Consulting talent: From fungible to liquid

You can tell we’ve entered a new phase in the consulting industry’s perennial “war for talent” when a new term emerges.

In the heady days of the late 1990s, the talk was all about fungibility. Client demand was changing so rapidly that consulting firms were struggling to provide the capabilities the brave, new dotcom world was looking for. They couldn’t recruit fast enough, so had to find ways to re-badge people: “Re-spraying an auditor”, was how one Big Four firm partner put it to me; “lipstick on pigs”, was the rather more trenchant view of a client. “Fungibility”—the ease with which an individual could be moved from one practice to another was the rather more politically correct term that gained common currency. But in today’s consulting firm, fungibility isn’t enough. Digital transformation projects, in particular, require a wide range of skills, only some of which are visible on day one. Specialisation—indeed, hyper-specialisation—rules: Clients aren’t willing to trade quality for breadth, and they certainly don’t believe it’s possible for anyone to be a master of multiple trades.

In this environment, the driver of flexibility shifts from the individual to the organisation. Someone with deep expertise in—say—strategic risk management is unlikely to sound credible if you put them into a project that’s about marketing; similarly, someone in marketing isn’t going to hack it when it comes to drone technology. Clients don’t expect it: In fact, they don’t want it. What they do want is for the strategic risk management person to be able to work with the marketing person, and that they can both work with the drone technologists. They want, today’s jargon tells us, “liquid” talent: an organisational structure that allows people to retain and develop their specialist expertise, while being able to flow between projects and groups of people with very different skill-sets.

But what does liquid talent look like in practice? Continuing the ice-to-water analogy, you can’t have liquid talent if your organisation is shaped like an ice cube tray (small, distinct compartments, lots of thumping on the kitchen sideboard to get things out). If “liquid” talent takes on the shape of the container in which it sits, then you don’t have to worry about the molecules (aka consultants) mingling with each other. I think there are two challenges here. First, you need to know what you’ve got: There’s little point in creating a free-flowing organisation if the way you categorise consultants (for proposals, allocating to projects, etc.,) is in an ice cube-like fashion. We’ll need different tools and technology to help look at the organisation in a different way. Second, there’s the critical issue of getting water out of the container in an efficient manner—how you deploy consultants onto client teams. I’m probably stretching the metaphor too far here, but there’s clearly a difference between slopping water out of a giant bucket and pouring it from a jug. I suspect technology has less to offer here and that the key to success may be to expand our notion of what account management means so that it acts as a channel (the lip of the jug, in effect) that converts your liquid talent into the structure that will temporarily be required on a client project.

Whoever first coined the phrase talent “pool” was perhaps more prescient than they realised.