30 Years as a Consultant: A Journey Through Time
1992 was the year when Pope John Paul II acknowledged on behalf of the Catholic Church that Galileo Galilei was correct in his opinion that the earth orbits the sun and not vice versa. It was also the year when the first text message was sent via the Vodafone mobile network in the United Kingdom. And it was the year that Bill Clinton won the U.S. presidential election over George H.W. Bush.
These three things are seemingly unrelated, yet they can be considered as the basis of the profound social, technical, economic and other trends that are at the core of the present age and which continue to have an impact. These changes were perhaps so profound that we hardly recognize them now: We don’t really know any different as so much of our lives are defined by them. Still, I want to reflect on them. I have been working as a consultant for 30 years now and would like to look back on the past three decades. For as obvious as these changes may seem, they are not. By looking back, you can come to a clearer understanding of past events and better understand your own functioning. In my case, it may assist to become a better consultant. So what exactly do these three changes entail?
- Focus on added value
In many areas, the established order is being undermined. People no longer blindly accept what scientists, doctors and other once authoritative professionals tell them. As a consultant I notice this too. Where in the past clients sometimes saw you as an all-knowing problem solver this fortunately has for a while no longer been the case. It is not about spouting as much knowledge as possible, but about asking the right questions in order to arrive at the best solutions for the client’s specific situation.
The client no longer blindly follows a recommendation but wants a problem-solving approach which can be co-created with the employees. It has become increasingly important for consultants to demonstrate that value is added both in formulating a problem-solving approach as well as in its implementation. Such a solution should not be temporary, but serve a longer period. Clients also have a smaller appetite than previously for having a consultant run such a project. They want to work with the consultant, learn from the consultant and improve their own skills. Galileo Galilei went against the authorities of his time and was a forerunner of today's mature client. And Pope John Paul II, through his recognition that the earth orbits the sun, was a forerunner of the modern consultant, who understands that his work is not about him but about the client.
- Digital breakthroughs
Wikipedia does not specify the content of that first text message from 1992. Nor does it really matter: That message heralded an era of far-reaching digitization. In the early 1990s, many companies were automating all kinds of activities in order to become more productive. It also heralded a period in which ERP packages became popular (and the Netherlands briefly played in the premier league with Baan). Gradually, these first waves of digitization enabled companies to improve their operations and gain access to an increasing abundance of information. Initially, they predominantly had to make do with transactional systems and information derived from ongoing business processes gathered by these systems.
However, the digital breakthroughs in recent years have also resulted in a wide range of new ways for companies to interact with their clients, new business models and new organizational structures, ways of working, devices and applications. You only have to look around to see how Internet technology, the personal computer and the cell phone have become an essential part of our lives in the past 30 years and how this has affected the way we work, communicate and interact. The role of data has also changed significantly in the process. 30 years ago, it was all about transactional data, which provided retrospective information about business operations. With time, all kinds of non-transactional data were added, which also became increasingly topical. This data can be utilized to look ahead to the future and create predictive models. So today, for the consultant who has moved with the times, all this data forms the raw material for all manner of analyses and solutions to client issues, so that clients can make better, data-driven decisions.
The added value of all these novelties is however not always self-evident. Clients often wonder what innovations would be useful to improve their business performance. Consultants can assist in separating the wheat from the chaff and preventing technology from being deployed purely for technology’s sake while losing focus on what the real added value for the business would be. All that glitters is, sadly, not gold. The blockchain technology serves as an example of a widely pursued new instrument, however widespread meaningful applications have (yet) to be realized in practice.
- Broadening and acceleration
In an essay recently published to mark the occasion of Management Scope's 25th anniversary, Founder and Director Walter Vesters identified three grand challenges which companies are struggling with: Diversity, sustainability and digitization. And, surely, unlike in 1992, digitalization, diversity and sustainability are high on companies’ agendas. After all, 1992 was a year in which the shareholder value-mentality reigned supreme, having emerged in the days of U.S. presidents Reagan and Bush senior. In that year, maximum profit was the top priority for many a company, in line with Gordon Gekko's famous motto ‘greed is good’ in the movie Wall Street (1987). Back then, you did not have to take too much notice of any interest other than those of the client's shareholders. You certainly did not have to factor in the interests of outsiders, the environment, dyke monitoring or public spaces. These are all issues which companies nowadays have to consider – and so do the consultants who advise them. This means an enormous broadening of the scope the consultant engages in.
But, at their core, companies today are still concerned with improving the way they do business: What they do, for whom and how. They still seek advice for the same kinds of issues as 30 years ago in terms of strategy, the organization and business processes. Now, however, there are many more potential solutions to these issues, especially thanks to digitalization. Thus, here too, a broadening. And since digitalization continues to occur at such a rapid pace, acceleration. While consultants used to get a long way having mastered Michael Porter's five forces model, nowadays they have to constantly brush up their knowledge. The profession requires a lifetime of learning from both older, more experienced consultants as well as clients and other experts: The consultant never stops learning. In that respect, the profession has not become easier. The days when a consultant derived their status from hard work alone are gone. The modern consultant should, from his or her intrinsic motivation, want to help clients realize improvements, learn constantly, regularly step out of their comfort zone and go the extra mile for clients. In my opinion, these things are at the core of the consulting profession.
Has that made it harder to be a consultant? Maybe it has, but it has also definitely become more enjoyable. That is especially true of the professionalization of the client. On the face of it an assertive client may appear to be a threat, as surely a client who unquestioningly accepts the consultant’s opinions is much more appealing than a critical, demanding client? In my opinion, it is far more enjoyable and interesting when the consultant focuses on the client rather than on his own expertise. Once the consultant immerses him- or herself in the client, the consultant can determine what is really at play. Moreover, by asking the client for their opinion and letting them contribute ideas, it is possible to increase engagement and improve the quality of the advice and its implementation. In other words, by working together with the client, a consultant can provide better services – better, in any case, than the ‘all-knowing consultant’ who professes to understand the situation or delivers a complex report which disappears into a drawer.
The quality of a consultant is moreover far more dependent on soft skills than 30 years ago. Of course, a consultant today still needs to be smart and possess excellent analytical skills but strong communication skills have also become increasingly important. The client must want to work with the consultant to search for the best solutions to the issues that the company is facing.
As outlined above, consultants need to learn continuously and evolve themselves. If the consultant is also guided by the intrinsic motivation to assist the client to improve, they will continue to be someone with whom the client enjoys embarking on a journey – also over the next 30 years.
This essay was published in Management Scope 09 2022.