Why your consulting assets could be a liability

Consulting firms are sweating assets, but not in the conventional sense. “We have more assets than you,” they boast, fuelled by the recognition that clients are looking for something tangible alongside traditional consulting work.

The concept of a product has always been a problematic one for consulting firms. It smacks of a standardised, even commoditised, approach that leaves little to a client’s choice and nothing to imagination. But several factors have changed all that. The growth in demand for digital transformation work has created a market in which the vast majority of clients expect consulting projects to have a technology component to them, irrespective of their focus (strategy, operational improvement, people and change, etc.). As we’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, new consulting products—aka assets—are emerging every day, and not all of them are pretty.

I’m reminded here of Stephen Jay Gould’s excellent book, Wonderful Life, about the Burgess Shale, a rich fossil-bearing deposit dating back 505 million years. In it, Gould argues that evolution has depended less on the fitness or otherwise of some species to survive, and more on contingency, the process by which outcomes arise from an unpredictable sequence of events. “Alter any event, ever so slightly and without apparent importance at the time,” he wrote, “and evolution cascades into a radically different channel.” Our symmetrical model for vertebrates dominates today, but had history arranged things ever so slightly differently, we might have had three legs and five eyes. The current excitement around assets is creating a Cambrian-like explosion of weird stuff (the aptly named Hallucigenia is a good example), which is weird only because it never became the norm. There’s a real risk that, five years down the line, we’re left with, well, what we’re left with, not because these assets are any better than others, but because their survival has essentially been a matter of luck. To appropriate Gould’s words, the history of the consulting asset will have been “a story of massive removal followed by differentiation within a few surviving stocks, not the conventional tale of steadily increasing excellence, complexity, and diversity”.

One of the main casualties of this rapid proliferation of assets is that quality control is in its infancy. Most assets-to-be start life as a solution to a specific client issue: Designed as part of a broader consulting engagement and built quickly in the heat of a project, they’re unlikely to have been tested with the rigour that conventional, commercial software is. Even more importantly, there’s often a complete absence of understanding about what an asset is in consulting terms. Too many of the “assets” listed in the inventories we’ve seen are simply a slightly more codified version of marketing or next-gen thought leadership—they’re not assets. No one goes into a furniture store to buy the description of a chair: “Come over here, madam,” says the salesperson, pointing at an empty space. “We’d like to tell you about our gorgeous, new, comfy chair. Imagine it in heritage grey, with cushions and a matching throw.” People go into furniture stores to buy actual chairs, the kind they can sit on and prod. On top of this, consulting firms, when they talk about their assets to clients, spend far too much time talking about how they’ve reconfigured their organisation and internal resources to deliver the service, and not nearly enough time explaining the benefits of the approach from a client’s point of view.

But the real crux of the problem emerges if you read our recent report on the impact technology is having on the work consultants do on a day-to-day basis. Asked what’s changed in their work over the last two to three years, 96% of people say they spend more time developing new products, and over 80% say they spend more time developing software. Focusing on the proportion of people who said that their work had changed “to a large extent”, percentages were higher in big firms and among consultants with only a few years’ experience. In other words, we’re creating a generation of people who are as much product developers as they are consultants. But how many of these people have been trained in new product development? How many of them realise that they need to build a service that clients not only want to buy (looks gorgeous) but can actually buy (does something useful)? If we don’t want a consulting world populated by Hallucigenia, we might want to give this more thought.

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