We saw an insightful sharing of thoughts by a globally-renowned HR consultant, Prof. Dave Ulrich last week. Management consulting has become a thriving business in the wake of rapid economic expansion. We see a mushrooming of consultants in multiple areas working with corporates in Sri Lanka. What are the challenges associated with consulting? Today’s column will shed light on this current and relevant matter.
“Consultants borrow your watch to tell you the time then they walk off with your watch,” said Robert Townsend, a former CEO of Avis. This is often interpreted as meaning that consultants will question you and your colleagues, capture your knowledge, and then not adequately document and share with you what they’ve learnt.
Should that be the way of a consultant’s approach? I tend to say no. It can be much more enriching and value-adding, if expectations and executions are managed properly. Let’s look at what it is all about.
Nature of management consulting
We can look at management consulting in many ways. According to Larry Greiner and Robert Metzger, management consulting is an advisory service contracted for and provided to organisations by specially trained and qualified Persons who assist the client organisation in an objective and independent manner, to identify management problems, analyse such problems, recommend solutions to those problems, and help, when requested, in the implementation of solutions.
Milan Kubr takes it further by stating management consulting is an independent professional advisory service assisting managers and organisations to achieve organisational purposes and objectives by solving management and business problems, identifying and seizing new opportunities, enhancing learning and implementing changes.
"Sri Lankan organisations tend to hire consultants of multiple calibres. Some may represent global consulting giants. Others may come from what are called ‘boutique’ consultancy firms. The rest may be individuals. Irrespective of the category, one thorny issue prevalent is the expectation mismatch. I have seen many a time what is expected by the client and what is delivered by the consultant not being the same. Disputes, disagreements and delays can be the common outcomes. What is required is the clarity and commitment from both fronts"
The International Labour Organization defines management consulting in a more precise way. According to them, it is the professional Work performed by persons having requisite qualifications, experience, technical ability and temperament to advice and assist management on a professional basis for solving their managerial problems or with a view to maximising the business opportunities of their organisation.
Let’s see how consultants define management consulting. According to the Institute of Management Consultants, UK, it is the service provided by an independent and qualified person or persons in identifying and investigating problems concerned with policy, organisation, procedures and methods; recommending appropriate action and helping to implement these recommendations.
Facets of management consulting
“Every year in consulting is like three years in the corporate world because you have multiple clients, multiple issues – you grow so much,” said Indra Nooyi, the dynamic CEO of PepsiCo.
Consulting is a professional service which involves multiple facets. These include diagnosing management problems, recommending optimum solutions, implementing solutions by assisting client organisations and evaluating results.
It can be considered as an independent service performed according to certain ethics such as responsibility, accountability, confidentiality, transparency, impartiality and integrity. It in fact is essentially an advisory service, a service concerned with the application of professional knowledge and skills in dealing with practical management problems.
From confusion to clarity
Arthur N. Turner, writing to Harvard Business Review, says consulting is more than giving advice. As he elaborates: Of all the relationships that executives enter into with outsiders, perhaps none is so tainted by misunderstanding as the engagement of management consultants. The executives, consultants may seem concerned mainly with prolonging their assignments and unable to appreciate the practicalities of managerial issues. Conversely, consultants may see their clients as short-sighted and lacking the backbone necessary to make important decisions. How can such stereotypes be done away with by starting at the beginning of the assignment? If managers and outside advisers work out in advance what is expected of each party during their work together, the chances of solving problems are improved.
He suggests that managers and consultants structure the engagement according to a hierarchy of goals — which proceeds from the most basic objective, providing information, to the most sophisticated, permanent improvement of organisational effectiveness. The best way to move up that hierarchy is for executives and advisers to work together to identify needs and develop solutions.
Consulting and change
“My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions,” said Peter Drucker. It is all about having an open mind in exploring the possibilities.
Consulting is fundamentally about change, about helping another person, team or organisation make the transformation from one state to another. This might be a physical, cognitive, emotional, structural, technological or organisational change. Unless something changes in the desired direction, there is no justification to expect any reward from the client.
Any consulting project will benefit from the application of a change model that makes sense to the client as well as the consultant. Successful consulting is about making a difference for the client and consumer- the goal is to deliver the contracted change.
As change is always uncomfortable, there will be inevitable resistance to change. Collectively overcoming it, in driving sustained change is the crusade of a consultant.
Sri Lankan scenario
Sri Lankan organisations tend to hire consultants of multiple calibres. Some may represent global consulting giants. Others may come from what are called ‘boutique’ consultancy firms. The rest may be individuals. Irrespective of the category, one thorny issue prevalent is the expectation mismatch. I have seen many a time what is expected by the client and what is delivered by the consultant not being the same. Disputes, disagreements and delays can be the common outcomes. What is required is the clarity and commitment from both fronts.
Key consulting challenges
In describing key local consulting challenges, I would go with Mike Cope, in adopting his seven Cs of consulting. They refer to the content and conduct of a consultancy assignment.
Client challenge: Identify and understand the client’s needs, is the starting point of consulting. Not doing it proper in the first time can lead to major misunderstanding and misconduct. I have seen this happing in many Sri Lankan organisations. Hence, knowing the client is a key challenge.
Clarifying the problem or issues to be addressed is of utmost importance to any consultancy assignment. Not having a clear idea of the process will lead to groping in darkness. This can be a key challenge especially when the consultant and client are both not clear about the way forward.
The best way to predict the future is to create it, so they say. Creating a solution to resolve the problem is an essential part of any consulting process. If consultant is not capable of doing it, jointly with the client, the consequences will be disastrous.
This is one of the biggest in the local scenario. As the old wisdom says, “people do not resist change, they resist being changed”. Initiating change and managing the change process can be a crucial challenge for a management consultant.
Confirming that the changes introduced have taken root and the desired transition is taking place is of utmost importance. Things cannot be allowed to go back to the old, undesirable state. I have seen many local organisations not addressing this aspect properly.
Ensuring that the changes introduced will continue once the project is completed is essential for sustained results. This is one key challenge faced by consultants. They may depart without a devoted client adhering to the changes. The improved situation can be crawled back to the inadequate stale state.
Closing the consultancy engagement once the assignment is completed is the expected norm. However, some consultants may attempt to glue themselves to clients in order to obtain continuing benefits. On the other hand, the client might be over-relying on the consultant, in allowing him/her to continue without a definite closure. Both cases may seem unprofessional. I have seen many such cases in the local scene.
“A consultant is someone who saves his client almost enough to pay his fee,” said Arnold H. Glasgow. This will not be the reality if the above seven Cs are taken with clarity and commitment. The reality is that consultants are hired by organisations to obtain special knowledge and skills that are not available within organisations. This is where the supply intensive professional assistance on a temporary basis, takes place. Also, it helps to obtain an impartial unbiased view on a given problem or situation, or an outside expert opinion on a course of action that has been chosen by the management.
Whether consultants are a cost or an investment for an organisation has been a perennial question. Despite the fact that some of the so-called consultants (or ‘con’sultants) resort to ‘over-promise and under-deliver,’ there are a genuine clan of consultants who maintain their credibility by doing a decent job. What matters essentially is the professionalism through one’s words and deeds.
Consultants and clients alike can commit more to obtain concrete results in delighting the customers. In fact, this completes the central triangle of CCC, i.e., Customer, Client and Consultant.
(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri works at the Postgraduate Institute of Management. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org or www.ajanthadharmasiri.info.)