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Consulting Industry Caught in the Crossfire

 

Consultants are continuously analyzing and forecasting trends for an array of industries, but what does the consulting industry forecast for itself?  Many of the trends affecting other industries are now starting to permeate through the consultancy field. For 2016, various publications and professional consultants have weighed in on their predictions of the key drivers, technologies and disruptors that may affect the industry.

The Uberization of Consulting

The Uberization mega trend may finally be affecting the consulting industry for 2016 and coming years. The ways this trend are affecting consulting are varied. More use of freelance and transactional style consulting services may become the norm. Even in early 2015, North Highland’s CEO, Dan Reardon, had stated during an interview with Forbes that lingering effects from the cost-cutting mentality of the 2008 recession can still be felt today. Companies that hire consultants still seem to focus on the cost of hiring a consultant rather than the value that this professional can bring to the company. Reardon predicted that in the coming years, consulting services may be seen as a more commoditized, transactional type of interaction rather than as a professional long-term service partnership.

Potential Disruptors to the Consulting Industry

Low-cost and crowdsourced “disruptors” may also continue to enter the field of consulting services within the coming years. Such startups as the crowdsourced Wikistrat are gaining traction by having the media publicize some of their consulting successes. In fact, the company was touted as beating out even the CIA in predicting the rise of a separatist movement in Crimea which sought a Russian annexation. Additionally, Marketplace.org recently published an article describing HourlyNerd as the startup that is “disrupting the consulting industry.” This crowdsourced marketplace brings together freelance consultants and businesses together in order to help provide substantive analysis and solutions to problems. In addition to the ease of clients and consultants finding each other, there is also some strong influence for consultants to consider the freelance/crowdsourced route for their employment. With upstart outlets like Wikistrat and HourlyNerd, there is less need for arduous travel by consultants. They can also have their choice over which projects to take, unlike at many traditional consulting firms which assign projects to their consultants.

 

The worlds of employment and business are becoming increasingly turbulent as the stability of the enterprise grows ever shorter, the loyalty of the enterprise to its people faces extinction, and the wealthy countries of the world stand at a precipice of overhanging debt. Increasingly intelligent digital technologies and mercurial customer expectations threaten both people and enterprise at every turn.

One would suppose that this would be an amazing time for consultancies, full of promise and opportunities. One would imagine that clients desperate for solutions that help them cope with these challenging times would be banging down the doors of consulting firms outbidding each other to the firm’s next client.

But that is not the reality…

Because, the same forces that are causing a feeling of disequilibrium for the firms that consultancies serve are also causing the same unease, trepidation and challenge for the consulting firms themselves.

The fact is that the consulting industry is being attacked on three sides:

  1. Increasingly Available Intellectual Property
  2. Internal Consultants
  3. Artificial Intelligence

Let’s look at each threat in turn:

1. Increasingly Available Intellectual Property

 

Hiring a consultancy, even for a small project, is a big expenditure for most companies, something that requires several levels of approval before the project can begin. Given that, company employees take to the Internet to build their consideration set and to do their research into how each company thinks and who seems to be the leader in the space where they need help. For help with building an innovation or digital transformation strategy or process, often they find me.

The way that company employees find the companies they will include in their consideration set, and the individual (or firm) they will ultimately hire, is by finding and evaluating thought leadership created by consultants like myself who are good at creating frameworks and other tools aimed at simplifying complex concepts (referred to as eminence by some firms).

Because the discovery and evaluation of thought leadership by potential customers is a key way that independent consultants and advisory firms attract new business, and because it is easier than ever to create and share thought leadership while simultaneously becoming an increasingly important factor in the buying process, independent consultants and advisory firms are creating more pieces of thought leadership and eminence than ever before.

On the plus side, thought leadership and eminence help independent consultants and advisory firms to win business. The down side however is that in much the same way that kids in Hawaii have learned how to become professional surfers by watching YouTube videos, as advisory firms create more thought leadership and make it publicly available to win new business, they also stand to lose an accelerating amount of new business as well. The reason is that the proliferation of eminence and thought leadership will inevitably lead to:

  1. Increasing numbers of line managers feeling that they know enough to tackle the challenge themselves that they might have otherwise outsourced to a consulting firm
  2. Increasing numbers of senior leaders deciding that someone inside their company could spin up and lead an internal consulting group

2. Internal Consultants

Let’s face it, whether we like it or not, an increasing number of senior leaders are becoming fed up with spending $500/hr on newly minted MBA’s from McKinsey, Bain, BCG, etc. when they could hire them on full-time for $75-100/hr by taking one of their promising senior leaders and having them spin up an internal consulting group.

Many companies have already created internal consulting groups to handle the bulk of their strategic project work in order to either:

  1. Save money
  2. Increase responsiveness
  3. Increase speed to market
  4. Keep the knowledge gained from such projects readily accessible
  5. Create and retain a competitive advantage

For me, reason number five is potentially the most compelling reason because it is impossible to expect any large consulting firm to unlearn the insights they acquire on one consulting project and not leverage them on a subsequent project with a competitor somewhere down the line. Doing projects with your competitors is how a great deal of industry expertise is gained by large consultancies, and this expertise is one of the primary reasons that managers hire a consulting firm.

3. Artificial Intelligence

Roboadvisors, chatbots, and other implementations of artificial intelligence have captured people’s imaginations and led to both an increase in the number of articles written about artificial intelligence, but also in the practical implementations of artificial intelligence. People are becoming increasing comfortable with artificial intelligence thanks to the recommendation engines on Amazon and Netflix and IBM Watson’s appearance on the game show Jeopardy and battles against chess grandmasters.

But what does consulting have to fear from artificial intelligence?

In the short run, maybe not a lot. But, in the grander scheme of things, over time enterprising technology vendors will inevitably build upon publicly available artificial intelligence frameworks made publicly available by companies like Microsoft and Google (who are seeking to increase the sale of cloud services) to automate some of the tasks that recently minted undergraduate analysts or Indians perform now for the large consulting firms.

Conclusion

These are challenging times for independent consultants as they respond to these attacks from three sides. Only time will tell how quickly and how broadly artificial intelligence (AI) threatens the core business of consultancies. The internal consultancy threat is real and growing in scope and threat. What may have started in Project and Portfolio Management (PPM), Six Sigma, Lean and Agile practices in some organizations, is quickly expanding into other Operational Excellence areas and even into Innovation, Digital Transformation, and traditional Strategy. Increasingly available intellectual property poses a Catch-22 for consultancies as a refusal to participate in the creation of eminence and thought leadership will lead to less business in the short-term, but doing so will certainly over time lead to an overall reduction in the size of the market for consulting services. Some consultancies are responding by diversifying their service offerings, attempting to create consulting superstores. What will be your response to this attack from three sides?

 

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