Could the future of transformation be in the hands of engineers, not consultants?

“Shaping a better world” is what Arup says it does, in words that are curiously reminiscent of EY’s “Building a better working world”. It’s ironic that EY is talking about building, while Arup, which began life as an architectural firm, is talking about shaping, but perhaps it’s not surprising. There’s always been something of an overlap between civil engineering and consulting. Many of the first management consultants were engineers by training, and engineers, in my opinion, make some of the best consultants because their ability to decompose problems in order to solve them is just as useful in a business context as it is in building.

But the extent of that overlap has changed over time. There was a moment, just before the global financial crisis forced businesses to focus on short-term survival, when demand for environmental consulting was going to explode. Social pressure, the weight of scientific evidence, and growing regulatory pressure were remorselessly pushing the issue up the boardroom agenda, and consultants, armed with carbon abatement curves and other analytical tools, were ready and willing to help out. At the same time, it was recognised that moving people from one physical environment to another could have a dramatic impact on their behaviour and productivity. Poorly designed buildings made people not only unhappy but ill; by contrast, moving them from dark cubicles into light, open-plan offices could unleash collaborative energy.

Ten years on from the financial crisis the management consulting work done by civil engineering firms is growing again, but it’s still dwarfed by traditional management consulting. We estimate that the management consulting work done by civil engineering firms could be worth around US$8bn, compared to a traditional management consulting market of around US$140bn. But like conventional consulting, the key to future growth here is digital.

We’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the changing face of digital transformation, pointing out that clients are becoming increasingly sceptical about the promises being made. They’re saying that technology and process redesign won’t in themselves transform our organisations, and that what we actually need is for our people to work differently. Where is the proof, they’re asking, that all this effort will actually yield tangible benefits? And therein lies the threat to management consultants—and the opportunity for engineers.

Management consulting firms, clients are telling us, are failing here because they’re working at too conceptual a level. “They need to be down in the weeds,” one senior executive told us, because “that’s where most of us spend most of our time”. Technology firms offer more comfort because the output of their work is more tangible, but clients don’t see them as being able to solve people-related issues. So clients find themselves in an unenviable position, having to choose between unsatisfactory alternatives—and that might create enough of a gap in the market for the engineers to walk in.

It’s all about concrete. Not actual concrete, but rather how to take something that you can imagine (your organisation, transformed by digital technology) and turn it into something you can touch.