“Our scanners may have trouble finding this lifeform. It has metamorphic qualities that were confusing the computer.” – Chief O’Brien, Star Trek DS9, The Alternate
One of the more common misalignments, even from those within the project management industry, is the difference between a contractor and a consultant. The complexity is due partly because both of these classifications fall into a broader category of staff augmentation; where an organization brings in outside professionals to help with specific tasks and longer term objectives. In the simplest of terms, a contractor role is a specifically assigned set of tasks or processes which are repeatable and part of the routine operation of the organization. A consultant provides expert advice based on experience and training on how to approach different organizational problems.
Darth Vader’s hiring of bounty hunters in Star Wars Episode V: Empire Strikes Back is a good example of a contractor arrangement. The objective was clearly defined, some context around the current state was provided, and the customer expected only to see the result with no consideration to the methods. The specific objective was to bring Luke, Han, and the others back to Vader alive. Vader was able to provide information that these individuals were last seen travelling in the Millennium Falcon. The Sith Lord then permitted the bounty hunters to use whatever means were necessary.
As Lord Vader thought about the resources that he already had at his disposal, mainly the Imperial forces, he likely realized that the Imperials were best suited for large scale combat and occupation types of roles. He realized that his own organization was not the best suited to seek out a singular ship in the galaxy, and probably not the most likely candidates to bring Luke back alive. Vader had to go outside his own organization to find experts who could achieve the objective via using different methods and resources than what was available to him.
Consultants are different because unlike contractors who are brought in to execute a specific body of work, they are often required to create and demonstrate their methods. An example of consultant-type services rendered is Captain Kathryn Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager provided consultant-level services to an organization known as The Borg.
A malevolent species from fluidic space designated Species 8472 was waging war against The Borg, and The Borg were losing. Normally the Borg gather and process information via assimilation; the use of nano-probes to effectively change a subject with their own biological and technological distinctiveness into a Borg drone; which in turn would communicate all information from the evolution of species down to the personal experiences of the individual subject into the Collective consciousness. Unfortunately for the Borg, Species 8472 was impervious to the assimilation technologies and processes. Without a way to understand their opponent, The Borg were without a clue in how to defeat their enemy. Captain Janeway offers to provide insight to how the enemy could be defeated, utilizing methodologies of investigation and deductive reasoning to understand their common enemy.
The consulting arrangement stipulated that Janeway use her methodology to provide information on Species 8472 to the Borg, and in exchange she negotiated passage for her ship through the vastness of Borg space without being threatened herself. For the first time ever in Star Trek history, we see The Borg collaborating and cooperating with, rather than forcefully assimilating, an external organization for help.
The key distinctions are that a consultant provides guidance and expertise on how to structure a strategy to overcome challenges often times resulting in a unique process to achieve the objective. Contractors will execute their own methods to complete a particular task, and they can also be hired to act as a specialized team focusing on a particular set of tasks. Ultimately each organization must make its own decision on whether or not to bring in external help and whether they need a contractor or a consultant to get the job done; but as a project is temporary it is always at the discretion of the organization how long a consultant or contractor remains on the project.