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Qualifications for Management Consultants

Richard Popple, past President of the Institute of Management Consultants (IMC), remembers how the IMC introduced a more rigorous system for assessing management consultants applying to be full Members of the IMC.


Originally admission as an Associate and progression to a full Member of the IMC was based on years of experience, but by the time I joined the IMC the method of advancement from Associate to full Member of the Institute was by an assessment by a panel of two or more Members, who conducted an interview and required evidence of a project completed by the candidate.  This was my own experience: the panel consisted of the late Helen Benedict (to whom I am eternally grateful for introducing me to R Meredith Belbin’s book ‘Why Management Teams Fail’,) and Alan Hudson, both personal friends. Other organisations had different methods: the large practices had their own schemes and many other ICMCI members relied upon examinations.  Neither the IMC method nor the examination route had external recognition or validation.  One of the universities I approached dismissed the first, saying ‘So it’s just members assessing their colleagues with no set standard’.  The weakness of the examination method was that candidates could prepare for it from a given syllabus and pass with no evidence of real-life experience.

The IMC Council of the time agreed that external validation and recognition were important but initial enquiries proved that definitions were difficult.  We approached the Open University and the University of Middlesex among others: all were of the opinion that a qualification could be awarded only after a period of study or training.  Eventually, it became clear that what we were seeking was a validation of a standard.  The consultancy qualification was, in effect, at postgraduate level: candidates came from many different disciplines – Technical, IT, Human Relations, Supply and others – but shared the common need to demonstrate competence in consultancy.  Drawing on my experience in the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, towards the end of the 1990s I began to draw up proposals for a Competence-based Assessment system.  At that stage, we obtained the co-operation of Napier University in Edinburgh, (Professor Sam Allwinkle) who understood what we were trying to achieve.

There were four areas of competence: Management Skills, Professional Skills, Consultancy Skills and Environmental Skills.  The last of these required the candidate to show awareness not only of the overall political and economic background of the time but also of the conditions in the business sector and the geographical area concerned.  The candidate would be required to produce a portfolio containing an educational and career history and at least one example of a consultancy project in which he or she had taken the lead or a leading role and demonstrating competence in all four areas, followed by an interview, at which assessors could question the candidate on the contents of the portfolio and any other relevant topics. 

The proposal was approved by the IMC Council for further investigation and practical testing.  When it was announced, there was some resistance from existing members, one of whom described it as ‘a tortuous process’ but it was agreed that full members would not have to be reassessed.  By chance, the IMC received a request from the Bulgarian Association of Management Consultants to help them towards self-certification, the project to be funded by the British Council.  I agreed to use this as an opportunity to field test the new system and eventually visited Bulgaria eight times, accompanied the first time by Paul Brown, then a member of IMC staff, and thereafter by Andrew Smythe, a fellow member of IMC.  On our first visit, we had no idea what we would encounter, whether we would have to work with an interpreter, what level of candidate would be presented and so on.  There were originally twelve candidates but one withdrew at the beginning because she recognised that she was a trainer rather than a consultant. To our surprise, all the other eleven were fluent in English, explaining that it was easier to learn English than to translate the internet into Cyrillic script.  Nearly all the candidates already had first degrees.  We described the method to them, to which one replied ‘So you would like some of us to produce portfolios ready for interview tomorrow?’  We agreed that this would be the ideal because our time in Sofia was limited so three or four of them worked through the night to prepare for their presentations the following day, apologising in some instances because they had not had time to translate case histories into English and offering to read them in translation.  The standard of all the candidates was high and we had no hesitation in recognising them as qualified management consultants.  In the end, we assessed some eighty candidates with a high success rate because several realised that they would not meet the required standard and withdrew before the assessment.  The President of the Bulgarian Association, Dimitar Hristov, was extremely helpful throughout, ensuring that the candidates were present at the appropriate time, generally managing our transport and other arrangements and providing an interpreter where necessary.  I am delighted to say that about two years later, a delegation from ICMCI visited Sofia and awarded them self-assessment status, a validation of their hard work and of the Competence-based Assessment system.

The proposals for the system were presented to the ICMCI Conference in September 1999 and adopted for general use.  I was able to attend the Conference but unable to make the presentation as I was recovering from surgery at the time.  Unfortunately, I retired soon after that and have not been able to follow the progress of the system.  Perhaps others may add to the subject from their experience.

Richard Popple

President: Institute of Management Consultants: 1999

Wednesday 13th May 2020
Old books and cup of coffee