This is the most exciting time to be a consultant

Howard Tollit, Executive Partner at IBM and new MCA President, describes 2015 as a year of reasonable growth for IBM’s business consulting. “We’re going through a major transformation, unleashing our digital know-how in a big way. Our advisory service offerings are shifting substantially towards data analytics, learning solutions and other digital specialisms, including our customer interactive experience solutions. So it has been gratifying to grow in these areas while that upheaval has been happening. We anticipate stronger growth based on our strategic priorities in 2016 and beyond.” 

IBM’s digital transformation is a continuation and modernisation of longstanding characteristics in its advisory offers. “Given the company’s research, innovation and design heritage, our advisory practice has always emphasised user experience in technology-enabled transformation. But that doesn’t mean the consulting teams are a sales vanguard for IBM’s own technical solutions. Indeed, our advisory independence and ‘technology agnosticism’ are especially important in the Digital Age. Clients want discrete and agile answers to their challenges. We recommend the solutions we think are right for the individual case, and will only implement an IBM technology where the client recognises it as the right answer. That approach is really paying off for us. Our presence in the wider digital and analytics markets is increasingly well understood and influential.” 

The relationship between digital initiatives, growth and cost-cutting is becoming more complex. “Client requirements are more diverse and challenging now than they have ever been. Despite the current context of modest economic growth, many firms remain under considerable financial pressure, mostly on the operational expenditure side rather than on capital spend. So at a crude level, savings must be made if new digital investments are to be financed. But ideally, to grow, save money and exploit digital fully, organisations need an enterprise-wide view of their ‘digitization’. That’s happening, but perhaps to a lesser extent that we might have wished. Understandably, many organisations have prioritised customer-facing digital capabilities and have grafted them onto their existing enterprise. But there’s great potential to deploy insight driven solutions across the rest of the business, to capture data on the performance of internal teams and functions such as the salesforce, and to replace rigid and outdated internal systems. However, these dimensions have been less thoroughly explored.” 

Howard notes that some clients may try to carry out aspects of technological transformation in-house themselves, buying the new tools, but not much else. “This of course varies from client to client. In the public sector, decisions on digital advisory may focus on capability outsourcing. Financial services may be able to go beyond that, but the leadership teams in other client organisations often expect their own people to deliver digital projects and even run digital design or change initiatives unsupported. Of course, when they get into trouble, they may seek help from incumbent suppliers. 

“Other organisations, recognising that integration is a big challenge, sometimes acquire new digital capabilities, then apply ‘light touch’ integration, or let them stand alone, separate from the wider enterprise. However, that integration is needed if full value is to be derived. Support will often be needed to help the organisation understand and realise the full potential of a digital proposition or the futureproofing of a new approach.”  Howard suggests that a key IBM solution here is Cloud-provisioning of services. “We work with clients to explore and develop new customer-facing digital engagement mechanisms. We can also determine how these should enhance and leverage back office systems. Then, by deploying wholesale ‘platform as a service’ approaches, we help achieve the necessary data and process integration across the enterprise.” 

Howard suggests that clients’ lack of clarity about what they should expect to do for themselves and what they should commission from external technical experts is itself an opportunity in the Digital Era. “Take data analytics. Many client organisations have got hold of the myth that they can simply put all of their wide ranging data in a ‘black hopper’ and somehow insight will drop out. Of course, the myth could have an element of truth. Imminently, the combination of greater confidence in the underlying data, clear business objectives and learning systems, or cognitive intelligence, will deliver real insight from diverse data sets. But even so, it is still far more efficient to capture and cleanse data that is relevant to supporting or disproving specific business hypotheses. For this reason, even as technology advances, it is important that clients don’t treat digital tools as simply a matter for their in-house technologists – or those they commission externally. Independent business consulting and advisory services are crucial to making digital relevant to business needs.” 

IBM has been acquiring new advisory capabilities over the last year or so – as an expansion of its solution focused acquisition strategy, to be coupled with continued investment in recruitment, internal enablement and training. “We are confident in our technology innovation by design brand and our strength in the market, and are increasing our capacity accordingly.” 

Indeed Howard is bullish about the industry more generally, especially in the context of the major MCA initiative, Consulting Excellence. “I have always wanted to be in a profession that has change at its heart and started my career as a design professional. That’s always been true of consulting, and it is even more so now. This is the most exciting time to be a consultant. Business is changing and the consulting market becoming increasingly diverse. The problems clients face are emergent, complex, and even ambiguous. But that ambiguity brings opportunity: to transform clients and to transform consulting itself. Consulting Excellence is central to that transformation as it supports consulting innovation while helping ensure we don’t lose sight of the core skills that are the foundation our profession. 

“At IBM, our delivery model is also evolving rapidly. Previously, to practice consulting, you needed experience in industry or the public sector. Now our skills mix is being enormously enhanced through graduate recruitment, and an ever stronger industry focus, with some incredible and challenging digital professionals, who understand client customer-specific needs, coming through. Our profession is also diversifying – and this is creating challenges for larger firms. Some will stay and evolve, whilst others will move on as the world changes. But we’re confident that we can adapt by combining our strong legacy of technology transformation and open engagement with future possibilities. For example, a business using ERP needs support from an advisory firm that understands its established systems but can link these to new and emerging capabilities. That’s IBM.” 

Howard Tollit, Executive Partner at IBM  and MCA President, was interviewed as part of The definitive guide to UK Consulting Industry Statistics 2016.