Business Consulting Roles Today
Including a Checklist to assign your best fit!
Aylin Ihnen, July 2022
Let me be quite honest with you: I have been working in business consulting for almost two decades (with breaks) and lately, I have been seriously reflecting on the business consultants’ roles and added value in today’s work environments. I get asked about my view about the business consultants’ roles in the new economy a lot.
Here is my view on the purpose, the roles, and added value of our profession, which from my perspective, has never changed to date.
In a world brimming with hyper-connectivity, free intellectual property, alternative workforces, and instant information, business consultants‘ role has become less obvious.
Amidst an ever-growing supply of consumer and business insight and information, consultants offer an essential combination of expertise and approved approaches and frameworks to critical success factors. We advise, analyse and interpret various types of information — data within incredible short periods of time.
Business operations are becoming increasingly complex. Managing rapid change and digital transformation is a challenging exercise.
Continuous integration of new strategies to keep up with a dramatically changing economy often leads to miscalculations in organizational structures. It causes budget cut-backs regarding services like, e.g., Business Consulting.
The new economy calls for new skills
Employee Experience and extensive internal education programs are developed to retain, promote, and mobilize enterprises’ talent. Continuous learning to develop, upskill, or reskill employees — is becoming a critical factor in securing market share and business continuity.
Talent networks — specialized in various market segments — like Kaggle (the world´s largest network of data strategists and data scientists) are significantly growing.
According to the survey results of “2019 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends”, companies seeking freelancers or contractors with niche expertise to fill skill gaps (tactically “filling slots”) as an alternative to filling vacancies.
Are these new market developments mentioned above becoming a viable alternative to hiring business consultants?
If employees learn new frameworks, strategies, and best practices, and outsource special tasks to dedicated niche experts via networks, are business consultants still needed?
Yes. They are.
In general, a consultant is a professional with relevant — in-depth — project experience, a holistic thinker, with qualifications to support a client to achieve key business objectives within a short amount of time and within budget.
Markets have changed significantly — the traditional role of business consultants hasn't. Here is why!
This may sound provocative, but I believe that traditional business consulting principles still apply despite upheavals in economic, organizational, or political climates.
The intriguing article of Arthur N. Turner “Consulting Is More Than Giving Advice,” from the September 1982 issue of the Harvard Business Review, reflects on research results on effective consulting, drawing on interviews and conversations with consultants and companies in the U.S. and abroad.
It’s truly amazing that the concept of Arthur N. Turner from the 80s still applies today!
Arthur N. Turner concludes that “when clarity about the purpose exists, both parties are more likely to handle the engagement process satisfactorily.”
In his article, he refers to management consultants (MCs). MCs are predominantly assigned to specific strategic tasks — assigned by top management.
Nevertheless, the purposes summarized in Arthur N. Turner’s eight key objectives also apply to business consulting (which is usually not assigned by the top management level) in the same way.
Key business consulting objectives at a glance
When it's time to call in a business consultant
I’ve selected two common business scenarios in which a business consultant is invaluable:
- Launching a strategically relevant project within a short timeframe, a consultant can be wildly beneficial.
Even if you limit the assignment to the preparation of a roadmap, fresh eyes, an objective perspective, and a proven methodology. A consultant will help you to focus on relevant tasks, get a quick overview of key objectives, lower stress, raise confidence, and — a nice side effect — helps management look good!
2. Workplace evaluations can be a prime directive for bringing in a strong consultant or consulting firm. Put your criteria and categories of evaluation together and let them go to work!
Workplace evaluations can turn into a trap of internal politics, roadblocks, and conflict of interest.
Hiring a consultant will raise internal acceptance of the presented results. The fact that an external — objective source came to the conclusions — after analysing the workplace environment — helps immensely. In cases where your analysis results are questioned internally, you can always fall back on the external objective market evaluation — a nice side effect.
Quality standards vary substantially amongst consultants & advisors.
It is no secret that freelance advisors and consulting firms have earned somewhat of a negative reputation in the past decade.
This is probably an undue reputation on consultants in general, but the fact that engaging in consulting services requires no formal training means practically anyone can call themselves a consultant.
There are differences in work style, depth of knowledge(in the same subject), quality of delivery, and overall results.
Many people work in this sector under the name of consulting, advisory or business coaching.
It is often a challenge to find the right one — who matches your requirements and delivers desired results on time and within budget.
What you need to look out for when assigning one
If you work for a large organization or multinational corporation, check to see if there are existing databases of preferred service suppliers, procurement processes, and checklists that can help you find the right consultant for your initiative.
If that is not the case, and you are responsible for finding a professional to bring in — don’t be misled by
- good self-marketing,
- strong rhetoric, and
- a convincing appearance of the consultant.
That can be deceptive.
Here are 3 recommendations on what to look for:
- Positive referrals, good references, testimonials, or many project assignments don’t mean that the consultant is suitable for the project or initiative and can help you to achieve the required objectives.
- Appearance and presentation are not everything. There are so many pearls with outstanding skills tucked inside shells. Some of the best consultants out there may not shine through their self-marketing skills.
- Don’t forget that you are looking for a professional that understands your requirements & challenges and knows how to push your initiative forward. A good consultant will know how to accomplish results quickly by navigating through complex environments.
Best Practices to interview consulting candidates
These are my personal recommendations on how to interview candidates most effectively — usually with great results:
- Look for someone who delivers concrete problem-solving approaches customized to your needs.
- Test this skill by letting them work on an ad-hoc case that represents a singular, central issue to your problem.
- Look for a business consultant who offers solutions based on context and an understanding of your business needs.
- One key criterion is to find a professional who will consider how to integrate you, your team, or other affected units into their working processes.
- Look for a business consultant who addresses your specific needs but has the versatility to deliver a holistic approach that also considers overall company-specific critical factors for your project.
- Ask how they would approach the assessment of your current state. The foundation of the assessment should include cross-functional teams and interviews with relevant team members of your department.
- Ask what you’ll get at the end of the assignment. Effective consultants will leave you with a framework you and your team can immediately apply.
- The business consultant should help you and your team members to own the work in progress and the end result.
- Ask how they are planning to integrate, enable, motivate, promote the added value and support your team and other affected business units to own and identify with the project and/or the end result.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Have you made any experiences you would like to share?
If you would like to read more about this subject, I recently found this interesting article, “Judging the consultants — how firms weigh individuals’ worths,” in the Financial Times issue of January 2020.
It offers perspectives on measuring the effectiveness of a consultant.
This article also makes some insightful statements about the generational shift in the definition of results in the context of consulting. At least I thought so, read it yourself and decide