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Research we published last year highlighted the extent to which clients expect the consulting industry to be transformed by new, digital technologies. Ninety-six percent of senior executives we surveyed in the US said they think this will be the case; 75% think that the future of consulting lies, not in traditional advice, but in combining deep expertise with software and proprietary data. Clients are still willing to pay premium prices for highly specialised knowledge, but also want consulting to deliver tools their own staff can use once the consultants have left. And consulting firms have been transforming themselves: When Accenture talks of the “new applied now”, it’s talking about itself as much as its clients, a point I’ve made before.
But, from our conversations with clients, I’m increasingly aware that there are two sides to this particular story. The first and most obvious is the external picture, not only the way in which a firm has adapted its services for the digital era, but also the way in which it promotes itself among clients and in the broader market—its public narrative. The second and less obvious is the internal picture, the extent to which a firm has changed its way of working, organisational structure, and culture, its internal narrative. The transformation of the consulting industry requires both these. Brilliant marketing will result in frustrated clients if their day-to-day experience is disappointing. “Lipstick on a pig,” they’ll say, or “Old wine in new bottles.” An organisational structure and culture that genuinely promotes the interdisciplinary work today’s clients are asking for won’t translate into economic value if clients don’t know about it. And yet we see a lot of those two scenarios today: Firms whose marketing has accelerated faster than its pace of internal change, and those who’ve made huge strides internally but have been too modest or cautious to tell anyone about it.
We’ve tried to illustrate the differences in graphic terms. Firms in the first category, whose marketing outstrips reality, are the hot air balloons. Everyone thinks they look gorgeous, floating up in the glorious, late summer sunshine, but not many people want to go up in them. What happens when a storm gets up, they ask, or if you run out of gas? Those in the second, opposite category, whose marketing doesn’t reflect the changes they’ve made internally, are fireworks: They look thoroughly boring in the box but can amaze you once you’ve launched them. The cactus is the firm that’s succeeding on neither front. From where it stands, the market is looking fairly arid; it has huge subterranean reserves of water but holding onto them is the priority, concerned about even drier days ahead. Clients see it as an institution that will survive but covered in prickles of its own making. The rocket, of course, is the firm that is transforming itself both externally and internally. And it will, of course, go far.
The only question is: What is your firm?