Clients are shaping the management consulting industry and they don't know it
10/01/2008
management consultancy columnist, Mick James, this week tries not to make predictions about the nature of the industry in 2012.

Recent readers of this column will know that for predictions and prognostications for the coming year they're probably better off with the horoscope section of The Daily Mail. I'm in a state of perpetual confusion about the economy, although I have to say that the fact that Gordon Brown is beginning to sound like Jim Callaghan in his "Moses" period has begun to edge me towards the camp of the doom mongers. Could 2008 be the year of the "perfect storm" in which we are treated to a replay of all the best bits of the oil crisis of 1971, the Winter of Discontent of 1978, the 1982 recession and the 1990s housing slump?

So I was intrigued to be invited by the University of Bristol to take part in a survey looking at what the consulting industry will be like in 2012. Speaking as a man who in the year 2000 wrote a book called "Management Consultancy 2010", which I'm too embarrassed to even open these days (although I might take a peek in two years time), that's a long time to look into the future.

But I waded in anyway, boldly describing myself as an "industry commentator" and proceeding to reveal how little I really know about this industry of ours. Hopefully my remarks will be suitably weighted when the final research appears this autumn, which I look forward to reading (assuming all economic activity hasn't ceased by then).

Afterwards my thoughts ran on and I realized that I'd approached the survey in a completely cart-before-the horse way, thinking about consultancy first and clients second. Consultancy is, after all, a bit like one of those Rachel Whiteread sculptures: looked at in isolation, all you get is the negative space left behind by whatever mysterious activities clients have been up to. To put it less flatteringly, consultancy is a cushion which bears the imprint of the last person who sat on it. If we could look at the industry in 2012 we'd see traces of all the traumas and upheavals that the next four years will bring.

This brings into focus one of the great dilemmas of consultancy, at least from the point of view of planning the future from a skills point of view. În the one hand the individuals you need must be operating at the highest possible levels of performance and expertise in their chosen disciplines. But at the same time they need to be flexible enough that you can adapt your offering and business model to the caprice of client demand. The closest analogy I can think of is being a silent film pianist, trying to provide a seamless melodic accompaniment to a film you've never seen and which constantly veers from tragedy to comedy.

So perhaps the "challenge for consultancy" should be turned on its head. The real challenge is for clients, who so far have largely failed to design their businesses in a way that acknowledges the ongoing, if intermittent, need for outside assistance. Just as you wouldn't design a building without access to your utilities, so any major organisation should have natural interfaces for dealing with consultants. At the moment consultancy is still associated with a certain violence to the organisation, which is now being reciprocated by the increasing pressure from procurement professionals. One would hope that after a few more years of this argy-bargy, things might settled down a bit and that clients would have not just a clearer view of consultancy, but would have established a more explicit demarcation between the various levels of subcontracting and outside advice and assistance they employ.

Whether clients will ever attain this level of consciousness is debatable. At the moment the uncomfortable situation for consultants is that they work in an industry which is being constantly reshaped by people who a) have no expertise in the matter and b) don't even know thåy're doing it. Remember that next time someone questions your fee rates!

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.