Different types of consulting needs require different types of consulting partners. Are you undertaking a massive, global IT implementation, effecting entire departments in sites around the world? Or are you improving a process and training a department in a newly innovated procedure? Or are you looking for expert strategic support, or coaching and development of your up-and-coming stars?
The largest consulting companies in the world implement what they refer to as a “leveraged model”. This is most useful in supporting companies with large-scale implementations and changes, that span many sites and geographies. This model works by using an implementation team comprised of individuals with a variety of skill and experience levels. Usually, an experienced Manager will have a team (from a few individuals to a dozen or more) of relatively cheap and inexperienced consultants. The senior leader, or leaders, is the primary engagement for client leadership and helps plan the engagement, and focus most of their time on ongoing business development. The individual consultants on the project conduct the low-level engagement and carry out the majority of the work. This model works very well for low-complexity, large-scale engagements, in which the consulting firm leverages deliverables from previous engagements with similar approaches. It is a profitable model for the consulting company, as it uses a large number of cheap resources to deliver standardized products.
In order to continue to feed the demand, these companies tend to be aggressive around business development – always trying to grow the scope of an engagement, or find additional opportunities within their client – which in some cases develops into a permanent presence within the client organization and a dependency on the consulting firm.
In addition to these large consulting companies, there are a large number of niche consulting groups who specialize in either a corporate function (such a pharmaceutical R&D, or banking operations) or consulting discipline (such as organization development, or process engineering, or change management). These groups are typically staffed with more experienced consultants, who may have come from the industry which they support or from big-consulting. These groups are frequently very strong in their niche area, and can provide good outsourcing or insourcing support (such as filling vacant roles within an organization) and can often support their clients very well at the tactical level (specific process design). Their biggest limitation is typically their breadth of expertise (very deep skills, but usually not broad) – the very nature of being strong in a specific niche.
The third type of consulting model is the independent consultant. In order to be successful as an independent consultant, the individual must have a large amount of professional experience (from either consulting or from industry) and the ability to work well with senior organizational leadership. Typically, independent consultants will develop networks with colleagues, and leverage their colleagues to bring in deep expertise in functions and consulting disciplines. Because of their knowledge and experience (and limited scale), independent consultants are best used for strategic level engagements, point expertise, or coaching engagements.
Each model has an appropriate role, and unique advantages. The key for a client interested in getting consulting support is finding the right partner – whether that be choosing the right company or identifying the right individual. In general, working with an independent consultant affords the highest level of flexibility and customized engagement, while the largest organizations can draw from the largest set of previous deliverables.
So, if you need an innovative approach or a customized engagement, independents are frequently the best to use, while large consulting groups can deliver standardized deliverables in a cost effective manner.