Management consultants focus on hands-on innovation

The role of management consultants is changing as clients in a digital age demand a wider range of services and visible return on investment


“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” or so says the old adage.

This is certainly the approach taken by Inovaris director Richard Harrison, with the innovation courses he leads for clients.

From his Preston-based consultancy, Mr Harrison says one of his bugbears is the assumption that innovation refers solely to technology.

The company’s strapline, inspired by a workshop he once ran with clients, suggests thinking differently is the seed to innovation, rather than the system used to implement that thinking.

“What if schools were run by Disney and railways were operated by Nike?” it asks.

Collaboration at the core

Believing a management consultancy can have a much greater impact on a business by helping it to help itself, when the workforce is charged with finding its own solutions there is a pride element to consider.

“It’s like a two fingers up to management to know they [the workforce] created something integral for the business and they did it themselves,” he explains.

Ironically, though, the management then pats itself on the back, having found a solution without having to overinvest in expensive systems and processes or clocking up hours of consulting time.

management consultancy sector

Collaboration seems to be key, be that consultancy-to-client, between consultancies through partnership agreements or through strategic acquisitions. Also burgeoning is the number of more bespoke offerings – businesses that expand into other areas in a more “full service” proposition.

Alan Leaman, chief executive of the Management Consultancies Association, recognises the influence of the digital revolution on the role consultancies now play for clients.

He says: “Management consultancies are expanding their skills into areas of marketing, customer relations and digital as the pace of change in business accelerates. The results are often lower costs, improved services and opportunities for growth.”

One such consultancy is Market Gravity. The business fuses three strands of expertise – customer insights, traditional consultancy, and technical and digital production.

Co-founder and managing director Peter Sayburn knows it’s vital to practise what he preaches. “When you are in the business of innovation you need to demonstrate it yourself,” he says.

Recognising the company is only as good as the people on the payroll, he makes a concerted effort to look after those precious commodities, offering a profit share scheme and a £1,000 annual personal development plan.

“It can be for something work related or a bit more left field. Some people went on an acting course at RADA to improve their presentation skills,” he says.

Market Gravity also offers so-called Duracell Days at the end of big projects, giving staff the chance to recharge their batteries on ad hoc days that don’t come out of their annual holidays.

Keeping up with technology

Rather than the softer side of innovation, talking to the “big four” – Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC – about their own evolution, the standout recurrent theme refers to technological advancements.

Deloitte saw a 10 per cent rise in its consultancy business last year, with the highest growth in the area of technology, particularly across digital, cloud, analytics and cyber, says Richard Houston, UK managing partner of consulting.

In response to the rise of disruptive technology, the firm launched Deloitte Digital, a full-service design and development agency focused on helping clients innovate and maximise the business opportunity to be found in emerging technologies, such as 3D printing, drones and virtual reality.

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EY has shifted its approach recently. Harry Gaskell, chief innovation officer in the UK and Ireland, explains how the pressure on professional services firms to innovate will see them “live or die”.

In the past, solutions tended to be the brainchild of the people in the organisation and were rolled out across the whole business. But that traditional approach fails to keep up with the pace of change in the technology space, so collaborations are now required.

“We work with a network of startup companies, clients and academic institutions to turn new technologies into practical solutions to real problems,” says Mr Gaskell.

PwC is also embracing the challenge of such rapid technological change, encouraging a mindset that doesn’t simply isolate technology as a single facet of their business.

“We refer to this as developing a strategy fit for the digital age, not a digital strategy,” says UK, Europe, the Middle East and Africa consulting leader Ashley Unwin.

The firm has opted for strategic acquisitions to build on its core skillset to further its disruptive capability. It recently purchased the European software company Outbox to help feed the growing demand for cloud-based services. It has also launched the Innovation Lab in Belfast in partnership with Google and in 2014 acquired Strategy&, formerly Booz & Company.

Mr Unwin says: “It has enabled us to move from advice to a strategy-through-to-execution model. This is a marked change for us that complements how we are now connecting with industries across sectors and geographies.”

Quicker speed to benefit, the rise of big data and analytics, and a fundamental shift to an outcomes-based approach are the three key factors that have overhauled the way KPMG works with its clients.

“The way clients want us to engage is much more about venturing now rather than providing services,” says Nigel Slater, UK head of management consulting.

The mode of input, be it appointing a team of KPMG consultants, joining forces with a third-party specialist or using robotics, is increasingly irrelevant.

“And that is a very different business model for consulting than I grew up with, which has really come to pass meaningfully in the last two or three years,” says Mr Slater. “I can see how clients’ buying has shifted, their criteria has become much more end-to-end, multifunctional and process-based.”

Things are moving so fast in today’s environment that we want people to be getting their hands dirty rather than just pontificating

One change manager explains how the fundamentals still exist, but the methods of communication are evolving. “It’s moved from what was almost a tick-box exercise about filling in forms and templates to something much more creative, about engaging and empowering the staff and communicating with them in more innovative ways,” he says.

For Stephen Ingledew, marketing managing director at insurance giant Standard Life, the role of the management consultant has become much more about co-creating.

“I’m looking to work with consultancies that are willing to roll up their sleeves, meet customers, develop things, test prototypes,” he says. “Things are moving so fast in today’s environment that we want people to be getting their hands dirty rather than just pontificating.”