The future of consultancy

From executors to strategic partners: how business consulting services are going exponential, following the market and societal transformations and technological availability.

May 7 · 8 min read
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One of the positive things that this period of stagnation, suspension and uncertainty defined by the current pandemic has given us is the time to reflect on the future, of society in general and the market in particular. What will happen to our way of living, working, thinking about the economic initiative?

We have tried to use this time to speculate about what the future of consulting will be like, how our way of offering services to businesses will change in 10 years.

This is an arbitrary period because the possibility that a black swan — as Nassim Nicholas Taleb, with a touch of poetic grace, called a catastrophic, unexpected and disruptive event — will spread its wings is unfortunately in the nature of things. And so the change could come faster, more disruptive.

We talked about the future of consulting with Fabio Troiani, CEO of Bip — a multinational consulting services company of which we are part -, Augusto Fazioli, Partner of Ars et Inventio and ExO Consultant- and our CEO Luca Mascaro. All of them were asked for a prospective vision, and their answers gave rise to new considerations about the future of companies, the work of consulting firms and the business models that support them.

How companies will change

We felt it was right to begin this exploration starting with the clients of the consulting firms. It will be their transformations that will influence, more than anything else, the forms and functions of the realities that they will need.

The opinions of the three interviewees converge towards a scenario of profound transformations which all have to do with the ability to manage complex situations, to be resilient to changes in the market and the context.

Generating profit, which has been the primary purpose of recent economic initiatives, is no longer the primary objective but has become to remain relevant even if the market and society around it change rapidly. Sometimes with “quantum leaps” that take us from one condition to another brutally and in incomparable contexts. What worked well in a situation suddenly becomes useless after the jump.

In the past, the sites performed two functions: access to scarce resources and both internal and external communication. Having access to all resources in the cloud today, as well as being able to collaborate remotely, and communicating primarily over digital channels, do we still need prestigious and expensive locations?

Now that the dematerialization of consumption — we have all become accustomed to relying on online purchases, even for necessities — has become the rule, it has become evident how important it is to focus on services related to goods. This trend was already underway and has accelerated further.

Material goods will become a kind of the focal point of a universe of related services. To give an example, not only automobiles will be bought, but also service, insurance, maintenance, etc., to take one example.

The offer will thus become increasingly hybrid, halfway between the physical and the digital world and capable of serving both dimensions. The products, services and experiences connected to them will be increasingly liquid, distributed and equipped with a digital part. This requires specific strategies that are different from those designed exclusively for the physical or digital world.

Transforming the purpose of businesses, admitting that all products will also have a digital counterpart, and therefore accepting the trend towards servitude means profoundly changing both business models and the entire ecosystem in which they live.

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These are complex and profound transformations that, to be realized, need to acquire skills different from those that were the core business of the company and essential investments.

There will, therefore, be an increase in mergers, acquisitions, incorporations, and thus, the business world will be composed of large international corporations served by small suppliers distributed worldwide.

Companies will increasingly change into a platform model where the production of value is shifted out of the organization and derives mainly from the ability to orchestrate the interactions between the players of the ecosystem. The ability to organize does not only apply to external suppliers, and other stakeholders that belong to the “plat-firm”, but it is also valid towards the inside of the company. Companies will bring within them entire strands of expertise that will become business as usual, and that was usually entrusted to the outside, such as the skills of vision of the processes of experience design, technological development, and security.

(We say it quietly, this scenario will not be without reflections on the normative and labour law dimension and will raise a series of dilemmas that are not easy to solve and that certainly go beyond this article. But, for example, how to reconcile safety at work with distributed realities? How to harmonize the different regulatory systems if companies will be increasingly supranational? what weights and counterweights to ensure free competition?)

New challenges for the strategic consulting

Strategic advice will have to change, therefore, but how deeply? And along what lines? Will it still be relevant?

We believe that yes, consulting firms will still be relevant. Even, their task will become above all to help companies design end-to-end services and master the technological dimension of services. More partners and fewer performers, unlike today, but with the same goal: to build and maintain the value that companies are able to deliver to their end customers over time.

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If companies are to adopt agile and streamlined models to be resilient and flexible and to be able to orchestrate complexity, consultants should be the first to hire these organizations.

The consulting firms themselves will also be pushed towards a plat-firm logic on a par with their clients. The critical success factor of consulting will increasingly be the ability to transform itself, becoming an experimental model for its clients.

This can only happen by vigorously putting excellence and value back at the centre of one’s actions. Consultancies have to equip oneself with a smaller mass of people with generalist skills and instead invest in talent to build a capital of people with a very high profile, hyper-competent and responsible.

Vertical competence alone is not enough; it is not enough providing clients with the best expert in that other discipline, but the ability to orchestrate different skills, tasks, actions and people will become crucial to create something new and a valuable.

New skills for a changing world

It is precisely on the creation of new services and solutions that the real challenge for consultancies will be played out: that of being able to shape the future. Above all, companies will look for fresh perspectives, divergent thinking and the ability to interpret emerging technologies, customer expectations and signals coming from society and the market.

Consultants will also have to change. In ten years they will be dealing less and less with low value-added activities — such as benchmarking and data analysis, which could be automated thanks to exponential technologies and their applications — and instead, they will have to acquire advanced strategic skills: design, ability to interpret customers’ behaviour, advanced technological capabilities.

Sharing the risk

If the consultancy world has a more crucial impact on strategic choices and the way companies operate, then we will move from a model that today is mainly based on service fees to a profit-sharing relationship. In other words, consulting firms will share with their clients the business risk linked to individual initiatives or projects. This is a radical change of scenery because it implies a different way of conceiving the collaboration relationship, of course. Still, it also has more profound implications on the way of working.

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It will not be enough to re-modulate, with the significant variations of the case, a model or try to replicate a successful trial, but from time to time it will be necessary to build an exclusive and specific path with its clients. It will be the project path that will represent the real strategic resource and the unique added value that consulting firms will be able to offer. And that clients will try to protect because that will be their real competitive advantage. There will be more and more requests for non-competition, at least on individual markets to guarantee a certain level of protection and competitive advantage of know-how.

Consultancy firms will have two possible choices: either to tie themselves tightly to one or a few clients, to become their centre of excellence and innovation, or to grow and differentiate themselves: to become more international, diversify types of clients and markets. Therefore, extend their range and types of action so as not to find themselves trapped in markets that are too rigid and thus fragile.

The transition to this future of the consulting world can neither be improvised nor implemented quickly. We need to start now, taking advantage of the opportunity represented by this moment of uncertainty and suspension, to think about a process of hybridization between disciplines, to develop orchestration skills and to reflect on the best ways to mature the skills that will be needed soon.

Obviously what we have outlined in these lines is a vision, and intuition, indeed not a prediction. The evolution of technology and society is much faster than the ability of human beings to find meaning or a common denominator. But the intuition of experience is a subtle dimension that must increasingly belong to management in times of uncertainty more than in others.

Moving forward

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