Tech and workforce changes open new opportunities for consultants

The corporations of today are being forced to adopt new technologies, to work with extended workforces, and to move fast to keep ahead of their competition. Essentially, the business landscape is being disrupted like never before, opening up a world of opportunity for consultants, which continues to evolve with each sweeping change.

But consultants need to understand what problems corporations want solved, and how to effectively gauge the opportunities (or create them) in order to strategically grow their businesses while supporting their clients.

I sat down recently with Scott Bunker who has deep experience as a consultant and with the consulting landscape and the evolving opportunities that organizations and consultants have on their doorstep right now.

About Scott: Scott is Senior Partner of emerge Consulting & Analytics, which is the new name and brand identify of Red Barn Consulting Partners. The company provides a fresh approach to HR consulting and analytics, with a primary focus is to help client organizations be more productive. Before starting up his own boutique consulting firm, Scott led a large team of associates at Aon Hewitt in the HR Consulting Practice.

 

 

Here is an excerpt from my interview with Scott:

The business world is rapidly changing, particularly in light of disruptions in technology and globalization. What has been your experience with this in terms of the impact on your clients and the work you engage in with them?

First, I’d say that conversations at the executive table are changing. “Uber” has become a verb, meaning organizations don’t want to be “uberized”.  They want to be the “uberizer”. I’ve also observed that companies want to keep a solid focus on their core business while, at the same time, figuring out how to be the “disruptor”. They also need to generate more cash to innovate. The challenge is their core businesses are under revenue and margin pressure, so they have a dilemma. They need to find ways to grow while creating internal efficiencies simultaneously. And that doesn’t always mean bringing in new talent. In fact, the mindset and skill set needed to help organizations grow in the changing digital landscape requires a multi-dimensional consultant. Someone who brings a breadth of business acumen, and is a leader who can think and act fluidly, while supporting clients to stay on pace. The bottom line is, organizations are being challenged as to how they’re being led. Gone are the days of a few executives at the top being the “know-all experts” in all matters directly related to gaining, keeping and growing a business. A healthy flow of communication and knowledge exchange from the top, to front lines, to customers, and back, is essential to ensure the organization is moving and executing effectively.

In fact, in the last 10 years, business lifecycles have been condensed. For example, with car manufacturers, their lifecycles used to rise and fall over decades. But the game has now changed to a faster rate of speed—CEO and C-suite executives have to have their eye on the horizon but the horizon is moving toward them much faster. If organizations don’t act now to take advantage of changing ways to do business, they can get swept away in less time. What this means for each organization, depending on their business, is that the “old thinking” cannot save the day. For example, I recently spoke with an executive at a global retailer who recognizes it has no choice but to pivot and refocus its online channel so they don’t get over taken by Amazon!

Consultants, who are well-informed on these trends are in a good position to help these organizations navigate the complexities of this new world of work.

What are you observing in terms of “disruptions” in talent/human capital? What impact is this having on the clients you work with?

The kind of headhunting going on now is much different than it was in the past. Organizations no longer have to rely on the “old boys” network, human resources departments and talent agencies. They can go to a place like Upwork or Kahuso and find the talent they need to complement their in-house staff on an as needed basis. This change has been gradual but profound. A more capable and responsive talent pool will bode well for organizations, as they can draw from talent where needed most while keeping costs manageable. In order for organizations to be agile and have the right resources, they need to be flexible and variable in their cost structure (contract vs full time). This also means that workers can’t rely on the pensions of old. That structure is also changing.

Furthermore, in addition to people, we see organizations having to embrace more flexibility in their processes as new technologies come into play.  What I mean here is leaders and employees have to be wide open to new ways of working and delivering products or services.  This is important because frequently organizations get set in their own ways of doing things.  It leads to extensive customization and unnecessary investments to personalize their technology solutions.  The problem is these customizations add cost and often become an impediment to innovation and progression.  Just as organizations require agility in their workforces to address disruptions, they require the same approach toward assessing processes.  Effective people, process and technology working in sync is critical.

I’ve also noticed that there is a hollowing out of middle management—the ubiquitous career ladder of old is no longer in use. There is no more stepping up by rung; it’s more like a “rock wall” that you see in a rock climbing gym, meaning career progression is no longer linear. The gig economy is changing all this.

Another important trend is the “consumerization” of the employee experience.  Leading organizations are working hard to leverage technology and process efficiencies to make it easier and more energizing to be an employee. Our firm is working with ServiceNow in this area to bring major innovations for clients to reshape how employees interact with their employers through mobile and desktop interfaces.  All of the modern conveniences and efficiencies that people experience in their personal lives everyday are being translated to the work environment.

All these disruptions are ushering in a new era where organizations are competing for top talent more than ever before – and in an on demand environment. Companies must change how they define and structure work. In order to do this, the HR function needs to be at the executive table and bringing a strategic voice around people, process and technology. Organizations need to be able to figure out how to accommodate this change and the changing structure and the competition for talent. Herein lies perfect opportunity for consultants to help organizations think wisely on how to attract, develop and retain talent.

You have extensive experience in the consulting space through your work leading a large team of associates at Aon Hewitt as well as building your own boutique consulting firm. How would you describe the evolution of the consulting landscape (from when you started out) to where you experience it is now (ie. Large, medium, boutique, solo consultants) and how they serve the (rapidly changing) corporate marketplace?

Consulting has become a blend between full-time, part-time, contract and project work. Although there continue to be the large firms like Deloitte, McKinsey, Boston Consulting, there are now far more boutiques and solo consultants achieving success. This is due to the internet, social media, and availability of information and sharing of information which has enabled the individual.

Previously, big firms ruled as consultants. They needed the big firm brand, Intellectual Property and methodologies as well as a place of business. They needed to create and protect these methodologies to make money, provide consistency in deliverables and ensure reputability. This met the needs of the clients and the big firms. However, smaller consulting firms and independents have the advantage to be able to focus on the needs of clients, really listen to client’s needs and then bring the best of their own ideas which can be more invested and aligned in the interests of the clients without distraction or conflict (that can be apparent with big consulting firms).

What do you see as the biggest opportunity for executives who have made the decision to pursue the path of consulting in terms of the value they can add to organizations?

Consultants bring more value through the questions they ask vs the advice and value they provide. They can be a trusted problem solver. A key to adding real value is asking enough of the right questions and investing the time/focus to really listen, then know when to move to action.

ln terms of building their businesses, the classic challenge of a consultant is the feast or famine revenue scenario. It’s important that consultants work both on their business as well as in their business. It’s so easy to get sucked into a project and take your eye off the business development ball. As an independent consultant, you are Chairman, CEO, CFO, executive and delivery person all in one.

It takes a lot of discipline to also be “head of sales”. You have to do it all. You also have to answer the question, “How am I different?” And you absolutely have to listen to the market and identify the problems clients have, how significant those problem are, and whether or not it makes sense to hire a consultant to solve them. If you’re not able to answer these questions, you MUST “course correct” to address market/client needs.

What would you say is the biggest challenge for executives who are now working as independent consultants? Should they build solo practices or larger consulting firms?

Determine what you are building or not building and why. Let this be your channel marker. Whatever you decide, whether solo consultant, working with a large, medium or boutique firm or implementing a blended approach – do it with intent. You have to be able to let go of assumptions and be open to new perspectives in order for your consulting business to take off. By getting clarity around this, you can approach your business with intention. Start with the customer and listen to understand what they need.  Step back and consider the patterns you are hearing across various clients to identify gaps in the market that could be addressed by your further attention and focus.  Lastly, it’s vitally important to build TRUST with your customer in order to truly be that Trusted Advisor. Then you can build your foundation, core clients and be referred on to support growth.

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