’s management consultancy columnist, Mick James, this week discusses the newly minted new National Occupational Standards for Management and Business Consultancy.

Consultants set occupational standards

This week I attended the launch event of the new National Occupational Standards for Management and Business Consultancy. These have been developed by the Management Standards Centre (MSC) in conjunction with consultancy bodies such as the MCA and IBC, as well as client bodies and other stakeholders.

The result is an impressively comprehensive list of 13 standards any consultant should be expected reach in areas ranging from supporting clients to developing professional networks. But is it needed?

One of the lead consultants of the MSC, Trevor Boutall, who helped develop the standards, had a single question for consultants in the audience: “Did you all have a rigorous induction into consultancy?” that was answered more by the ripple of laughter than the show of hands.

“We’ve developed a little guide based on the standards,” he said. “You can use that to benchmark your current performance and see if there are areas where you can be more effective.”

While this would of course be a confidential exercise, he pointed out that clients would increasingly be using the standards themselves.

So how much room for improvement is there? I know there were some there who bridled at the evening’s subtitle “Making UK Management & Business Consultancy World Class by 2020” and I was one of them. If consultancy isn’t “world class” in the UK, where is it? Iceland? And if it’s not, do we really have to wait until 2020?

However, that doesn’t mean there’s cause for complacency, and the rest of the evening was taken up by speakers who made some constructive criticisms of the industry that could be addressed through reference to the National Occupational Standards (NOS) standards. It was an object lesson in the sort of informed debate we could be having about consultancy if the mainstream press wrote about the real industry rather than a clichéd figment of its imagination.

Dr Joe O’Mahoney outlined some of the challenges facing the industry, particularly in attracting talent, and noted that the evidence was that consultancy was becoming less innovative at a time when innovation is precisely what clients want. Dr O’Mahoney is at the start of an exciting—and impressively well-funded—project to investigate this phenomenon, and I hope to be speaking in more detail with him about this soon.

But the sharpest barbs came from David Singleton, chairman of Alexander Consulting, who outlined an impressive list of reasons why consultants think they are so valuable to clients—but then pointed out that the reality often failed to live up to the vision.

“We say we do all these things, but we don’t,” he said. “Clients need us to be what we say we are.”

This included taking responsibility for whether or not clients actually implement a project.

“Do we see a change?” he asks. “Any other output than a measurable change has immeasurable consequences.”

Consultants should use the NOS as a framework against which to measure themselves and ensure that the standards embodied in them become daily practice.

Finishing up the evening was Paul Vincent of Insight Sourcing, whom I interviewed recently about his efforts to develop a way in which procurement can avoid being the “nasty cop” in the consultant-client relationship and actually add value. His model certainly sees to be the way forward, but when I spoke to him I was surprised to find that most of his work was with consultants. It seems that consultants are far more interested in seeing things through the eyes of the buyer than buyers are in finding out how they can purchase consultancy more effectively.

For me that summed up my one qualm about the launch. Clearly consultants are under a commercial imperative to understand their clients, and owe a clear duty of care to clients. But what are the consequences for both sides? If a consultant fails to make a sale they move on to the next prospect. For clients the consequences of failure to buy the right consultancy or implement the right project can be as David Singleton points out “immeasurable.” The relative lack of interest is to me, inexcusable.

Perhaps the next task for a standards-setting body should be the development of a similarly explicit and comprehensive set of standards for consultancy clients. In the meantime, an emergency bulletin should go out “don’t let just anybody do it.” It’s true that clients overall have grown much more sophisticated as a group, and there are some expert purchasers out there—often ex-consultants. But there are also plenty of amateurs out there.

Consultants are over-prone to take all this wait on their shoulders, but it’s not a sustainable position. We wouldn’t consider someone to be able as a manager if they couldn’t appraise staff or manage a budget. Shouldn’t the effective sourcing and deployment of outside resources be an equally valued competence? In the popular prints the resort to outside advisers is seen as a mark of weakness, but companies who know when, and above all how to use consultants, are at a considerable advantage over the competition.

Of course it would be a brave consultant indeed who openly questioned his client’s competence. So the intervention of an independent-standard setting body could be the missing piece of the jigsaw, the key that unlocks not just world class consultancy bit world class outcomes.

All views expressed in this article are those of Mick James and do not necessarily reflect the views of and

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