Two panel discussions with the title ‘Management consultancy in 2032 – Time travel into the future’ were organised by the International Council of Management Consulting Institutes (ICMCI). The discussions were held on 4 November 2022 and the panellists were young consultants from around the world, members of ICMCI’s recently established Future Leaders Forum.
The panellists came up with some challenging conclusions on the types of problems consultants will be solving; the structure of the consulting industry and changes in its customer base; the skills consultants will need; and how to keep up with developments in technology and consumer behaviour. They also highlighted the tensions between the increasing use of big data and tighter data protection regulation.
The types of problems consultants will be solving
In the future consultants will still be problem solvers, but the problems will be different. There will be increased demand for end-to-end support, from design through implementation to the delivery of a future state. This could lead to more multi-year engagements as the consultant accompanies a client through a major change. However, clients, and especially Gen Z clients, will want results faster.
Environmental, social and governance issues (ESG) will become increasingly important. Consultants will need to advise clients on how to focus beyond the bottom line and how to report on ESG. New business models will need to build in ESG from the start. The panellists felt that technology would be an important enabler for this.
Changes in the structure of the consulting sector and its customer base
The rise of international consulting networks and marketplaces will change the way consultants go to market and will create a worldwide talent pool. They will enable independent consultants and small firms to work internationally and to compete more effectively. They will also help them partner with local consultants to deliver services in other countries.
Many sectors are now embracing the gig economy and are happy to work with solo operators. Others, in particular financial services, are constrained by regulatory requirements, but market pressures may force them to open up, at least to some extent. The increasing willingness of organisations to employ independent consultants will put a lot of pressure on the big firms, who may not be able to maintain their premium pricing as more and more specialised consultants join the gig economy. They may also need to place more emphasis on employee retention.
In addition, consultants will increasingly be working with new partners on every project and projects will therefore need two openings and two closings, one with clients and the other with partners.
The clients will be different too. There will be a wider age range of customers, with more over-60s and also Gen Z people running companies.
Key consulting skills
Knowledge will be even more ubiquitous than it is now, but consulting firms will need to teach new entrants how to find research-based information and validate information on the internet. Consultants will need to master new tools, e.g. AI and dashboards. AI will help consultants analyse, manage and interpret data. Using big data and modelling will be key skills, but so will the traditional consulting skills of listening and observing as well as coaching skills. Trust continues to be critical. Cross-cultural communications and managing cross-cultural virtual teams will be very important, as will self-maintenance, in particular mindfulness and keeping a work-life balance.
Keeping up with changes in technology and consumer behaviour
Technology is ever-changing, and many important innovations will come from start-ups. Consultants should familiarise themselves with the start-up scene and build relationships with key start-ups to keep up with important developments.
It will be also key for consultants to understand how consumer behaviour is changing. This means understanding who is influencing consumers – their children. Kids don’t pay but they do influence purchases. Panellists claimed that the pandemic has changed consumers’ priorities, and that they will increasingly consider ESG issues and trustworthiness as well as pricing.
Big data vs. data protection
AI needs large quantities of customer data to work effectively, but data protection regulation is strengthening and customers increasingly want to protect their own data. Data will need to be stored at the point of collection, not by third parties, so that consultants will need to analyse data and create outputs on clients’ servers, not their own systems.
The idea of bringing together an international group of young consultants to forecast the future of the profession proved to be an inspired one. In an interesting parallel with their advice on understanding consumer behaviour, they demonstrated the importance of understanding the perspectives of the youngest cohort of influencers on the development of management consulting. Many of them are already living the changes they see as becoming more important for the sector as a whole, in particular the rise of the gig economy.
Dr Karol Szlichcinski is Associate Director of CMCE