Insight Interview: Nick Ringrose, Atkins

Nick Ringrose, former Director of Practices and Project Delivery at Atkins and currently on a client secondment, describes 2016 as a strong year for the firm in general and for the consulting practice specifically. “For Atkins, as a whole, a major event was the launch and growth of Acuity, our global business focused on engineering-led advisory solutions for complex infrastructure and energy development projects. In consulting, we were pretty strong across the board. We performed well across defence, security, cyber resilience, critical national infrastructure, transport, energy and digital asset management.” In common with other advisory practices embedded in engineering firms, Nick’s practice also collaborates with the wider Atkins group on projects such as the firm’s work for Highways England, Thames Water, Heathrow Airport and Sellafield, amongst others.

Nick anticipates continued strong performance throughout 2017, though there are some threats. “High expectations always translate into challenging growth targets! And clearly a variety of responses to issues such as Brexit or other regulatory issues can impact our clients’ plans to spend money on consultancy.

“But in many ways the biggest challenge to our business is keeping pace with thescale of client disruption and evolving our own offerings. We must optimise digital deployment in support of consulting delivery. The implications for clients are profound. At a strategic level, the dominance of digital thinking in the market means that if a business innovation doesn’t have digital in it, then it is seen as potentially lower priority. So how do you ensure that the latest digital techniques and cognitive capabilities are incorporated in all programmes? That’s a profound shift.

“And equally, accelerating technology development, now well embedded in the physical world (a long way from traditional IT) is constantly driving innovation. This in turn is necessitating new ways of thinking and working, and is transforming the innovation process itself. We’re seeing the adoption of agile, the application of user-centred design to whole new services, and the need for new forms of team communication. These are profound changes. We are both helping clients with them and managing them in our own organisation.

“Digital also brings problems. Its key vulnerability is cyber-attack. Attacks are now so prevalent, from infiltration to phishing, that digital transformation needs to happen inextricably alongside effective security strategies.”

How does this landscape a affect the way consulting is done? Nick sees considerable changes. “Our business model has to evolve. We need to become ever more agile. We’re seeing more targeted deployment of small teams for short-term tasks or to work in rapidly evolving contexts. But there is a structural change, affecting us and our clients. Like the telephony market, where the hardware (phone) is becoming less important – with the apps becoming the critical differentiators – so too in consulting, we need to shift to a flexible and adaptable base, capable of building and then evolving a variety of new skills and propositions, both technically and commercially.

“All these changes impact our recruitment strategy. We now hire many more people with analytics backgrounds as well as data scientists. How we train and develop people is also evolving rapidly. We need to boost fundamental cyber and digital capabilities of our staff. We’re good at this but it’s an ongoing challenge.

“There are also choices to be made about offshoring aspects of the consulting offer. There is more we can deliver remotely, potentially reducing the face-to-face dimension of some of our offerings. That has huge commercial implications. But the potential for deploying AI, robotics, cognitive and heuristic capabilities like IBM’s Watson is so profound and relentless that there’s a danger that we and our clients could find ourselves in a near-permanent state of ‘future shock’.

“That’s why on my current assignment we have put together a ‘rainbow’ team of consultants, analysts, and technologists. They are exploring a whole range of new approaches, deploying many capabilities and techniques. This will allow us to create a flexible, adaptive and futureproof new model for our partnership with the client.”

Indeed, partnerships are increasingly important in a disrupted commercial context, says Nick. “Partnerships with clients matter. So do those we develop with other advisers and professional services firms to address complex client requirements. Agendas like Smart Cities require engineering, financing, technological and advisory capabilities that are beyond the scope of one organisation to deliver. So we find ourselves in partnership with an increasingly eclectic mix of firms, from large SI and Big 4 firms. We expect this trend to intensify over time.”