The decay of traditional consulting firms? How the need for new skills can become a risk

06 April 2021
By Kirill CLARK and Matthias WATZL, Grande Ecole programme students

How do you attract someone who doesn't know who you are? This question should be discussed seriously within today’s leading international consulting firms. Why? Employees who are skilled in technology are currently in high demand across all sectors of the economy, and the consulting industry is no exception. Traditionally, consulting firms are conservative workplaces where employees are expected to wear a suit and tie, but they are now having to rethink their hiring strategies and practices to ensure they attract the talent necessary to deal with the challenges of the future.

There’s a cliché that was especially true in the past, yet still rings true today: a typical consulting firm applicant attends business school, receives excellent grades, has international experience, and is highly motivated to join a consultancy. It is thanks to candidates with these attributes that consulting firms are more likely to be able to hire people best qualified to provide their services. However, how will consulting firms ensure that they have the necessary resources in the future if the type of service the business world demands fundamentally changes? Put more succinctly: how will consulting firms go about recruiting employees with sophisticated IT skills?

We spoke to a former consultant who has worked for two renowned consulting firms, to glean some insights into how firms are adapting to the changing business environment, what they need to do in the future, and what the likelihood is that they will succeed.

Change is already underway

Data analysis is already at the core of almost every current consulting project, and can only continue to grow in importance. Clients do not want recommendations based on hunches: they want data-driven solutions to their most-pressing problems. To be able to carry out the required data analyses, consulting firms rely on data scientists and analysts. However, their time is extremely limited. According to our interviewee, you need to book time slots to work with these colleagues. Once a time slot has expired, the specialists immediately move on to their next task. You can imagine how scarce this resource is in consulting firms.   

With respect to the future of IT professionals in consulting, our interviewee said, “the fact that they will play an important role is unquestionable.” If they continue to grow in importance, how do you manage to recruit them?


Google or BCG? – not a difficult decision

One significant challenge in attracting IT professionals is that their skills are in high demand and they can generally earn much higher salaries working for large technology companies like Amazon or Google. However, an even greater challenge lies in culture: the laid-back culture of technology companies is generally more appealing to IT-minded people than that of a traditional consulting firm.

Herein lies a tremendous challenge for consulting firms: the talent that they require to remain competitive in this evolving landscape is generally more interested in working elsewhere. Our interviewee suggested that a simple way to start broaching this existential problem in the field would be for consulting firms to aggressively market themselves at technical universities. While business school students are aware of consulting firms and apply in droves every recruiting cycle, IT students are often not even aware of the existence of firms such as McKinsey and Bain. Of course, in attempting to court the best IT talent at technical universities, consultancies must compete with companies from other sectors who have long sought out such talent. Hackathons conducted by consulting firms in partnership with well-known IT companies or technical universities is one potential method for increasing awareness. Such events are very popular among IT students, especially when the content is at the forefront and the event is not an obvious marketing initiative.

However, increasing awareness at technical universities of the good prospects of consultancy work will not entirely solve the consultancies’ issue of recruiting top IT talent. Assuming all IT students were aware of the demand for their skills at consulting firms, the problem of mismatched cultures would still be an obstacle to recruitment. “It sounds very easy, but in reality it is really hard for consulting firms to change their corporate culture,” our interviewee said when asked whether any inroads were being made in making consulting firms more appealing to IT students and professionals. With respect to the reputation of consulting firms as traditional workplaces where employees must wear suits and ties, this is still very much the case.

Aside from its stuffy image, consulting also has a reputation for long working hours. For IT students and professionals, flexible hours are often a prerequisite in their job search. At first glance, a simple solution would be to allow just the IT employees to work more flexible hours; however, this would likely prove impossible to justify in the long run to consultants who often remain in the office long after dark. Perhaps the entire profession will move toward more flexible work hours, but this seems unlikely. More likely, this workaholic image will continue to be a challenge for recruiters looking to bring in top technical talent.

Another part of the challenge in driving cultural change in consulting firms is the longstanding dominance of traditional business consultants, who may fear impending obsolescence as IT solutions play a larger role in their work. Or, perhaps, they just really enjoy wearing suits. The former consultant we interviewed showed little optimism about the willingness of consulting firms to adapt their culture, saying “I think they will try but probably they won’t try hard enough [...] and they will end up having problems finding enough IT guys.”

If today’s leading consulting firms want to maintain their competitive advantage, they must seriously consider the needs and desires of the talent they must attract. If not, they should expect increasing competition in the future from smaller, more specialized consultancies, or from new offerings from IT companies themselves.

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