We’re only three months into 2017, but it’s already clear that the word of the year in consulting will be robotics, writes Fiona Czerniawska of Source.

It’s rapidly becoming—some would say has become—the catch-all phrase for the use of new digital technologies, including cognitive computing and artificial intelligence, to automate parts of the consulting process. It’s a huge opportunity: as a previous article on this blog argued, there are aspects of strategy consulting—to name just one example—that could be done better and more quickly by machines, leaving people to spend more time analysing and interpreting the data. But inevitably it’s also a challenge—or rather two challenges.

The first—and most familiar one—is around investment. Consulting firms aren’t software companies. Most have grown through opportunism and lack the processes the latter have developed to evaluate investment priorities and to set aside money on a long-term basis. They’re not good at swallowing their own medicine: focused rather on their clients, strategy firms often neglect their own strategy and accounting firms have antiquated financial systems. You’d think that the industry would have been at the forefront of knowledge management, but it wasn’t. Large firms only started to implement their own ERP systems when they’d run out of clients to work with.

None of this bodes well for consulting firms, but it pales into insignificance faced with the second challenge: people.

For several decades now consulting firms have been engaged in what they see as a “war” for talent. In fact, it’s become what historians would recognise as a “total war”, a term that originated in the nineteenth-century to describe a war that is “unrestricted in terms of the weapons used, the territory or combatants involved”, one in which every human and economic aspect of a country is directed towards the pursuit of war aims. Ninety-nine times out of 100, if we ask senior partners what is the biggest threat they’re facing, they’ll talk about talent. Huge amounts of money and effort have been poured into attracting, retaining, developing, deploying and evaluating people, leaving precious little for anything else.

Automation is therefore both a cultural and financial challenge. But the key question is how much time consulting firms have to respond—and the bigger the firm, the more urgent the question. If they change their recruitment plans today, will the technology be in place tomorrow? Will people still want to join when their jobs may not exist in a few years’ time? What career development path can you offer if your pyramid is morphing into some other shape? In war, the speed with which a country moves onto the total war footing has often been a deciding factor in determining the ultimate outcome. How fast do consulting firms need to act?

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Fiona Czerniawska is a leading commentator on the consulting industry and a co-Founder of Source who provide specialist research on the management consulting market to consultants and their clients.