Leader – Blazing a trail for the future

Last month in Manhattan, George Shaheen outlined his vision of the “consultancy firm of the future”. It occurred to me at the time that there didn’t seem to be much “consulting” involved. Rather what was envisioned was an entrepreneurial band of infrastructure builders, constructing the equivalent of the bridges, dams and cities that were carved out by the engineers of a previous era.

It’s clear what’s driving this: consultants used to live for the moment and by their wits. Each assignment was a separate event, and such expertise as was developed remained firmly locked in the individual consultant’s head. Now the talk is all of “leveraging knowledge capital” as consultancies attempt to take their accumulated know-how and make it into a working asset.

It’s a logical development, but perhaps more of a break with the past than its proponents realise. Consultants bearing products have always been viewed with suspicion; consultants bearing infrastructures doubly so.

It is true that there are many non-competitive, “parity” issues where an industry would benefit from having the structure built once, and for everyone: back-office tasks which are important but not competitively crucial. But how many companies will be happy to pass large chunks of their revenue through one-lane toll roads in the hands of a single vendor?

There are examples where this has already happened. The past master at this sort of thing is, of course, the Microsoft Corporation. Starting at the most basic, unloved levels of computing, the corporation has progressively identified levels of functionality where the “don’t care, can’t spare” mentality applies. Yes, we all need a word processor. No, we don’t care whose it is – but on the whole we’d rather it was the same as everyone else’s, to make life a bit easier. By making things a bit easier, Microsoft has progressively drawn in more and more levels of business functionality from, as it were, the bottom up. Whether Andersen and its peers can do the same from the top down is another question. A more intriguing one is what happens when the two game plans begin to meet in the middle.

The trail blazed by Andersen in the past was quickly followed by old-style IT giants such as EDS and IBM. Could this be the birth of Microsoft Consulting?

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