Insight Interview: Claire Kennedy, PPL

For PPL, a public-sector consulting firm specialising in health, 2016 was a good year, says co-founder and MCA Vice-President Claire Kennedy. “Of course, the Brexit vote produced shock waves. No one working in our sector was unaffected by that.” The impact of the referendum was clearly visible. PPL had a very strong first six months in 2016, with client behaviour rather more nervous in the second half of the year, following the vote. “But we were productive throughout 2016. We added new capabilities to our business and gave additional nuance to our core offering.”

Claire is confident about PPL’s immediate future in the health market. “The toughest period was straight after the Brexit vote. Now the market is improving. And we are benefiting from having thought through the consequences of Brexit, both its direct impact and also where it is less directly relevant. Many of the challenges faced by the health sector are either unchanged or simply intensified by Brexit uncertainties. We know what needs to happen in health and can approach clients with confidence that our offerings will make a difference.”

Claire is in no doubt however that consulting, as well as the wider economy, is facing a period of radical transformation. “Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s agenda is about trying to make people less fearful of the future. The challenge is to embrace the positive dimensions of change. But that change is now unprecedentedly far-reaching. Many industries, if they do not adapt, may simply disappear. The entire structure of capitalism will be renewed. AI will transform how we work. Digital technology is reinventing how value is created and also what constitutes value.

“Management consulting itself, it if it does not evolve, may become irrelevant. So our industry needs a positive, strategic response.”

To date PPL, which is a comparatively new company and which has digital in its DNA, has experienced very little fundamental disruption to how it carries out its work. “But we are quite clear. How we do things now will not be how we do things in the future. We are debating this openly in the workplace, challenging staff to think fundamentally about what we do and how we do it.

“The key determinant of how we evolve will be client need. There is great scope for digitising health provision. Many transitions will be time-consuming, with far-reaching human resource implications. We need to help clients explore these human dimensions and get them right. But we will also need to support them as they wean themselves off redundant approaches and the indefensible bits of the status quo.

“Consulting will also have to shed some of its comforting dependencies. More generally, we need to ask profound questions about our future as an economy and as a society. What are the implications of all this disruption for workplace reorganisation and, more widely, for our future skills needs and hence for our education system?”

Claire echoes many of the sentiments of the MCA’s work on education in the New Economy 2020 and Beyond report, the Association’s response to Brexit and the Industrial Strategy. “If machines can store information, then knowledge per se becomes less important. If computers can translate one language into another, then learning a language is a less marketable skill than it once was. However, what matters is distinguishing what human beings can do, where our advantages lie relative to technology. Education should thus be seen as an opportunity to foster creativity. Indeed, this may prove to be the core reason to learn something like a language, for exposure to its problem-solving challenges, for engagement with the ideas of another culture, and to learn how to think.

“The mix of technical, vocational and academic capabilities we need from our education system must be examined fundamentally. Some conclusions may prove surprising. We will certainly need vocational and technical capabilities. Technological transformation and the continuing advance of science will plainly demand scientists and technicians. But, if computers can code better than human beings, what volumes of technicians will we actually need in practice outside specialised areas? Surely we will also need adaptable, intuitive and creative people to work alongside new technologies, able to use them in complementary and imaginative ways. These needs might reinvigorate – as well as transform – the teaching of arts subjects and other creative disciplines.”

Claire believes consulting should be right at the heart of these debates. “At its best, consulting is about adapting to and leading change. Our industry may thus be well placed to thrive as old workplace assumptions change. We need to help client organisations examine what the role of a career is in the future. What will coming to work, wearing a corporate badge mean? What should the very role of companies be in an increasingly interdependent and digitally connected world?

“Of course, this will entail getting our own house in order. The MCA’s Year of Diversity has accented work/life balance, flexibility, the need to ensure people can bring the whole person to work. This agenda, combined with the exciting potential of digital, can allow us to examine how our various human identities – in home, family, recreation and work – can be most effectively balanced and even combined to create workplace value and personal fulfilment. Essentially, the aim of work is to get things done. New approaches to achieving that, which allow people to be themselves across a variety of increasingly interpenetrating contexts, may prove very different indeed from how workplaces and society as a whole are currently organised.

“Consulting needs to be at the heart of this debate, both insofar as it affects the needs of our clients and in how it impacts the very business of consulting itself. I am confident that the MCA’s next three-year strategy will embrace these exciting and disruptive dynamics.” 

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