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Are consultants finally taking their own digital medicine?

Generally, we expect our service providers to practise what they preach. So it’s somewhat surprising that clients have for so long been willing to overlook the conspicuous failure of consulting firms to take seriously their own advice on the importance of digitisation. For many years now, consultants have been talking about the dangers of falling behind in the digital arms race—while they themselves remained wedded to more or less the same project tools and methodologies that have been commonplace since the very earliest days of the industry.

However, it looks like that may finally be starting to change. In a recent white paper, we explore the emergence of “Project Tech”, a broad new category of technology solutions that could do to consulting firms what FinTech did to banks and what Legal Tech did to law firms. This new product category encompasses everything from client-facing dashboards and interactive presentation software to intelligent survey tools and RPA development kits. Slowly but surely, firms are starting to incorporate these new technologies into the projects they run, either by licensing solutions from specialist start-ups or by building their own product suites in-house.

So, what’s changed? Why has it taken this long for firms to finally start taking their own medicine? While there likely isn’t one single event that has precipitated the recent uptick of interest around Project Tech, there are a number of different factors that have played a role. And in our view, there are three in particular that have had the biggest impact.

Firstly, there is the fact that clients have higher expectations these days when it comes to getting value for money. Even before the pandemic, buyers of consulting services were starting to more closely scrutinise the costs associated with project delivery; gone are the days when some clients would effectively write a blank cheque for consulting firms. And so big firms that were once able to indiscriminately throw bodies at client problems until a solution emerged have had to learn to do more with less. And technology has proved to be a big part of the answer to that particular conundrum.

The second major factor is the increased availability of alternatives to traditionally structured consulting firms. Today’s buyers are rarely forced into a situation where their only choice is which of the Big Four they want to work with. Whatever problem a client is faced with, there’s almost certainly a boutique consulting firm or agency out there that can help them deal with it, and failing that, there’s a plethora of tools out there now that can put them in touch with freelancers who have the right skillset. Project Tech—particularly complex, bespoke products—can act as a key differentiator for larger consulting firms, allowing them to offer buyers access to something they can’t easily get elsewhere.

While the first two factors are the results of stories that have been playing out for several years now, the third and final one is reflective of a much more recent development. COVID-19 has radically reshaped the industry, and consultants have had to—virtually overnight—adjust to a world in which the majority of project work has to be done remotely. And many have found that the traditional consulting toolkit is ill equipped to cope with this new reality. Project Tech has played a crucial role for many firms in answering the challenges thrown up by COVID-19; those that hadn’t already started investing in it have been forced to by sheer necessity.

No one can predict the long-term effect that the emergence of Project Tech will have on the consulting industry. It is certainly possible that, once the immediate pressures of the COVID crisis subside, firms will return to their old pre-digital habits. But right now at least, firms have a lot of good reasons to start taking these new technologies seriously and to actively look for opportunities to incorporate them into their projects.