People are not a one-stop-shop any more than a consulting firm is

In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice the snobbish Miss Bingley criticises rural Hertfordshire for being home to so few real ladies. Elizabeth tartly replies that she’s not at all surprised that there are so few, given Miss Bingley’s long and stringent set of requirements, but that there is one.

If we look across today’s consulting market, the services with the highest growth rates are those that combine different areas of expertise. But as the range of skills required increases, the probability that you’ll find them all in a single person is becoming increasingly remote. It’s enough of a challenge, clients tell us, to find consultants who are equally comfortable talking about both business and technology, but throw in design thinking, data modelling, and industry knowledge, and you’re looking for a person that simply–like the real ladies of Hertfordshire–doesn’t exist.

As a consequence teams are more valuable than individuals, a point that’s linked to the bifurcation of the consulting market between low-cost and high-value consulting–something we’ve written about elsewhere in this blog. Low-cost consulting is the type of work clients are very familiar with, but lack the capacity to do themselves. Because it’s a capacity issue, much of what’s being bought by clients in this space is essentially body-shopping–they’re buying skills not solutions. But that doesn’t mean it’s the consulting equivalent of semi-skilled work: clients shop for expert bodies just as much–if not more–than they shop for generalist ones. By contrast, high-value consulting focuses on solving new sets of problems and innovation, so is more likely to be associated with teams of consultants (and consulting firms) with different skills, rather than with specific individuals.

But to make this work, the team has to be more than a group of ships that pass in the night. “You can always tell,” a client told me, “when the team who comes to pitch for a project have only met for the first time on the way to my office. They just don’t sound as joined-up as those who’ve worked together before.” Winning and delivering multi-disciplinary work will depend on having an organisational model that brings people together, rather than keeps them apart, on building and maintaining a culture that fosters collaboration and mutual respect, and on using metrics that encourage people to share, not hoard, their knowledge and time.

Much of the effort that has historically been focused on recruitment–finding the one, right person is a fool’s errand. Twenty-first century consulting has a lot more in common with eighteenth-century Hertfordshire than we might have expected.