What does it mean to be in consulting these days? The consulting model that’s evolved over the last 30 – 50 years seems to be breaking down. The internet and social media have shifted the way business operates, and the consulting industry has failed to move with it. The old tricks that the industry has relied on — the did it, done it stories and the assumption that I know something you don’t — no longer apply. Margins are under pressure and revenue is on the way down (though outsourcing is propping up some) as clients find smarter ways to solve problems, or decide that they can simply do without. The knowledge and resources the consulting industry has been selling are no longer scarce, and we need to sell something else. Rather than seeing this as a problem, I see it as a huge opportunity; an opportunity to establish a more collaborative and productive relationship founded on shared, long term success. Sell outcomes, not scarcity and rationing.
I’m a consultant. I have been for some time too, working in both small and large consultancies. It seems to me that the traditional relationship between consultancy and client is breaking down. This also appears to be true for both flavours of consulting: business and technology. And by consulting I mean everything from the large tier ones down to the brave individuals carving a path for themselves.
Business is down, and the magic number seems to be roughly a 17% decline year-on-year. One possible cause might be that the life blood of the industry — the large multi-year transformation project — has lost a lot of its attraction in recent years. If you dig around in the financials for the large publicly listed consultancies and vendors you’ll find that the revenue from IT estate renewal and transformation (application licenses, application configuration and installation services, change management, and even advisory) is sagging by roughly 17% everywhere around the globe.
Large transformation projects have lost much of their attraction. While IBM successfully delivered SABER back in the 60s, providing a heart transplant for American Airlines ticketing processes, more recent stabs at similarly sized projects have met with less than stellar results. Many more projects are quietly swept under the carpet, declared a success so that involved can move on to something else.
The consulting model is a simple one. Consultants work on projects, and the projects translate into billable hours. Consultancies strive to minimise overheads (working on customer premises and minimising support staff), while passing incidental costs through to clients in the form of expenses. Billable hours drive revenue, with lower grades provide higher margins.
This creates a couple of interesting, and predictable, behaviours. First, productivity enhancing tooling is frowned on. It’s better to deploy a graduate with a spreadsheet than a more senior consultant with effective tooling. Second, a small number of large transactions are preferred to a large number of small transactions. A small number of large transactions requires less overhead (sales and back-office infrastructure).
All this drives consultancies to create large, transformational projects. Advisory projects end up developing multi-year (or even multi-decade) roadmaps to consolidate, align and optimise the business. Technology projects deliver large, multi-million dollar, IT assets into the IT estate. These large, business and IT transformation projects provide the growth, revenue and margin targets required to beat the market.
This desire for large projects is packaged up in what is commonly called “best practice”. The consulting industry focuses on did it, done it stories, standard and repeatable projects to minimise risk. The sales pitch is straight-forward: “Do you want this thing we did over here?” This might be the development of a global sourcing strategy, an ERP implementation, …
This approach has worked for some time, with consultancy and client more-or-less aligned. Back when IBM developed SABER you were forced to build solutions from the tin up, and even small business solutions required significant effort to deliver. In the 1957, when Spencer Tracy played a productivity expert in The Desk Set, new IT solutions required very specific skills sets to develop and deploy. These skills were in short supply, making it hard for an organisation to create and maintain a critical mass of in-house expertise.
Rather than attempt to build an internal capability — forcing the organisation on a long learning journey, a journey involving making mistakes to acquire tacit knowledge — a more pragmatic approach is to rent the capability. Using a consultancy provides access to skills and knowledge you can’t get elsewhere, usually packaged up as a formal methodology. It’s a risk management exercise: you get a consultancy to deliver a solution or develop a strategy as they just did one last week and know where all the potholes are. If we were cheeky, then we would summerize this by stating that consultancies have a simple value proposition: I know something you don’t!
It’s a model defined by scarcity.
A lot has changed in the last few years; business moves a lot faster and a new generation of technology is starting to take hold. The business and technology environment is changing so fast that we’re struggling to keep up. Technology and business have become so interwoven that we now talk of Business-Technology, and a lot of that scarce knowledge is now easily obtainable.
The scarce tacit knowledge we used to require is now bundled up in methodologies; methodologies which are trainable, learnable, and scaleable. LEAN and Six Sigma are good examples of this, starting as more black art than science, maturing into respected methodologies, to today where certification is widely available and each methodology has a vibrate community of practitioners spread across both clients and consultancies. The growth of MBA programmes also ensures that this knowledge is spread far and wide.
Technology has followed a similar path, with the detailed knowledge required to develop distributed solutions incrementally reified in methodologies and frameworks. When I started my career XDR and sockets were the networking technologies of the day, and teams often grew to close to one hundred engineers. Today the same solution developed on a modern platform (Java, Ruby, Python …) has a team in the single digits, and takes a fraction of the time. Tacit knowledge has be reified in software platforms and frameworks. SaaS (Software as a Service) takes this to a while new level by enabling you to avoid software development entirely.
The did it, done it stories that consulting has thrived on in the past are being chewed up and spat out by the business schools, open source, and the platform and SaaS vendors. A casual survey of the market usually finds that SaaS-based solutions require 10% of the installation effort of a traditional on-premsis solution. (Yes, that’s 90% less effort.) Less effort means less revenue for the consultancies. It also reduces the need for advisory services, as provisioning a SaaS solution with the corporate credit card should not require a $200,000 project to build a cost-benefit analysis. And gone are the days when you could simply read the latest magazines and articles from the business schools, spouting what you’d read back to a client. Many clients have been on the consulting side of the fence, have a similar education in the business schools, and reads all the same articles.
I know and you don’t! no longer works. The world has moved on and the consulting industry needs to adapt. The knowledge and resources the industry has been selling are no longer scarce, and we need to sell something else. I see this is a huge opportunity; an opportunity to establish a more collaborative and productive relationship founded on shared, long term success. As Jeff Jarvis has said: stop selling scarcity, sell outcomes.
Updated: A good friend has pointed out the one area of consulting — one which we might call applied business consulting — resists the trend to be commoditized. This is the old school task of sitting with clients one-on-one, working to understand their enterprise and what makes it special, and then using this understanding to find the next area or opportunity that the enterprise is uniquely qualified to exploit. There’s no junior consultants in this area, only old grey-beards who are too expensive to stay in their old jobs, but that still are highly useful to the industry. Unfortunately this model doesn’t scale, forcing most (if not all) consultancies into a more operational knowledge transfer role (think Six Sigma and LEAN) in an attempt to improve revenue and GOP.
Updated: I’ve responded to my own post, tweaking my consulting page to capture my take on what a consultant needs to do in this day and age.