Will strategy consultants (again) be the masters of the universe?

Fiona Czerniawska of Source Global Research

Thirty years ago, a documentary about consulting aired. Titled, in an even-handed sort of way, “Masters of the Universe”, it purported to lift the curtain on the consulting industry, with predictably unedifying results.

What the film tapped into, of course, was the public perception that consultants were arrogant know-it-alls, spotty business school graduates who felt they had the experience to tell captains of industry what to do. It’s an image that lingers, even if today’s consultants are far more likely to have worked in industry; to wear a T-shirt rather than a suit; and to work in coffee shops rather more often than they walk across the deep-piled carpets of executive management.

But other things have changed, too. Perhaps strategy consultants are now genuinely positioned to become the masters of the universe.

One of the big words in the professional services sector at the moment is convergence. Consulting firms, having long warned their clients of the dangers of, and opportunities in, the growing overlap between their industry and others, are now reaping their very own whirlwind. Just as lessons from the retail sector may help hospitals become more patient-centric; or cybersecurity best practice in financial services can help telecoms companies be more secure; so are services being offered by lawyers now offered by accounting firms; creative agencies are implementing systems; recruitment companies have become outsourcers—and so on. Convergence is largely a response to clients who are asking for help with issues that cross the boundaries between traditional professional services. You can’t transform an organisation without drawing on a whole host of different skillsets, from strategy through to technology, any more than you can make an omelette without breaking eggs. And lots of things are being broken in the professional services as a result. Organisational structure and business models often make cross-firm or inter-firm collaboration hard just at a time when clients want multidisciplinary teams. The whole idea of expertise—the cultural cornerstone of the entire professional services industry—implies specialisation and focus—at a time when clients are looking for an integrated approach. Old ways of working, say clients, won’t solve new problems.

And into this vacuum, if they have any sense whatsoever, will step consulting firms. Consulting obviously covers a tremendously wide range of activities, but at its heart is a process whereby you define and deliver a solution. And if we need proof of that, we only need to look at the speed with which firms in non-consulting parts of the professional services sector—technology companies, engineering firms, creative agencies, etc.,—are now building their own consulting practices. Who better, then, to take over the role of “orchestration” at an industry scale?

But even in this scenario, it’s not clear precisely which individuals within a consulting firm are best-placed to lead the charge. There’s lots of conversation about the importance of “solutions architects” but where do they sit in the organisation? Who do they work for? Crucially, whose budget do they come out of? Individual partners, recognising the opportunity and almost certainly inclined this way, are stepping in to make it work, but their impact is necessarily limited by the structures around them. Similarly, good account managers/owners will have recognised that their role is changing out of all recognition, as clients turn to them for help in “orchestrating” the different resources big projects typically require. The problems between firms are even greater and more difficult to resolve. Who takes responsibility for making ecosystems work, for example?

Step forward the strategy consultant. From listening to clients, we can see how “strategy” itself is evolving, and that smart ideas need to be matched with the ability to coordinate activity around digital, analytics and execution. The skills required for the strategy consultant of the future, which we’ve just published a white paper on, are exactly those that will be needed to manage professional services convergence.

Strategy consultants may now (rightly) shy away from being labelled masters of the universe, but they certainly have the opportunity to become so.