In most companies it is important to keep up with the latest technologies. In a consulting firm it is critical because what you are selling is knowledge and experience. The ability for a consultant to advise a client both from a business perspective and from a technology perspective adds to the value of your people. The business knowledge relies on real world experience, but the technology knowledge mean many hours of research and prototyping with betas.
A company needs to look at the time and money spent doing this research the same way they do as creating marketing efforts. This is an investment, not an expense. Each consultant is the product being sold to the client. Would you decide not to add a screw to a device that you were selling that make it unusable?
How do you decide how much you should spend on a particular consultant per year? This needs to be a return on investment decision. How important is a particular technology or topic to bringing in new business or new talent? If a $3K investment per year gets you one new client that puts 4 consultants to work for the year it would seem the investment was justified. At the same time the fact that you invest in your consultants attracts some of the best talent because they know that you are working to ensure both their future and the company’s future.
How do you what to invest in? First make sure that your consultants have the tools they need. In the Microsoft ecosystem this means having the latest version of Visual Studio and access to MSDN accounts so that they can experiment with beta tools. In any ecosystem you need to give your consultants the ability to go to conferences, whether that is on site or via webcast. The advantage with going to on site conferences is that they have a better chance to ask questions and interact with experts directly (as a side benefit they may find a new client or potential employee).
You are going to make some mistakes as you grow you research and development allocations, but if you start out slow and align them with your business goals they will return you dividends. Take the steps to improve your team and you will have happier employees and clients.