Local versus global in consulting

Remote working is reframing the perennial question of how consulting firms are organised.

For decades, consulting firms have been under pressure to ensure their people worked in clients’ offices, alongside the client’s own staff. There were generally two reasons clients fought for this: Put positively, it created opportunities for the client team to learn from the consultants, equipping them to carry out consulting-type work themselves in the future; put negatively, it was a sign that clients didn’t quite trust firms to do what they said, that they feared nefarious partners would return to their offices and delegate all the work to cheaper, more junior staff. Two years ago, when we published a short report on the environmental impact of consultants being constantly on the road—or more precisely, in the air—we found that most clients were very supportive of the idea that consultants in general should travel less but baulked at the idea of their consultants travelling less. Physical presence was still a thing.

It’s clearly much less of a thing now. Consulting firms and their clients have had almost a year of working remotely, and both sides are positive about the experience. Many consultants welcome the increased flexibility and chance to focus that working from home has brought; clients are enjoying the ease of being able to access experts anywhere in the world.

And the fact that so much has changed so quickly challenges the way firms think about their operating models. In recent years, the need to put world-class experts on clients’ sites drove firms to be as global as possible. Flying in a specialist from the other side of the world wasn’t just about getting the work done, it also signalled to clients that they really were getting the A-team. But the costs were high, both metaphorically (stress for the consultants) and literally (travel costs for the client). Over time, it became accepted that some services—technology implementation being the most obvious example—could be delivered just as effectively on a remote basis, providing all those involved could interact effectively during the client’s normal working hours. Other services could have moved in this direction, but consulting firms worried—not without reason—that clients would expect to pay less: Physical presence has always been equated with worth in the professional services industry.

That link between presence and worth has now been broken by the pandemic, as all (or near enough) consulting work is being done remotely. Clients no longer assume that, because someone is not in the room, they’re less expert, important, or expensive. This creates an opportunity for consulting firms to change the rules, to argue that there are people who are only available on Teams, Zoom, etc., because they have unique expertise. Clients will go along with this because they retain better access, because they’ll actually have a better sense of how much time senior people are actually putting into projects, and because they’ll guess—probably correctly—that those senior experts will spend more, and more productive time on their projects than they might have done in the pre-crisis world.

Although this will mean that a significant proportion of project work will take place remotely going forwards, even when lockdowns end, it doesn’t spell the end of on-site consulting. Having even a short amount of time for the client and consulting teams to work together at the start of a project is hugely important to being able to work together effectively. There are also certain types of consulting—those that involve getting people to change the way they work, for example—which always have to be done in person. Meanwhile, delivering the final presentation (for projects where that is the end point) is useful for consultants—it allows them to gauge clients’ reactions to what they have to say—but less so for clients who may find it easier to view those recommendations in a more objective way if they’re not in the room. It is likely that the next few months will involve myriad discussions between clients and consultants, hashing out the details of when physical presence will be required, and when it will not.

Translate this into an operating model for consulting firms, and you might decide that you need teams of change management specialists based locally to clients, supported by subject matter experts from around the world, reporting to an engagement partner who is physically present at the outset and then very available remotely during the course of the project. Scale that model up, and it pulls the rug out from under assumptions about how firms are organised. You could, for example, end up with a model that is both global (experts reporting into global communities to share ideas, for example) and hyper-local (teams on the ground that support clients within a specific region).

Instead of having to see “local” and “global” as opposite models, and potentially conflicting ones at that, the firm of the future has the opportunity to be both.