Insights on the Profession: How the Consulting Process is Mastering Increased Complexity

Management consulting is at an inflection point.

Abstract

Management consulting is at an inflection point. Consulting firms have honed their processes and methods over the past half- century, but the context in which they deliver their services is changing rapidly in terms of client objectives and expectations and the tools and technologies they use to deliver those services. The purposes of this paper are twofold: (1) to assess the impact of these changes on the current consulting paradigm and (2) to recommend a course of action for consulting firms to respond to these changes. For the first purpose, this paper starts with an examination of the evolution of consulting process models and technologies to establish a baseline. By assessing the ability of this baseline consulting paradigm to accommodate changes in the service context, it then makes a case for action. Next, it considers the extent to which changes in methods, people, business partners, and services that consultants are currently making are suffcient responses in this case. For the second purpose, this paper starts by articulating the consulting transformation opportunity occasioned by new process technology, coupled with changes in the nature of work, management organization, and mindsets and behaviors. It then presents research ndings conducted by one of the authors using the science of coordinated action along with real world experience of the process technology company he co-founded. Based on this research, the paper argues that through a combination of scalable process automation and an emergent process model that can better control for the complexity and uncertainty of the current context, consultants can deliver greater realized outcomes for their clients, one core bene t of consulting process improvement.

Introduction

In the age of digital and the empowered consumer, even traditionally staid B2B service sectors are speaking the language of customer experience. Companies are grappling with how to respond to changing customer expectations, new competitors with di erent business models, and new technologies that a ord opportunities to re-envision the customer experience. An oft- cited example is healthcare, where organizations are adapting to a fee-for-value model in which providers are compensated based on the ultimate health outcomes delivered to patients rather than the number of diagnostic tests or procedures performed. While straightforward in principle, the implications touch nearly every aspect of organizations’ business models.

Management consultants, among the most vociferous promoters to their clients of the importance of customer experience, are ironically holding tightest to their traditional service model, which elevates consulting to an art form. But disruption is coming, bringing more science into the consulting process and shifting away from the prevailing overdependence by firms and their clients on the “A-Team,” that group of highly experienced consultants who can bring to bear deep insights and the judgment to be able to deliver the best product every time. These changes portend signi cant implications across the consulting business model.

The change imperative issues from a con uence of changes in the external environment, both challenges and opportunities, that are laying bare the limitations of a traditional consulting model designed to maximize the in-project adaptability of seasoned consultants rather than an organization’s versatility to respond to changing conditions at scale. At the heart of the challenge are the traditional model’s human-centric process control and related lack of scalability. Some consultants are trying to respond to this challenge, but we believe they are missing the opportunity a orded by technology-enabled process control to transform their service delivery model into one that designs in responsiveness to the sources of divergence between intended and realized client outcomes rather than consigning that activity to a separate implementation process.

While we leave it to consultants to customize their process to their clients’ needs, we put forward a process transformation roadmap grounded in an enumeration of leading indicators of process effectiveness that are both measurable and testable. Just as occurred with manufacturing during the industrial revolution, we believe that liberating the consulting process from the specifics of the consulting product is the crucial step to enabling ongoing process improvement and consulting labor specialization that can together yield a quality and productivity revolution in management consulting. We then suggest a paradigmatic shift in the consulting process from a craft to a test-and-learn one enabled by a combination of coordinated action and experimentation sciences that furnish methods and tools for measuring and testing process effectiveness. While experimentation has been well articulated by others, we devote particular attention to the application of coordinated action science and the nature of new technology tools designed to facilitate it.

Scope of the Topic

Consultants provide three very different services for their clients:

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