Market opportunities – Raising the standard

It is only in the last two to three years that real steps have been taken to introduce standards by which management consultants may be judged by those about to employ them and those with whom they may work on large projects.

For example, the Institute of Management Consultants is striving to ensure that its members are seen to deliver high standards of skill and conduct.

However it is of little use for the approved/qualified consultant to imagine that professional recognition will, of its own volition, increase levels of work. Most people would agree, though, with the Institute’s activity in encouraging the development of educational programmes, at Degree level, as well as specialised short programmes, some of which are designed to identify the means of securing profitable consulting business.

This is important because small practices are under-resourced and often don’t have an inclination for the sharp edge of new business acquisition.

Those who do have will, invariably, create opportunities which stretch their resources and these practices will often need to identify new partners with whom they can work. It is here that standards come into play.

The prospect for small/medium sized practices is poor unless they are able to identify and move into new territory and then to judge the right time to move to firmer ground, when the space they occupy is under threat.

And they must look beyond domestic markets to examine a new country called “global”. Its borders are open, provided travellers carry the authority of a universally recognised passport.

Seven years ago my late partner and I went to Poland, at the invitation of the Warsaw City Council. The purpose of this visit was to discuss my partner’s views, as a lawyer specialising in privatisation, of the technical approach to restructuring and my views on ways of reducing the ensuing levels of redundancy, by the creation of strategic business units within restructured organisations.

Since 1992 our practice has been engaged in business development programmes partly on our own account and partly through programmes funded by the Know-How Fund, Phare and Tacis. From these emerges one common factor which has relevance to discussions upon universal qualifications for management consultancy. This common factor is a professional passport.

Almost all of our business development programmes have, at their centre, the recruitment, selection and training of men and women between 22/35 with a university degree or professional qualification, to take up roles as business consultants in their own country.

For such people we wrote and developed a suite of complementary courses for our first assignments, in Poland, which have been refined over the last six years. They cover marketing, business planning, financial administration, human resource development, information technology and consulting skills.

Our training is not intended to produce generalists, but to encourage each participant to strengthen their own specialism while being aware of the way in which other disciplines are related to the conduct of successful businesses.

While much of the education behind the “iron curtain” was of a high standard, it tended to be highly canalised. Not only would the subjects we taught be known by different names, but the people we taught would have little knowledge or interest in related subjects.

For example, we needed to emphasise that marketing was not a function, but a philosophy which should pervade the whole business.

In the early stages of our work, our trainee business consultants believed that we had a golden key which they could use to open one door to a golden future. We explained that there were many doors and many keys and that the sequence in which the keys were used depended upon their judgement of the circumstances in each assignment.

We realised that while the students probably had as much latent ability as the teachers, they lacked that essential commodity – confidence – which comes from experience. This could only be achieved by leading them in the field on paid assignment work. We realised that the business consultants we were training provided us with an opportunity to test the potential of globalisation for small practices like ours. Two points seemed salient.

First, one of the interests of companies in transitional economies is to find markets for their products and services in Western Europe.

Second, one of the growing concerns for many UK firms is how they should export to Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Most conclude that with difficulties arising from culture, currency and crime the region is best left low on their priority list.

Our work proved that the relationships we were building, with local consultants, could be employed to reciprocal advantage. Certainly there have been positive achievements in each of the seven countries in which we have worked and the examples given here are typical of the overall picture.

In Romania we undertook an assignment within a newly privatised retail bookshop chain. We showed the client and our local partners how simple changes in organisational structure and product specialism, within selected outlets, could transform the business. Demonstrable results were identified by the staff within two weeks of implementation.

In 1992, we became involved with Electron, the largest electronics company in the whole region. Based in West Ukraine, it had 65,000 workers, 42 factories, 45 retail outlets, a bank and a small fleet of aircraft to circumvent the hijacking of their long-distance lorries.

We led the company through its privatisation, based on UK models like the National Freight Corporation. Unable to raise the very substantial funds needed for modernisation of the main plant, we set up a “badge engineering” operation which linked the assembly skills of the staff to the technology of the Pacific Rim. Then we looked at the opportunities to create new businesses. The company now has a publishing company, an air transport company with cargo contracts between Warsaw and Berlin, a small furniture production unit and retailing division which is in discussions with a UK furniture manufacturer to provide a platform for its entry to the former Soviet Union.

Before a trip to Belarus, my next door neighbour, a Buckinghamshire farmer, told me he had bought a new tractor. “A Belarus,” he said, pointing to the tractor mudflaps.

On the strength of this, some months later I persuaded Mikhail Marinich, the foreign and trade secretary, that a trade conference in London was essential to put the region on the map. Much of the groundwork before and after the conference, staged in 1995, was undertaken by our newly trained partners in Minsk. The conference led to increased trade between the two countries, some financed by the countertrading possible with a country which, although poor, is the second largest producer of flax in the world.

The pattern was much the same in Bulgaria. Hungary and Russia and, most recently, in Tajikstan from where, unfortunately, we have had to withdraw because the local pastime of taking hostages and shooting people has run out of control. However, while we were in the country we ran the same training programme which had started in Poland. We established a consulting company which had standards of conduct based on the IMC code – perhaps with some expedient variations. We set up a local engineering company which has already earned hard currency by sub-contract work for two UK companies and which has obtained further business in Russia. We identified a market for UK text books in Russian which will extend the life of “new” titles by some years. We obtained hard currency consulting work for our partners and we have maintained contact with them because of their pivotal position close to a part of Central Asia rich in natural resources.

Whether it is in the difficult markets of the former Soviet Union or the more open markets of Central Europe the passport remains the same.

Standards should be set, initially, in the UK and developed as each country sets up its own centres of excellence in much the same way as the MBA programme has over the last 35 years. Those who achieve the standard will become part of an ethnic group in which native language and culture may differ, but in which members will agree both upon standards of performance and the capacity for consultancy, at its best to bring about fundamental change particularly through co-operation.

From Zalaegersheg in the West to Zyranovsk in the East the language is not always understood, but the opportunity is clear.

Brian Williams MIMC is a director of Salter Williams International, an international marketing strategy firm.

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