Our management consultancy columnist Mick James reports on the continuing importance of this prestigious annual event.

The relentless play of forces set in motion by the Big Bang have once again worked the magic, bringing the world smartly around the sun to coincide neatly with the return to our planet of the Management Consultancies Association annual awards.

For the old stagers among us it’s a chance to see whether we can still fit into our dinner suits and exchange pleasantries along the lines of “April already? There are people I haven’t even wished ‘happy new year’ to yet.”

But for the young folks who are present in increasingly large numbers it had been simply an age since the last awards and there was an air of palpable tension and excitement in the room. These things are getting noisier by the minute: egged on by host Jeremy Vine, the massed ranks of EY in particular (12 tables) letting our Braveheart-style roars every time their name was mentioned. Would they be satisfied with their haul of four awards (two individual consultants, one of who was the overall winner of Consultant of the Year, plus a nem con victory in the Finance and Risk Management category) or would they storm the stage.

Fortunately, Vine was in good form as a crowd controller, ably steering the evening through to the awkward bit towards the end where, with most of the awards settled, 90% of the audience have lost interest in the proceedings and start yakking with each other.

Vine, like most celebs, rightly guessed that we were probably more interested in him than he was in us, and regaled us with a series of anecdotes about political interviewees and a poem which he had (allegedly) written under the impression that he was addressing the “Management Consultants Society”.

But, if Vine hadn’t got a clue what was going on I can hardly blame him, because neither for the most part did I. Long-term readers of these columns will know that by this time I’ve normally managed to discern, or at least impose a theme on the year, a view on the direction consultancy is going. And that failing that, the MCA awards normally suggest one.

But as the awards rolled on I became increasingly baffled. What were all these projects about? What linked them together? Is “management consultancy” even a thing any more? The overall winners were Grant Thornton who won not one but two individual categories (People and Change Management) for their work on a complex transaction with Kodak Alaris, in which the former Eastman Kodak company was essentially bought-out by its own pension scheme. Amazing stuff but does it fit in the same box as, say PwC’s award for Change Management at HSBC? With increasingly strong showing by players from the worlds of engineering and accountancy, what is left for the “Management Consultants Society”?

My concerns were echoed by a friend I was chatting to afterwards who said the awards seemed very “operational”. Were we in danger of losing the distinction between “old school” management consultancy and a more general category of “helping out”?

Well, yes and no. These concerns are not new, but they tend to surface in different forms as the years go by. Many forms are reluctant to brand themselves as “management consultants” these days but that’s nothing new. People have been telling me ”we don’t just deliver a report…” for over 20 years. In the past people worried that the consultancy industry was becoming subsumed into the IT world, but in retrospect all that was happening was that the main vector of transformation was, for a long time, IT. That brought many consultants into the world of IT and also IT players into the world of consultancy, some of whom have stayed.

What was important was the transformational nature of those projects, and “transformation” seems to be a flag that many consultants are happier to fly under (it’s been some years since an Accenture partner expressed genuine regret to me that he couldn’t rebrand his consultants as “transformers”).

What’s changed is not so much the nature of the projects as the nature of the engagement. Consultancy projects are a bit like wars. You can’t go and stand in a field and wait for the other side to turn up before you unveil your battle plan. Wars tend to go on everywhere at once: if you need to ask where the front line is you are probably going to get shot.

That doesn’t mean that the skills go away: but it’s increasingly difficult to maintain silos in the transformational industries. We see this first in the ongoing threat to strategy as a separate set of consulting businesses. We also see that there is no dominant mode of transformation – we all talk about digital but it’s far more of a means to an end, in many ways almost as much an imaginative tool as a technical one: what would you do in a world with no constraints?

This hands a great advantage to the multidisciplinary professional services firm which also has a strong transformational backbone: there are any number of doors you can enter by, and any number of drivers behind the project. What may tip the balance in their favour is not so much their reach as the fact that those skills are in almost infinite demand and very short supply: the prize may go to whoever manages to deploy them as efficiently and widely as possible.

So as hard as it is sometimes to get one’s head around it all, the MCA Awards continue to play a vital role in highlighting not just the power, but the possibility of transformation. I was very pleased to see such a large number of nominees coming from the health sector – how far will those projects have gone to close the gap between aspiration and resources in the NHS?

So let me repeat my annual exhortation to everyone to submit their pet projects to the MCA: you may well be frustrated and disappointed, because the competition will be fierce. But this is the place where you can at least have a chance to get an award for work that no-one else is going to recognise or even understand – and you deserve it.


All views expressed in this article are those of Mick James and do not necessarily reflect the views of Top-Consultant.com and Consultant-News.com.

Contact Mick with your views or suggestions at: mick.james@top-consultant.com


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