What consulting service could you sell to 90% of US senior executives?

We recently asked around 100 senior people in large US-based organisations whether they’d be interested in converting traditional consulting work (short-term advisory work, paid on a fixed price or time and materials basis, measured on inputs rather than outcomes) into an on-going service, aimed at delivering a specific and concrete outcome, and involving a combination of software, data and analytics, and consulting expertise. Ninety-one percent said that they found that suggestion attractive, and three-quarters said they could envisage buying consulting in this way and that this could represent the future of consulting.

Perhaps that level of positive engagement shouldn’t have surprised us. Five years ago, we interviewed an executive high-up in a Swiss bank, who cut through all our usual questions around how the bank was using consulting services, which firms they worked with, whether they liked them, etc. What he wanted, he said, was on-going support that combined practical implementation—doing some of the work—deep expertise, work that would allow him to hand over some of the work done by his team to be done better and more efficiently by a third party, but without all the hassle of conventional outsourcing. This was pre-robotics days: I’m sure if we were speaking to him again now, he’d also be talking about the way in which some of the work historically done by junior consultants could now be automated and about how big data could enable more sophisticated analysis. Since that interview, few clients have managed to articulate the opportunity quite as clearly and crisply as he did, but many—very many—have echoed their frustration with the way in which consulting services are usually delivered: The lack of tangible value added; the talk about working in partnership that’s never lived up to expectations around the transfer of expertise to clients’ own staff; the extent to which consulting still feels like a hit-and-run exercise.

What our Swiss friend didn’t have was a name for this way of working. We both agreed that “outsourcing” wasn’t the appropriate word for this, but “consulting” also didn’t seem to be right, smacking as it is of all that advisory stuff that clients would like to change. Some firms are calling this way of working “managed services”, but that has almost all the legacy issues associated with “outsourcing”. “Managed solutions”, another option, is better in that it doesn’t have that reverse-halo effect, but there’s a risk that “solutions” implies a fixed package and our sense is that clients want some degree of customisation and/or flexibility. The word “integrated”, usually in combination with “services” or “solutions” is helpful in that it flags up the big change in the last five years, that clients are looking for a combination of software assets, big data and analytics, and consulting expertise, but it’s redolent of 1990s IT systems.

So, it turns out that finding a solution that 90% of US clients want isn’t hard but finding the right name for it is. We should know: We’re about to publish a report on it.