A report into consulting skills for the next decade has lessons for all kinds of organisation
The Centre for Management Consulting Excellence, a pro bono organisation set up in 2017 to foster excellence in consulting through greater links with research, launched a report into Consulting Skills for 2030 this week. Drawing on interviews and surveys with consultants and “non-consultants” – i.e. potential buyers of consulting services (or if you’re being cynical, people with “real jobs”) the report comes to some interesting conclusions about what we will all be focusing on in 10 years’ time.
Respondents were asked to rank various skill/technology areas according to their likely impact, from very significant down to negligible. Perhaps surprisingly, Cyber Security emerged as the area that most respondents rated as very significant or significant, with AI – which is what the report writers had originally expected to be the most impactful – beaten into second place and Robotics ranked lowest, just below the Internet of Things.
Cyber Security is the biggest risk faced by organisations now and survey respondents felt that knowledge about the topic in most organisations is inadequate, with a poor understanding of risks and potential solutions. It’s thus a massive roadblock on the way to a productive digital future.
In terms of skillsets required, technical knowledge is almost certainly not sufficient as Cyber Security experts need to be able to combine a deep insight into the area with an ability to “sell” these ideas into the C-Suite and generate an understanding of and commitment to the security strategies as well as the complex regulatory and legislative environment that will prevail.
AI – who knows?
Although it came second in terms of impact, Artificial (or Augmented) Intelligence produced a huge polarisation of views from respondents, with a number thinking that the impact would be later than 2030 and others thinking that there would be considerable competition and impact for large and medium-sized firms in the period 2020-2030, as these firms would be investing in the area.
One potential impact is on the traditional “pyramid” model where large firms generate revenue from deploying relatively large numbers of lower-paid consultants on more routine jobs such a data and business analysis. These would be eroded by the increased adoption of AI technologies to automate these jobs – an impact likely to be felt in all types of businesses, not just consulting.
Whilst most of the skill areas highlighted in the report point to a deepening level of technical knowledge, the impact of, and need for “timeless” skills such as stakeholder management, project and change management was felt to be very significant by the majority of respondents. The subject matter will evolve over time, but these “softer” skills will be just as critical.
The classic consultant skill set is often described as “T-shaped” which is to say that you have a deep area of expertise and then a broad set of skills that you use and grow over time. Typically, these will be the softer, change and stakeholder management skills. The challenge organisations face is that there are an increasing number of areas that require deep skills and the people who possess them are “I-shaped” – deep technical specialists with fewer of the broad skills that will help them get their deep knowledge across. This is a challenge not only for consultancy firms but for the companies that buy their services or develop them in house.
The client knows best
One final point from the report is worth emphasising: those respondents from non-consulting organisations estimated that the impact from the new areas would be more significant than the consultants did. This suggests that consultants are confident in their ability to absorb new areas of knowledge (not as someone at the launch event on 20th March suggested, in the taxi on the way to the client), whereas the buyers of consultancy are perhaps a little more sceptical.
Predicting the future is a notoriously unreliable sport: no-one foresaw the rise of the likes of Uber and similar models when mapping apps were starting to be developed, so apprehension about areas of new technology may be justified. It’s the unknown quantity: people who can develop innovative capabilities on the back of these technologies that represents the greatest threat.
The consultancies that can successfully ride the waves of change that new technologies bring will be those that learn and adapt the fastest and pass that insight on to their clients.
Perhaps the question businesses should be asking of their consultants is not “tell me what you know, and what it means for my business” but “tell me how you learn, and how you can help me learn”.