When a consulting firm says it has a "practice", what does that really mean? If you are asked to join a practice what can and indeed should you expect?
Many progressive consultancies, offer the fact that they have "practices", based on areas of expertise as part of their proposition to clients and to potential employees and associates, but it is not always clear what makes up a practice and why it should
be valued. Words are cheap and it is easy to hang out the "Practice" sign; while actions are more costly, they speak so much louder.
Having been thinking about this for a little while I would like to offer what might be described as a maturity model for practices. This does not mean that one company has it right and another wrong, but rather offers a basis for assessing what it will mean
to be part of a particular practice.
My working model has four compounding levels with increasing sophistication, expectations and indeed cost to the firm.
The first and lowest level is what I will call "Nameplate". This is where a firm decides that for marketing or presentational purposes it wants to compete in a certain area. The firm puts up a literal or metaphorical nameplate ie “XXX Practice”
and gives someone a title such as "Head of Practice". They then start talking to clients and stakeholders to see what interest they can unearth that they will then attempt to address.
This is a demand led model in that only once an interest is identified will the firm look to resource/satisfy the opportunity. The advantage for the firm is little upfront investment and an ability to unwind/forget the practice should there be no interest.
Joining up with a firm using a nameplate practice is likely to mean little more than being added to a contact list and then called if anything looks remotely like a match, but will likely hear nothing if your experience is not in demand.
The next level added is what I call "Inventory". At this level the firm has probably taken a little more time to really understand and create an inventory of the skills and experience of the consultants they are engaged with, permanent and
associate. This leads to identified specialisms and means that the firm's conversations with its clients are more likely to be focussed round that "inventory". As a result there is an opportunity for faster and more appropriate deployment, but it is still
likely that a consultant will be engaged as an individual or as part of a group of individuals.
There may be some quality reviews by other members of the firm, but this is likely to be more about periodic checks on client satisfaction than any deep dive into the content of deliverables.
Joining up with a firm with at this maturity levels is likely to work well if you match the inventory profile they are looking for. The presence of a specialist tag may also bring greater reward but consultants are still something of a commodity.
The third level is what I will call "Support". At this level there is likely to be some organisation and administration supporting the members of the practice and there will be an environment where consultants are encouraged to support each
other, sharing knowledge and skills. There is also likely to be a clearer hierarchy within the practice with identified responsibilities.
Similarly the practice is likely to construct (and deploy) teams that have a blend of skills and may change in composition over an assignment. There is likely to be a greater focus on the content and quality of deliverables, probably with more frequent review
by peers within the team.
The practice should also be pushing in the area of thought leadership, publishing papers and leading discussion on their recognised area(s) of expertise. There are also likely to be more interaction, possibly as focussed meetings, of practice members.
Aligning with this level of practice is likely to bring more of a team feel to the working environment and potentially expose the consultant to larger/more interesting assignments. Essentially this level looks to make the most of what the firm has, through
organising and supporting a coherent set of consultants and resources in order to present attractive propositions to clients.
This is a step that requires more investment from the firm as at any one time a number of people may be engaged in non-fee earning activities. The financial model of many consultancies means that their ability to invest at this level is often limited.
The top level is something I call "R&D” or Research and Development. This looks at how to build
additional/new expertise into the practice. This is likely to be achieved by researching trends and likely future client needs and then positioning the firm ahead of demand by acquiring or developing the identified skills and expertise.
If the previous level needs investment then to operate with this top level needs more. There is also a reluctance found in many firms about developing new skills and expertise in case it just makes the staff more attractive to competing firms. The question
of developing associates is even more difficult given they loose ties between firm and associate.
That said I think this aspect sets the leaders in consulting apart from the rest. The “Big” firms distinguish themselves by investing here while many others seek to acquire expertise developed elsewhere. As leaders firms operating at this level often lead
the early discussions in emerging subjects.
One can see that as one adds the layers in the model so the cost/need to invest grows, but so should the returns through creating greater demand and being able to charge premium rates. The risk is that these higher levels are the ones that are first to be
curtailed in difficult times, arguably when they are needed most.
As I said at the start there is no right or wrong. Each consulting firm has a practice style that suits its ambitions and pockets, but I would be interested to hear if this framework resonates with the reader and if it is a useful tool when assessing what
is being offered in/by a particular practice.