Industry veteran calls for more focus on consulting excellence

01 September 2020 4 min. read
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In the last few years, Bob Harris, a veteran in the consulting industry and Chair of the Judging Panel for the CMCE Research Awards, has been disappointed by academic research on management consulting. Harris outlines why he believes the sector would benefit from more focus on consulting excellence. 

During a career as a management consultant over four decades, I have benefited from publications by authors such as Charles Handy [an Irish author specialising in organisational behaviour and management] and Tom Peters [an American expert on business management practices], from ground-breaking research on topics such as business process re-engineering, and from valued contributions by academics on sector-specific challenges such as the privatisation of the telecoms and electricity industries.

But recent academic research in the UK seems to be focused primarily on negative issues: the allegation of unethical or even corrupt practice as a result of the so-called “revolving door”; the flawed analysis that suggested that the use of management consultants by the NHS had led to additional costs rather than benefits; and calls for the management consulting profession to introduce and enforce a code of ethics amid questionable quality. 

How can such a negative picture be developed while management consulting has been such a success story and shown such growth over the last 20-30 years? Are all those client managers so stupid that they continue to hire expensive advisors who indulge in unethical practice and fail to deliver value? I think not – and here’ why.

Is consulting research too focused on negative issues?

A big challenge for those wishing to undertake research on management consulting is that it is generally conducted on a confidential basis and is not open to the public gaze. Not only do client organisations not want to publicise that they have a major problem requiring expert assistance, they also rarely give external consultants public credit for successes – which others might suggest they could have achieved themselves.

So the empirical evidence which is readily available tends to be drawn from those (very few) projects which have got into difficulty. This is particularly the case for the public sector, where failed projects are crawled over by the National Audit Office and other regulatory bodies, and provide a rich source of material for academics to investigate.

Include successful projects into scope

There is thus a strong bias in the published research on management consulting towards the few failed rather than the many successful projects. This is exacerbated by the tendency of the media in the UK to focus on the negative (“good news is not news”) and any caveats on research findings are ignored to get a dramatic headline. 

Does it have to be like this? Would it not be more useful if academics could focus on excellent management consulting projects – for example, the winning entries in the annual MCA Awards? Or perhaps in developing new approaches and methods that could help improve the practice of management consulting?

Further reading: How consulting firms can deliver value to infrastructure sector.

If the academic world is to move in this direction, it will have to gain the confidence of management consultants and their clients; a stream of negative articles criticising the management consulting profession is hardly likely to do that. But it can be done – the best research paper and the winner of the Urwick Cup at the 2019 CMCE Research Conference based its empirical research in several major client organisations and with several global consulting organisations. 

It was perhaps interesting that the authors comprised an academic and a practising management consultant – Karl Warner of Edinburgh Napier University and Maximilian Wager of The Nunatak Group Munich for their paper ‘Building dynamic capabilities for digital transformation’. Maybe there is a lesson there for others?

Bob Harris has over 30 years of experience in management consulting – as a partner with EY and subsequently with Accenture – where he led major assignments across all functional areas, primarily in the public sector, and worked directly with a number of senior Ministers.