COVID-19 as a prism of change in the consulting industry

As the many people who read, listen and watch our material know, we’ve been giving a lot of thought over the last 2-3 weeks to how we can understand and track the impact of COVID-19 on the global consulting industry during the course of 2020 (you can read our latest update here). But the more data we gather, the more it’s becoming clear that the industry is entering a period of accelerated change. 

The analogy I’ve been increasingly using is of a prism. In 1666, when Isaac Newton held a triangular-shaped piece of glass in a beam of sunlight, the prism separated the incoming “white” light into a rainbow. In a classic example of the scientific methodology in action, he then passed the rainbow through a second prism and back into white light, showing that light wasn’t lost or gained but changed by the prism. 

Over the last couple of years, we’ve been writing extensively about how clients’ needs from, and perceptions of, consulting services are changing. How, for example, the desire for innovative new solutions to apparently intractable business problems has triggered the need for multidisciplinary solutions. How the challenges of combining wider collaboration with deeper expertise mean that account management will be critical. We’ve written too about how frustration with the lack of demonstrable, sustainable improvements in organisational performance has prompted clients to ask for more in the way of proven value, and has encouraged them to look beyond the boundaries of conventional consulting for help. 

None of these underlying, tectonic shifts disappear in the face of the current crisis: If anything, we think the level of fast-paced transformation we’re already seeing in the healthcare sector will accelerate the pace of change. Multidisciplinary collaboration, value delivered, radical improvements in performance: We’re seeing these all around us every day at the moment and they give us hope that a way out of the crisis can be found sooner than it might otherwise. Like light passing through a prism, COVID-19 won’t add to or subtract from these strong underlying changes, but it will quickly and radically transform the way they appear in the future. 

So, in order to understand the impact COVID-19 will have on the consulting industry, we need to do two things. First, we need to be clear about the white light going into the COVID-19 prism. What were clients’ frustrations? How was value being added? Which firms were strongest, and why? Second, we need to understand what’s happening inside the prism itself. What form will multidisciplinary work take? Will consulting firms have become outsourcers, taking over the running of parts of client organisations? Will remote working change the way in which clients access deep expertise going forwards? If we only have the input data, but no sense of the dynamics within the prism, then we’re unlikely to be able to forecast what will happen. If we only focus on what’s going on in the prism, then our speculation will be theoretical. We need to do both.