Could a robot write your strategy?

You should never say never, but it’s tempting. For all their occasional moments of robotic behaviour (the cool, analytical brain, the steely gaze, the Terminator-like tendency to say, “I’ll be back”), the best strategy consultants aren’t machines but perceptive human beings capable of taking into account the emotional context that surrounds a difficult decision and its execution, as much as the facts.

But parts of the strategy consulting process could be automated.

A key aspect of what consulting firms have always done is gather data, their advantage over clients being that they: are objective (internal people may be tempted to pick and choose the data that suits their agenda); may bring a proprietary approach to data gathering—a framework that allows them to collate the data more effectively and/or efficiently; may have benchmarking data that allows them to gauge the significance of what they find; can adapt their approach to suit a client’s unique circumstances; generate better, more thoughtful insights. Of these, it’s the last two that are most important in the human-to-machine continuum: computers are dispassionate, and, given the right rules, they can stretch further into an organisation than a team of consultants could. But it will still take people to adapt the automated processes and to interpret the results—and it’s here that the choices facing strategy firms become more interesting.

To date, their response to encroaching technology has been two-pronged: to treat it as a tool, conveniently removing what in any case had become a fairly commoditised process (spreadsheets did just that in the 1980s); and to claim ever higher intellectual ground (which is partly what’s been behind their investment in thought leadership). Of the two approaches, the first has proved far more successful than the second. Consultants’ time has been freed up from humdrum data analysis, but, while good thinking abounds, it’s hard to see that any one firm has developed anything that sets it apart.  Indeed, it may be that the success of the first approach has contributed to the comparative failure of the second: run-of-the-mill data gathering will never produce the types of information and insights needed to underpin a new wave of strategic thinking. So the key to success going forwards will be to see technology as a means to improve the data gathering process, not simply automate it: gathering and finding links between sources of data consultants haven’t historically had access to; performing more rigorous analysis.

Demonstrating that technology can do some things better than strategy consultants doesn’t mean that robots will be turning up at clients’ sites any time soon, but it does pave the way for a more productive relationship between consultant and machine.