The word "outsourcing" usually conjures up images of multimillion-dollar contracts, 10-year relationships and huge IT projects. But in some cases, outsourcing - or, more accurately, out-tasking - may be as simple as calling in a consultant to ask for advice. This week, we offer some insights on how to identify the need for a consultant, how to evaluate potential candidates, and how to get the most out of a consulting contract.There are many reasons for an IT organization to bring in a third-party advisor, but all of them generally fall into one of two categories: expertise and objectivity. Expertise is generally the key driver - a consultant has greater depth or breadth of knowledge than those in the internal IT organization, and therefore can clearly add value to a project.In some cases, objectivity also plays a key role. Disagreements between internal IT staffers, between IT and business management, or between IT staff and technology vendors often call for a non-aligned arbitrator who can make an objective recommendation. Be wary of consultants who claim to be "unbiased," however - most consultants have relationships or experiences that cause them to develop strong opinions. Like most IT managers, most consultants do have biases, and it pays to learn about those biases before bringing a consultant into the picture.What separates one consultant from the next? Again, there are many considerations, but one of the most important differentiators is flexibility. Some consultants apply the same methodologies and practices to every client, regardless of its specific situation. If these methodologies and practices are effective, this approach is not necessarily a bad one. Like software, some consulting is best purchased "off the shelf," without too much customization.In most cases, however, the most effective consultant is the one who listens to all sides before making a recommendation. If there are multiple viable solutions to a problem - and a consultant usually is not needed unless there are - then IT management should be certain that the consultant will seriously consider all of them before making a recommendation. If the consultant seems to have the problem solved before it's been fully presented, be wary. You may be a target for cookie-cutter consulting.Once you've chosen a consultant, it's critical to provide as much data as humanly possible. Like computers, consultants who are given only part of the picture will often come up with the wrong answer. A consultant should be given full access not only to all involved data sources within IT, but also should be given an opportunity to speak with upper management, business process managers, and even end users if necessary. Most good consultants will interview everyone involved with an IT process before making a recommendation.After all the interviews have been conducted and the consultant has weighed all the alternatives, you will receive a recommendation. Don't view this as stone tablets brought down from the mountain. The consultant should be called upon to justify the recommendation, and to reconsider if key elements were not given the proper weight. A consultant isn't a calculator, but an advocate. As with a lawyer, you should test the consultant's case to ensure that it is airtight before taking it to upper management.Finally, consider building a relationship with consultants who make solid recommendations. Much of the information-gathering process that occurs in a first consulting project can be eliminated in a second project, lowering the cost and time required for completion. Like a doctor, a consultant who is familiar with the "patient's" history will be more apt to detect problems that may be present in subsequent visits.