"Consultants are a virus," says Financial Times columnist Andrew Hill: "Let one in and you infect the whole organization." Harsh words indeed from Mr. Hill, who this weekend outlined his virulent hypothesis in detail. While he recognizes that the notion "sounds extreme," he's adamant that "the more you examine consultancies, the more virulent they appear."
Hill targets five similarities between consultancies and viruses. Be warned, there's more than a little British cheekiness; it'd be just as easy to compare any other industry (or even the human species, for that matter) to a virus, but I'm willing to play along in order to reach Mr. Hill's (hopefully) reasonable conclusion. His argument:
• Viruses cannot exist alone. One of Hill's more compelling comparisons is that both viruses and consulting firms "need a host." Neither are self-reliant. As the author says, without a client a consultancy "would simply be a collection of smart people nattering to each other about strategy."
•Viruses can mutate into different strains. Though he fails to acknowledge that anything with the capacity to change could suffer a similar association, Hill cites the ever-changing landscape of consulting firms as another example of their virulence. BCG divided and spawned Bain, he says; same goes for McKinsey and A.T. Kearney. "Now," he says, "there are strains within strains: strategy, marketing, operations, customer service, IT—you name it." He has a point here; I do think I could name at least 15 more "strains".
•Viruses multiply. Breaking news—consultancies, like all companies (not to mention all life on earth), grow! Just like a virus, Hill argues, firms like Deloitte and Tata Consultancy Services are going on hiring binges in order to "multiply" and become more powerful. The British cheekiness is hitting its stride.
•All living things are susceptible to viruses. Private companies aren't the only victims of the consultant feeding frenzy, Hill says; public sector institutions, non-profits, and even big players in emerging markets are all suffering the same fate. "The consultancy pandemic in the west is now tightening its grip on companies in China, India, and other fast-growing economies," he asserts.
•Viruses endure. Hill's last point is his most compelling, which suggests that consultants do just enough to keep their host companies alive and writing checks. "Ebola Consulting Group would be a short-lived operation," he quips. "Influenza & Company could go on and on."
Despite his playfully critical tone, Hill advises consulting firms to take note of the skepticism that he says is permeating the business world. For starters, Mr. Hill says that executives worldwide are growing tired of seeing "more middlemen paid to tell managers how to run their businesses than actual industrialists and real engineers." That skepticism, coupled with less spending money on hand as a result of the recession, has seen companies shun the "extended engagements" consultants thrive upon in favor of cheaper "short-term counsel"—a major threat to the modern consulting paradigm.
Other threats include a growing preference to hire "advisors with global reach" and the difficulty that consultancies face when trying to attain that designation (he cites the failed merger attempt between Deloitte and A.T. Kearney as an example), Hill says.
His last and perhaps most intriguing point warns that "the earlier success of consultants in helping companies formulate strategy has bred corporate familiarity with their methods." "Familiarity," he says, "breeds contempt." Or at least a better eye for BS! Lots of modern execs are former consulting alumni, Hill writes, and "it is harder for consultants to convince one of their own that he or she can't manage without outside advice."
If it is true that consultants mimic viruses, consulting firms will adapt to the changes in their environments and bounce back stronger than ever. When some potential hosts develop vaccines and immunities to their charms, Hill argues, consultants will have to find new ways to access the corporate payloads upon which they currently subsist.
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