There is a popular perception that the consulting industry is in regression and getting jobs as a consultant has become very difficult. I agree with the second part, but I can never agree with the first. Consulting for me is a form of art that will die out only if all the proponents of the art either stop practising it or if their population becomes extinct.
According to the dictionary, consult means to “seek information or advice from (someone, especially an expert or professional).” This has existed for ages, from the time we became intelligent and moved out of stone age and into agriculture. An example of this is in the caste-based society of India. Each caste is created based on the occupation each person chose and a certain number of occupations are grouped under the umbrella of a caste.
It’s a completely different aspect that this was used to elevate certain classes of people and trod upon the others to create division in society. But, irrespective of all that, if the services of a blacksmith were needed, only a blacksmith could solve the problem. This is good age-old consulting. The best example though, is that of doctors. Forget caste, creed, religion or skin colour, doctors are universally believed to be the Gods on the planet – the ones who can heal the world. If consulting has to die, the entire doctor fraternity has to die and if that happens humanity will become extinct in no time.
So what has changed in consulting? People have become smarter because their knowledge has increased and also because we are becoming more sensible. Someone I know told me that she is constructing a new single-storeyed house. I know that she has two children, so I asked her why and she said that they had both grown up and will leave home soon. If they come back to stay at any point in time, they could make the house bigger. This is called being wise and people don’t need someone with the tag of a consultant to advise commonsense.
Take the case of the field of medicine and how it has evolved. Natural treatment methods are traditionally based on diagnosing the diseases using the five senses of the doctors. But that has evolved considerably with advances in technology. Diagnosis in any form of treatment is now based on X-ray, scans and blood tests, among a slew of methods that exist now. Natural remedies work at the root of diseases to pry them out and it is a time-intensive process. It does not make sense to tell someone suffering from severe migraine to keep suffering and wait for natural remedies to start taking effect, now that immediate relief for pain can be found through tablets. So natural treatment methods have changed to the point where the patients are first asked to seek immediate relief through allopathy and then switch to natural remedies for rooting out the problem.
As a normal person, I have also become smarter. First, I get the disease diagnosed that I (or my parents) have, take allopathic medication for immediate relief, look up on the internet to understand the root cause of the disease and then decide on the best course of treatment. Consulting in medicine has evolved. Why? Because there are more options for treatment, more knowledge is available and people have become smarter. This is what has happened in the consulting industry as well.
We can equate doctors with business or IT consultants, but how would it be like to equate a consulting company to a hospital? We go to hospitals for diagnosis and treatment. In the world of the consulting industry, there are companies that do the diagnosis and companies that do the treatment. Here, diagnosis is done on the basis of business models and the constraints they impose. Then the diagnostic report and their recommendations go to the companies that do the treatment. If the constraints in the recommendations are not or cannot be imposed correctly, the treatment methods will also not bring the desired results.
This is the disease that has been plaguing the consulting industry for a long time. The industry had evolved into two streams, companies that develop strategies and companies that implement strategies. There is a world of difference between conception and implementation. For every construction that is done, be it for house or office space, capital costs shoot up by at least 20%. It is similar to the difference in book value and market value of a property. This is the area where the consulting industry has taken the hit.
The financial meltdown of 2008 and it’s ripple effect in the financial market through the subsequent years has forced companies to go into consolidation mode, which in turn have made them smarter. They have started identifying the problems in their business themselves rather than seek outside help. What they don’t need now is someone doing playback of their problems to them and what they need are:
1) Solutions to their problems
2) Successful implementation of those solutions
3) Most importantly, they need the execution to be done by a single entity.
This means that, for example, IT consulting companies can no longer hope to sit back and solve IT related problems only. They have to provide and implement solutions that solve business problems.
This effect has cascaded downstream to the individual level as well. Prospective employees should no longer look at completing under-graduation, working for two years, and then taking up a management program in the hope to become consultants. Theoretical knowledge will have to be backed up by hardcore work experience with proof of contribution at the business level. Even programmers will be expected to demonstrate how the work they are doing has improved the business environment of the clients they are working for.
Consultants working with the top consulting companies still have the pedigree but I believe it will not last long. Agile methodology has taken over the world, with companies streamlining their structure and operations and management levels becoming leaner. Consultants will be expected to build strategies and create plans to implement their strategies and execute them. This is where the role of consulting managers will become more prominent in the times to come.
I believe that consulting is not just the game about identifying problems and solving them. This can be best exemplified by how natural treatment methods work. The fundamental insight natural treatment methods have is that medicines alone cannot cure diseases. That is why they impose changes in food and lifestyle during the course of the treatment. The keyword here is change. Secondly, how the doctor bonds with the patients actually complements and enhances the effects of the medicines. The keywords here are understanding, empathy and compassion. These doctors become famous by word of mouth alone and the ones who exhibit these critical qualities become more renowned. This is what the consulting industry needs to take away and imbibe from the world of medicine.
But now, the situation is at the opposite side of the spectrum. Allopathic treatment does not cure but only suppress diseases. Fever is a sign of the body immunity acting against a foreign substance that has entered our body. Paracetamol tablets only suppress the fever but do nothing against the actual cause of the fever. We live in a world where suppressing a symptom is more important than curing the disease. Patients flock to allopathic doctors who charge a higher consulting fee under the assumption that more money means better treatment. This is exactly similar to how top consulting companies charge more to provide solutions to clients.
I have never understood the logic of more money translating to better or improved results. The business world has started awakening to this absurdity, I don’t know when people will start seeing this for medical treatment. But change is on the way. Information is out that chemotherapy does not cure cancer, chemotherapy doses are made from mustard gas and what can really cure cancer is cannabis. The world is evolving and so will consulting, but there is no cause for alarm, it is not going anywhere.