Digitalization: How does it challenge the consulting industry?

19 February 2020
Article writtent by Clara Arnaud, Grande Ecole Programme student

It seems everyone assumes that digital technologies are future assets for every single company in the world, or more than assets something that cannot be avoided: something everyone needs in order to remain competitive and survive in the market. In this context, many companies hire consultants to help them implement digital tools.

But, we can perhaps qualify a little this enthusiasm for digitalization. Does digitalization answer every problem within a company? And what is digitalization? Is it only about implementing new technologies? How do consultants manage to adapt their way of working in this digitalized world?

A former consultant within a leading digital transformation consulting agency accepted to answer my questions about the impact on digitalization in the consulting industry. She shared relevant examples. And as surprising as it may seem, these stories are most of all failures she experienced whilst working for this company. She claims that companies are far too often willing to implement a new tool to improve performance, change processes and gain efficiency without taking into account everything that such a change can imply. Companies that call digital consultants for help tend to see only the technological aspect but they always forget to step back to have an overview of the project. Each time a change is planned, it is necessary to ask questions such as: What will this new tool change in the company? In terms of corporate culture? In terms of ways of working? What are its impacts? Who are the main people impacted by this transformation?

Currently, the human dimension of digitalization projects is too often neglected. And that is how our interviewee criticized the job of a consultant in digitalization. The very role of the consultant is to implement the new tool or the technology. The scope of their work is hard to define since they can’t lead the whole transformation of the company even if it would be more than necessary to ensure a successful project. She gives an example of a project she worked on: the goal was to implement a new tool to transform the way of selling of the company. The new tool was implemented but the company did not take the time to transform the process of selling, to train the employees or to rethink their way of attracting the clients. It was just about having a new tool for working without any other transformation. This type of project management is dramatic and it unavoidably leads to failure. In other words, digitalization in consulting cannot work and have positive results without a Change Management phase. The limit of the consultant’s job in digitalization is hard to understand since they know that they are paid for the project concerning the  digital aspect. However, they also know that it needs a complementary service to be efficient.

And this highlights another difficulty of the consultant’s job: what is the legitimacy of a young consultant to advise the client to accept a complementary service when they have not even seen the results of the first phase in which they invest thousands and thousands of euros. Here, our interviewee made it clear how difficult it was to make a new proposition when she was just 24 years old, without any professional background in this field and facing an experienced man of 50 years who had worked in this company for many years. Here is the limit of the statement whereby experience creates legitimacy. This vision of the consultant’s world does not aid innovation or self-confidence. It is true that, through time, you acquire a certain expertise and even soft skills. But it does not mean either that a young consultant is not allowed to offer something that can seem out of the box, innovative or disruptive. Young consultants can have great ideas or have the distance needed to identify constraints no one had seen before. They just do not dare express their ideas or their point of view because they are not considered competent enough. And this is even more true in digital consulting since the experts are most of all young and masculine whereas the client are older and can be unwilling to change. The “more experience, more legitimacy” point of view encourages self-censorship and does not exploit the specificity of each consultant and their talents and ideas. Any future junior consultants must find it frustrating to hear that.

Thus, we realize how consulting firms are facing real stakes regarding digitalization. It has a huge impact on the job and on the way the consultancies can sell their services. It seems unavoidable that consultants in digitalization will have to rethink their way of working for various reasons. On the one hand their expertise and their service cannot be limited to the implementation of the tool. They also  need to lead the human transformation. On the other hand, they cannot keep that way of working either because every consultant is led to work on digitalized projects: consultants in marketing, in finance and in the public sector. One source of information are consultants who deal themselves with technological and digital projects. The question is therefore: do we specifically need consultants in digitalization to lead digital projects? The interviewed consultant helped to answer this. She was very honest when she said that, at some point, she does not consider that digitalization has to be handled by a consultant in digitalization. Why? She explained that a lot of professionals are called “experts” when they have just followed a one or two-week training course. She therefore considers that the majority of people are able to be called “experts.”

Finally, we can agree on the fact that digitalization is part of the future and every company will have to adapt its offer taking into account this trend. This phenomenon transforms and does impact the work of consultants and even more, as paradoxical as it may seem, of digital consultants, because they do have to struggle to show that they are an added value in comparison to any other consultant.

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