Are management consultants nothing more than armchair experts?

Apart from an abiding passion for rugby, I’m not a massive sports fan but I do like to take a good dip into big sporting occasions when they dominate the TV schedules and I’m patriotic enough to get quite excited when the national side(s) do well. So the Tokyo Olympics, despite coming hard on the heels of football and tennis’s big moments, has had a fair bit of my attention.

It’s been pointed out by some commentators that the Olympics is an opportunity for people to get wildly enthusiastic about sports they otherwise wouldn’t care about – as Eddie Izzard puts it, you don’t often hear people saying “What time is the dressage on?” – but I’ve noticed another phenomenon: the development of armchair expertise.

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Are you building the skills for success in 2030?

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.

Report cover featuring a robot

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.

Construction workers
Building T-shaped skills can be a challenge

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”.

Is management consultancy a waste of money?

Not if you link it to performance outcomes

There’s an old management cliché that goes something like “50% of my marketing spend is wasted but the problem is I don’t know which 50%”. When it comes to spending on management consultants it could be that 100% of your spend is wasted if recent research into their value in the National Health Service (NHS) is to be believed.

The reality, however, is a little more complicated.


A research project took place last year carried out by the University of Warwick Business School, Seville University and the University of Bristol to evaluate NHS health trusts’ spending on management consultancy. It was an open-minded investigation into the impact on overall efficiency but when the findings were published they made for another money-wasted-in-our-NHS story in some newspapers. The academics found – against their expectation it has to be said – that the more that health trusts spent on consulting the less efficient they were. It was said that the money – some £640m in 2014 – could have been better spent on more doctors and nurses.

The hackles of the management consulting industry were duly raised and the consultants’ own City Livery Company, the Worshipful Company of Management Consultants organised a debate in May with the researchers, the Chief Executive of the Management Consultancies Association (MCA) and a large number of company members (including me) who turned up to get to the bottom of this apparent slur on their competence.


The researchers – Professor Andrew Sturdy, University of Bristol, and Ian Kirkpatrick, University of Warwick, kicked off the debate with a summary of their approach. Andrew Sturdy has been focusing on evaluations of the value of consulting for a number of years, most of which has relied on qualitative evaluations of value, and therefore relished the opportunity to get some more quantitative data. The data was quite extensive and covered 120 hospital trusts’ consulting expenditure over a four-year period, correlating that with changes in each health trust’s financial performance.

Source: Policy Bristol

And the numbers do not lie: apart from a minority of trusts where efficiency improved, amounting to one third of the top 25% of consultancy users, the impact on the overall population was negative. I won’t go into the statistics used in detail but, on face value, they don’t paint a great picture.

Alan Leaman, from the MCA, had the task of responding to these results. He pointed out that, even though the press release had equated consultancy expenditure with spending on doctors and nurses this was an inappropriate comparison – and much along the same lines as those campaigning for a leave vote in the Brexit referendum suggesting we would have £350m a week to spend on health after leaving the EU. His main objections, which the researchers did not dispute, covered three areas:

  • The data sources are quite crude, and the figures included the costs of interim staff, including Chief Executives
  • The outcomes from consultancy work were much wider than efficiency and included improvements in care quality, inventory management, procurement, IT and relationships. In some cases, consultants had identified areas of underspend that had been corrected.
  • No hospital is an island – the best work comes when hospitals are joined up with other care providers.

(We have also covered examples of joined-up approach in earlier articles on The Next Ten Year – see our article on Asheville for example.)


With questions open to the floor an introduction from the chair setting out what he described as “Queensberry Rules” the stage was set for some furious debate. However, anyone expecting a punch-up would have been disappointed – I’ve seen more argy-bargy at my local residents’ association meetings – as the contributions were considered and thoughtful.

Everyone agreed that more detail was needed to be able to highlight areas of good practice in procuring consultancy services and that data quality could be improved. It was also recognised that the NHS – subject as it is to a high degree of imposed change – may not provide the best conditions for effective consultancy. Imposed change tends to create resistance: imagine the level of resistance if the change team you are meeting with might result in your redundancy and appears to challenge your accepted ways of working. In this environment, good results are going to be scarce. One questioner asked whether consultancies should decline contracts that were set up not to achieve results – the temptation to take fees without accountability for the results being key here.

Poor work in some areas was certainly acknowledged, particularly where firms had deployed consultants with little knowledge of the sector or had used standardised approaches. It was also possible that the wrong types of consultants were employed in a number of cases. It was commented that there McKinsey seemed to be a surprisingly popular choice of consultant. Strategy consultants such as McKinsey are very different from more operational providers and there seemed to be a temptation to go for a prestige brand rather than a more considered outcome-driven appointment. Expensive, inappropriate and ineffective – in my mind a bit like buying a Ferrari to go off-roading.

Buying better – think F.A.S.T.

As a customer success specialist, NextTen has taken the opportunity to define how we can provide services differently – using our culture and leadership expert Gordon Tredgold’s F.A.S.T. approach (Focus, Accountability, Simplicity and Transparency) I offer some principles for engaging third party service companies better:

  • Review your own capability for change (transparency) – many of the NHS trusts in the study had their own change departments – many of which were quite effective. It might be a valuable, if challenging, piece of work to compare internal and external projects and the results they delivered. I have frequently found – once engaged on a project – that organisations already have highly expert people with an acute understanding of what needs to change and whose voices have sadly been ignored. (This is also increasingly the trend for Customer Experience.)
  • Start small with quick wins (simplicity)– a good discovery project can flush out areas of potential change with the potential to deliver a good return on investment and identify the capability of the organisation to deliver it themselves.
  • Invest in capability (focus) – rather than do the work for the client organisation, it’s much better to start education-centric and work out how the consultants will transfer and build capability so that you can manage the change after the consultants have left the building
  • Link to measurable results (accountability) – as was pointed out in the debate, it’s not beyond the capability of most buying organisations to have some form of performance-related clause in their contracts. The questions over performance data in aggregate in the NHS doesn’t mean it can’t sensibly be used in specific cases.

None of the above is rocket science: it’s good practice for any significant investment. What seems to cause the confusion and misapplication of consultancy is the apparently “intangible” nature of the benefit delivered. As a way of getting beyond this, the work of Professors Sturdy and Kirkpatrick is an important start to an essential debate.

On an individual project level, starting with critical customer outcomes is the most effective way of driving effective estimates of benefit. If these can’t be defined the project isn’t worth doing. Once they are, the principles above will ensure an effective use of whoever your service provider is.

In short, you can use consultants to add value. And still keep hold of your watch.