Microservices: How the future of consulting may start small

In 1610, after months of painstaking work grinding his own lens, Galileo Galilei finally held his new telescope up to the night sky. What he saw astonished him: instead of a few hundred stars, he could see thousands, even millions.

The consulting “universe” has long been populated by a small number of large “planets”–strategy, technology, operational improvement, and so on–but if you were to carry out an equivalent of Galileo’s exercise in today’s market, then you’d see something that looks more like the Milky Way than a simple solar system.

The consulting market is fragmenting. Centrifugal forces are breaking up our familiar planets, based on the precise expertise required, on a changing sense of what a “reasonable” price is, and on a new generation of clients who know that the way they want to buy from consulting firms isn’t necessarily how the firm wants to sell or deliver to them.

In some ways this is actually helpful to consulting firms. They’ve long struggled to find distinctive ways of describing their services to clients–there being only so many ways you can say the word strategy, for instance. The rise of the microservice forces firms to be far more precise about what they do: generic strategy advice to the banking sector cedes to customer strategy for legacy financial products in emerging markets, and so on. Moreover, the narrower the focus, the smaller the number of competitors you face. Even the smaller market you end up with can be helpful, because its makes planning more tangible (which are the banks that will be interested in a proposition around legacy financial products in emerging markets?) and because your cost of sale should fall. You waste less time talking to people about something they’re not interested in, at least once you’ve recovered from the psychological shock that comes from realising that you now operate in a very small market.

The downside is that it creates at least the impression, perhaps even the reality, of inflexibility. “I’m sorry,” you can hear yourself saying to that generic banking client in the future, “but we don’t do strategy for banks, only customer strategy for banks that have an issue with their legacy financial products in emerging markets.” And as that example shows, there are significant marketing challenges in such an approach: How do you prevent clients falling asleep before you’ve got to the end of that sentence? Counterintuitively, microservices also reduce, rather than increase, greater specialisation. You can encourage people to specialise in the banking sector–it gives kudos and makes for more interesting work because of the greater depth of knowledge required. But asking someone to specialise in legacy banking projects in emerging markets sounds like you’re sending them down a career cul-de-sac: suddenly their whole lives are stretched out ahead of them doing the same legacy banking project work… If only to avoid the insanity that necessarily accompanies this Groundhog Day-like scenario, human beings want variety.

Fortunately, all is not lost. This is surely where technology steps in–indeed, the opportunity to embed technology deeper into the consulting process may be one of the factors driving the growth in microservices. Rather than build specialist knowledge in a reluctant human recipient, why not integrate it into your software?

So, is what we’re really talking about here assets and products (as consulting firms often choose to term them)? I think there’s a subtle, but important, distinction between a product and a micro-service, which all comes down to positioning and price. Clients, as we know from our research, are often unwilling to pay consulting fee rates for software, however clever the latter is, or however expensive it has been to develop.

Call it a service, even a micro-service, and you’ve got something that’s likely to be much closer to consulting in clients’ minds, so better able to command a higher price.