View from the Top – Prof. John Oakland, Chairman of Oakland Consulting

Congratulations on Oakland Consulting’s 30th year, a big milestone for the company. Looking back, what has made you successful and able to thrive over that period?

It is much about what we do. Our field is Quality and Operations Excellence; helping organisations improve their performance in quality, reviewing the costs of getting it wrong and creating 'lean' organisations. Neglect of quality has unfortunately always been an issue for businesses so our services have always been needed.

I also think our origin in a Business School is a huge factor. We still have our own research and education division and carry out studies with other firms and institutions on topics like change management and 'redefining quality.' We work closely with a number of institutions and have published best-selling books on these topics. This keeps us not only at the frontiers of knowledge but also in the minds of clients as they like to be at the leading edge themselves.

Industry, including manufacturing, has made a lot of progress in those 30 years. Have the issues changed in Quality?

I think so. Particularly in the early 80s there was a lot of demand for Quality support as there was not a lot in place. We carried out a lot of work with the government on quality – writing booklets, case studies, videos, road shows, etc. It was always very pragmatic stuff, but very necessary and it has served us in good stead for the last three decades and will for many more to come, hopefully.

We are in a different world now. Companies are looking to improve all the time and be ahead of the game.  If we tried to do what we did in the 1980s we would be dead. Certain sectors such as manufacturing, automotive and electronics have moved forward, of course, but there are still organisations out there where a lot of basic stuff is just not done right. For example, quality issues often arise when firms undertake a drive to take out costs. This has been a big factor in electronics, for example, so we are still seeing the need to support a whole range of organisations.

How did your international expansion come about?

We learnt to work with global organisations right from the outset. We started off by doing a lot of work for companies within the petrochemical industry which often supplied parts to other industries, such as automotive. At the time they were getting hit by the likes of Ford who were driving quality management and process improvement. We had our finger on the pulse of these areas so they came to us and invited us to work with them across the globe.  We learned how to work with these large, complex, global organisations and it quickly became a feature of what we do. Today 60-70% of our business comes from overseas based companies.

Oakland Consulting is known for embedding sustainable thinking into your projects. Is this something you are noticing clients are more interested in now?

I think it has become a requirement. Our engagement started when a friend of mine suggested that much of what we do in the Quality area is what is needed in Carbon Reduction. Indeed, a lot of things we learned over the years have been very applicable in this area and the work goes together well with what we already do. Often the senior person responsible for quality in an organisation is also responsible for environmental and health and safety issues.

What do you think today’s consultants are looking for in their career?

I have seen a lot of change in the type of people who come into consulting. When we started, people had a view that if they worked in industry for a top firm until they were 50 odd they could 'retire' and set up as a consultant. Today, we are looking at 30-40 year olds coming into the business who really understand business strategy and the issues that leaders are facing in a much broader spectrum. They may have an MBA, been to work in industry or come straight into consultancy, but they start young and make a career of it.  They are a different type of animal, and a superb resource. The management consulting industry in this country has a lot to be proud of and the MCA has done a great job. It has taken a long time to undo the old reputation of consulting but we have moved in right direction.  Organisations have recognised that they need to have the right people to be advising their clients.

What ambitions do you have for Oakland?

We have done some good succession planning and have a strong top team. We have been spending our strategy time thinking about the future model of consulting bearing in mind the tremendous development of technology. How can our management consultancy firms live in the new and developing world? We are looking at our consulting models and matching those with the developing needs of the client. I’m certain that we will want to maintain a strong focus on innovation and high value, as well as quality, of course!