people who surround me, my introverted nature aside. I liken the process to a sieve. Over the years we have designed a process by which the largest grains of sand get filtered out while the smallest ones are allowed to fall away. As the team leader, I design the project and provide the research structure, and my team, in turn, ensures that I see the most important documents and that the big pebbles don’t slip through. Through a great deal of communication, an open-door policy, a very good database system, and a redesigned job description for yours truly, we have emerged as a successful team.
~ Jennifer Stevens, PhD, is principal, SHRA/Stevens Historical Research Associates