Consultancy no longer needs to apologise
07/12/2007
Our management consultancy columnist, Mick James, this week looks at the industry's professional organizations in the UK and what their differences mean for consultants and clients.

There's nothing journalists like more than a "furious war of words" to the extent that we often go to some lengths to kick them off. But I have to say I was mildly depressed by what could be shaping to be a spat between the Institute of Business Consultants (formerly the Institute of Management Consultancy) and the Management Consultancies Association.

For anyone who remembers the -- how shall I put it -- froideur that existed between the two bodies in the 1990s this is a faintly depressing prospect. Back then the issue was really about which body could be considered the Voice of the Industry, the MCA as a trade body of the major firms, the IMC as a professional association of individual consultants. Given that were it ever to speak, all the Voice could really say would be "My name is Legion. For we are many," I always found the issue faintly absurd.

Now a potentially more serious issue has raised its head. Bean counters' bible Accountancy Age suggests that a minor turf war might be about to break out over the issue of professional standards. On paper it's a non-issue, at least from a historical perspective. In other industries, and indeed in consultancy itself in other countries, the trade and professional organisations are one and the same. There's something to be said for this, in terms both of resources and presenting a unified front, but there are also other issues -- not least because it's sometimes hard to represent both individuals and their employers.

So back in the 1960s the IMC was hived off to be the membership body, leaving the MCA as the trade association. But things were different then: the MCA was made up of what we might call the "indigenous" UK consulting industry, and as sponsors of the IMC they warmly encouraged their staff to take up membership and seek professional qualifications.

When the consultancy industry was overrun, first by accountants and then by the IT firms, the IMC suffered, not least because the new wave of consultants were already members of their own professional bodies. As a result, although technically representing the "same" profession, the IMC and the MCA began to be seen as coming from different constituencies, with limited overlap. However, between them they pretty much covered the whole gamut of consultancy, from the big ticket guys to the sole practitioner. (The exception being the strategy firms, who maintain their splendid isolation and treat everyone else's use of the word "consultant" as an amusing courtesy title, like "turf accountant".)

In an era when consultancy was on the defensive, this worked quite well, with the two organisations making a good fist of establishing consultancy as both a valuable (MCA) and respectable (IMC) thing.

So what's the issue? We can sum it up with the three Rs -- reach, recognition and regulation. Neither body has, nor I suggest will, come within a country mile of covering the entire profession. The MCA can't extend its membership indefinitely -- it's already experiencing what you might call "Eurovision Song Contest" tensions from the polarization in consultancy between a small number of very large firms, a large number of small ones and still very little in-between. The IBC has to balance the needs of the employed and the self-employed, and also a small number of corporate members, the "registered practices". But it has failed to achieve significant penetration of MCA employees, and the question of what, if anything, to do about those is probably what lies behind the current mini-controversy.

Of course, all these issues would be solved if there was some genuine regulation in the industry, backed by the EU or some other regulatory body. But that's not going to happen: consultancy is a quicksilver profession -- fluid and reflective. It needs to be able to assume whatever form its clients need, and clients aren't going to be dictated as to where they get their advice. It's simply not the case that you can't get good consultancy outside the MCA and IBC, and never has been.

Which leads to the problem of recognition. Neither body has established itself in clients' minds as a "must-have" and I suspect there are many people out there who have been using IMC and MCA consultants for years without being aware of it. Sophisticated users of consultancy like banks have their own rosters of "go-to" consultants and they'll come back to them again and again whatever their current employer or professional affiliation. Consultancy "refuseniks" on the other hand, will never acknowledge the value of consultants whatever letters these stick after their name.

And so what? If companies believe they can survive in this increasingly competitive world without access to top-class advice then good luck to them. It's time for consultancy and its representatives to shake off the apologetic stance -- people are queuing up for good consultancy and should be grateful when they get it.

So where does this leave the MCA and the IBC? Perhaps they should stop worrying so much about the three Rs. Consultancy doesn't need apologists anymore, and clients are no longer naïve innocents under constant threat from the "cowboy consultant". The way forward for both organisations is surely to concentrate on providing a stunning service to their members (which in my view will involve taking considerably more money off them than it has been dared to do in the past) and letting the world beat a path to their door.

 

All views expressed in this article are those of Mick James and do not necessarily reflect the views of Top-Consultant.com and Consultant-News.com.

Contact Mick with your views or suggestions at: mick.james@top-consultant.com.