How technology is disrupting the consulting industry

19 June 2019 6 min. read

Ségolène Rousset, a student at emlyon business school in France, has interviewed consultants from all over Europe to gain more insight into how technology is disrupting the consulting industry. While her research is still taking place, she sat with to discuss the preliminary findings she has uncovered so far.

At the heart of Ségolène Rousset’s research programme is an ambition to shed more light on the extent to which automation is changing the face of the consulting profession. While the full impact of such technology may be yet to be felt, according to her analysis, emerging technologies have irrefutably transformed consulting. As in the broader professional services sector, however, the impact of technology differs dramatically throughout the industry.

Consulting industry

At an industry level, technology has done two things. First, it has introduced a complete new field of work, commonly bundled under the label ‘digital transformation’. This segment is the fastest growing segment of the consulting sector and according to estimates from Source Global Research it is now worth around one fifth of the entire industry in mature markets. Clients are embracing technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, automation and internet of things to gain competitive advantages, and in doing so, tapping the expertise of consultants who stand at the forefront of such developments.

Second, the growing role of technology has blurred the lines between traditional consulting work and technology work. A decade ago, there was a clear cut between consulting work (project-based, value-adding advisory based), technology consulting work (project-based tasks such as systems implementation) and non-consulting technology consulting work (more routine tasks such as application development and maintenance). With digital now at the heart of innovation and performance improvement, consulting firms are delivering much more technology work, and are extending their services into a realm previously classified as non-consulting. Consultancies now work with clients to design and develop apps, prototypes and intelligent systems, among other areas.How will technology disrupt the consulting industry?“The global consulting market is in the process of being reorganised itself,” said Rousset, “due to the growing diversification of the activities of consultancy firms.” This development is however not just a consequence of technology – the industry is making similar moves branching into others fields of professional services, including design thinking, marketing & advertising and engineering.

Technology is also making an impact in consulting firms' own internal operations. Unsurprisingly, firms are embedding automation in their own processes to improve primary activities such as project management, resourcing and activities for client engagements, but also secondary processes such as finance, human resources and internal reporting. It is helping consulting firms scale, manage and connect with their talent more easily.

At the same time, the rise of digital is also a threat for the operation of consultancies. Technology is allowing consulting firms to operate in a more agile manner, as illustrated by the rise of digital-driven networks of consultants or groups of independent consultants. These collectives use technology to team up more effectively, while others have used technology to enable digital matching platforms. These user-friendly apps can assemble teams of consultants with a few simple swipes on a smart-phone.

The consultant

Last but not least, it is important to understand how the average day of the individual consultant has changed in recent times. What is clear is that the profession no longer fits into the narrow expectations of its less agile past. As with any other industry, views on work and good employment practices have shifted between older generations and their more digitally savvy new counterparts.

“Two decades ago, consultants worked day and night, while they were paid well, and their ultimate goal was to become a Partner,” Rousset stated. “Today, though, with four different generations on the work floor in some cases, the field represents a much more diverse group of people, with wider-ranging beliefs and aspirations.”

Pointing to Millennials for instance, Rousset suggested they are often spoken about in contrast to those who came before them, as they are more likely to desire work-life balance – choosing not to become Partners, to be more entrepreneurial, or enjoy freelance flexibility – and have a keener focus on ethical ‘business with purpose’. As a result, the legitimacy of a consultant’s work and its added value is constantly under scrutiny from within the trade.

“The global consulting market is in the process of being reorganised. Technology is playing a major role in this transition.”

This is accentuated by increasingly demanding clients, who having likewise taken on new generations have also developed a more critical approach to value added by consultants. As a result, they prefer consultants that have eye for sustainability and purpose, tying to the evolution of society as a whole. This shift has been further hastened by the fact firms are facing a talent war, with high levels of employment and an ageing population, meaning that by meeting the expectations of the new generation of consultants provides a leg up on the competition when obtaining new workers.

Consulting jobs to be automated?

Beyond this, though, one major topic of discussion in Rousset’s investigation is to what extent technology will not change, but replace consulting jobs. This is a matter which the market has been anticipating for years, with a number of automation’s detractors claiming it will see a large portion of work become redundant – and with it the employees who specialise in its completion. Examples of such areas of work include process analysis, repetitive or regular data analysis tasks supporting strategy work, modelling & algorithm work, and the uncovering of patterns and trends out of large data-sets.

At the same time, however, others say this will not come to pass. While technology will see some aspects of work become less important, it will ultimately support and augment consulting work, freeing up labour to add value elsewhere in the firm. According to industry advocates, while tedious tasks could disappear or be outsourced to robots, the need for humans will always be there.

While these are the obvious trends in her discussions with consultants, Rousset says she is currently exploring a great many more. She added that she is also holding interviews with clients of consulting firms, in order to understand to what the extent they are open to working with fully automated consultants, i.e. intelligent systems. Rousset: “The consulting sector is driven by clients, therefore their acceptance will be very important for the future outlook of this possibility.”

Consultants and consultancy buyers that have 30 minutes to spare and would enjoy participating in the study can contact Ségolène Rousset.