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Culture: The overlooked weapon

Much has been written about the Culture of technology firms created in the last 10-15 years that turns the ideas of the 20th Century on their heads. Whether it is the Culture deck from Netflix or the handbook from Valve they seek to use Culture as a differentiator in the war for talent.  Rather ironically due to the reliance on people, these ideas have not been applied extensively to the consulting industry.  For lots of consultancies in this sector, Culture is a very distant runner up to "bums on seats". Meaning that many companies in this sector do not even consider it to be in their strategic arsenal.

When trying to attract and retain the best talent, which is essential when delivering emerging technology solutions, a consultancy should spend considerable time and effort on the culture. This is especially true for the following factors:

  • The Three Forces

  • The Digital Business

The Three Forces

When running a consulting firm, or any professional services firm for that matter, you are faced with balancing the usual triangle of forces:

  • What challenge the client is facing

  • What services you are offering and who is available

  • What your consultants want individually

Consultancies have various metrics of success (or KPIs) that monitor the performance of the business like dials on the machine. While the particular combination will vary, the profitability of a consulting firm is usually related to utilisation, i.e. the ratio of billable time versus “bench” time.

For many consultancies, this triangle of forces is always under stress and the three forces are quite often not pulling in the same direction because of the constant need to maximise utilisation. Most of the time, in our experience, the consultant’s career objectives and aspirations come a very distant third and so their career is driven by the projects they deliver rather than the other way round.

Focusing the firm alleviates this stress. When your offerings are more naturally aligned you have a higher chance of satisfying all of them in a given opportunity.

From a Cultural point of view, however, it is how you behave around these forces that crystallises the Culture of a consulting firm. For example, would you sell a consultant onto a project that is only marginally related to your core offering for the extra utilisation? Or would you leave one of your superstars working at a client project for years to maintain stability, even though you know that their personal aim is to gain experience with multiple clients?

The need to maximise utilisation also has the effect of reducing the authenticity of your company values. These values are meant to articulate the Culture making it digestible for everyone from new joiners to managers. For example, there is no point in having the cultural value of “Nurturing” (as many consultancies do) if career development is left solely to the individual and then let them go if they are on the bench too long. What consultants experience versus what is in the handbook is tested in those moments of stress.

The Digital Business

Some of the larger consulting firms are pursuing a Digital Agenda and offering services, using emerging technologies, to their clients - in many cases they are creating the mandate, budget and innovation teams for the clients to execute. However, progress is slow. Why is that?

When talking about a Digital Business, the technology they are focussed on is always discussed, but equal importance is also applied to the way of working or the Culture that goes with it. This test should be also applied to the consulting business advising the Digital Businesses.

For most consultancies there are issues in both the technology and Culture:

a) Cobblers Children. To be a "digital business" (or.."data organisation", "emerging technology company" etc) you have to actually use the technologies yourselves. For example, which mature consultancies run their enterprise systems entirely in the browser, have a mobile first strategy, or invest in user experience for their internal systems?

Some of these consultancies (and their clients) are only now waking up to the promise of the Cloud, with some migration programmes for their own data centres. The desktop still feels like it has a way to go, and even though AI is talked about as being the electricity along which business will run; it seems like AI is almost nowhere in consulting and looks like it will take a while to get there.

They suffer from the same issues as the large institutions they are advising. They don't have senior technical leadership on their boards. They have come to rely on standardisation, the wall of the service desk and when not saving money, are motivated to maintain security with little consideration for internal innovation.

b) The Culture of a digital consultancy should be fundamentally different to that of a classical consultancy. If you define the Digital Agenda as finding where a business can be transformed by thinking of radically new ways to operate, the culture needs to support that mindset. This means an organisation's culture needs to support experimentation, challenge assumptions and tolerate failure. Consulting firms need to learn this lesson as much as the institutions they advise. 

These two factors show why the culture is a critical weapon in the armory of any consulting firm. Unfortunately, as the culture is held in the people, processes and technology of an organisation, it is tough to change, to deliver major cultural change it is sometimes easier to start from scratch!


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Richard Miller

Richard Miller

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RegDefy (MV37)

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07 Jul 2017



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This post is from a series of posts in the group:

Innovation in Financial Services

A discussion of trends in innovation management within financial institutions, and the key processes, technology and cultural shifts driving innovation.

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