The new digital world demands a new breed of consultancy

25 January 2021 5 min. read
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For all the uncertainty in 2020, one thing is undeniable; success, if not survival, in the challenging economic landscape of the last few months has been heavily linked to digital capability. Over the last decade many of UK’s cherished institutions have been slow to move away from 20th century business models and ways of working. In 2020, in the face of a huge and unexpected event the costs of this inertia have been exposed.

Despite five years of significant spending on digital transformation, government departments and leading private enterprises still, largely, run off pre-digital technology. Ways of working, beyond the digital team, are relatively unchanged – this is about more than having meetings on Zoom. Reluctance to unpick complex, aging, business critical legacy infrastructure and applications is understandable.

In that context, early large scale digital transformation focussed on the easy and important like websites and latterly on the complex but unimportant, like AI and VR. The hard but crucial work of deeper technology change and all that comes with it has been neglected.

James Herbert, CEO, foundry4

Before the pandemic took hold, there was major investment in improving online services and an increasing noise level about emerging technologies such as AI and IoT. But Covid-19 highlights the need to fix the plumbing in order to pull these two things together in order to thrive in a fast moving environment. Partly because of the globally respected, early successes of the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the high level of investment in tech start up London the UK’s digital maturity appears overstated. 

In the years running up to 2020 the UK tech start up scene was buoyant. How many of our early stage companies have scaled to replace or seriously disrupt the legacy incumbent organisations upon whom we rely for so many of our important life activities – insurance, banking, benefits, healthcare?

Actually, data suggests that despite the cult of the start up we face an ever increasing societal reliance on a small number of vast US based platform and technology businesses who will continue to grow exponentially due the power of network effects. Through this lens our economy is becoming more polarised and less diverse.

Many of our institutions certainly need shaking up but it’s important to all of us that they continue to exist and retain their relevance. The outsized impact of the pandemic on the UK economy and the struggle of the government to cope highlights that profound modernisation of our businesses and public sector should be a critical national priority.

The pandemic has uncovered underinvestment in mission critical technology and a shallowness at the heart of our approach to the fourth industrial revolution. This is reflected in both public and private sectors; what is the long-term strategy for the Government Digital Service? Why are online meetings described as digital transformation and how do you balance the noise about AI in our health sector given the more prosaic challenges faced by Track and Trace? 

Consultants to the rescue?

At this point those of us in the consultancy industry should turn the mirror on ourselves. Most institutions of reasonable size rely on external partners for strategic advice and delivery expertise. The lack of preparedness by the UK’s largest institutions for the digital economy suggests that those partners have either failed to convince their clients of the need for fundamental change or were unaware of that need themselves. 

When faced by uncertainty or fear there is a tendency for people and organisations to turn to the familiar or the safe. When it comes to digital business models, technology and data there is a risk that the shocks of the pandemic and Brexit will cause more institutions to turn back to those very companies whose advice has contributed to them being in this position in the first place.

The large consulting firms and systems integrators do offer digital services – now. But they were late to the party and many have turned to acquisitions to expand technology and digital know-how, rather than being built around it in the first place. However good the digital talent you acquire or hire – if you make it work in a pre-digital culture and environment churn is often the result. Can those experts get to the place they need to be to give their clients the best support? 


This need for a new style of external advice and delivery partner is why we built Foundry4. Individually we are differentiated, focused and highly specialised in our own technology or modern business discipline. But together we can offer clients the specialist advice and experience of SMEs whilst mitigating worries about scale, financial security and influence. There is a demand for this. 

This isn’t just about having a preferred supplier list. I’m talking about conscious and careful pulling together of a network that can meet your needs and deliver partnership rather than projects. This requires time, focus, money and diligence. But what is on offer is nothing more than survival.

As the economic fallout of Covid-19 becomes clearer and the importance of digital, technology and data becomes unarguable the combination of high consultancy fees and non-specialist expertise should look unattractive to institutions under desperate pressure to recover. Falling into the same consultancy trap of the last ten years as the UK pursues an economic recovery must be avoided. The country has an opportunity to activate a once-in-a-century reset.

If we are to emerge from the pandemic in a strong position, we must start by reforming the institutions and systems on which our recovery depends. Guiding them with genuine experts in design, modern technology and data will be vital.

About the author: James Herbert is the CEO of Foundry4, a digital transformation consulting firm.