Management consultants in the financial sector: leeches or change catalysts

In the first two articles of this series (article one, article two), I defined the concept of efficiency and digitalization in the financial industry and presented the benefits it brings, with a focus on interoperability and business transformation agility. I then listed ten basic rules to avoid the main pitfalls and apply best practice in related projects. I now reflect on the role of management consultant, having in the past been on the customer side before recently switching my role to that of a consultant myself. For each assignment, how can I provide the best value for money and leave behind me a positive legacy?

External consultants are expensive and useless

My former boss disliked external consultants. For him they were a bit like leeches, sucking money from their customers but delivering little in exchange. He was annoyed by their grand introductory speeches about their capabilities and what they could bring to the organisation, only to later introduce junior consultants who would come in, interview the staff and deliver a heavy bunch of pre-formatted powerpoint slides summarising what they had gathered during the interviews.

Once they had left, leaving behind them a set of more or less vague recommendations, the customer would not have built any more competence or knowledge. This is why he was a fervent supporter of developing skills in-house.

Why are consultants then so widely used?

I have noticed a number of reasons, good and bad, invoked to hire an external consultant.

The most current one is the absence of internal resources, either for lack of competence but more often than not because the relevant employees don’t have any spare time to lead a transformational project. Another is that hiring an external consultant seems like an easy decision: you just need a budget and hope that the rest will handle by itself, i.e. that the consultant will take care of everything.

It is also a question of attitude. As the saying goes, “No one is a prophet in their own land”, meaning that it is difficult to be recognised by close colleagues as a transformational leader. Instead, external experts, especially when coming from the large consulting firms, have an aura of competence. It is often justified but the risk is that the team they send has little experience in the financial industry. As a result, the organisation’s own competent people spend time just to get the consultants up the learning curve.

A better reason to call-in external consultants is that they bring a view from outside, not burdened by how things have always been done. Their thinking is not distorted by entrenched practices or even internal politics. They can for instance make controversial recommendations which challenge the internal status-quo, something that internal employees or managers may not dare to do.

In addition, they bring structure to the reflection, and in this respect the pre-formatted slides I mentioned above are also a way to apply an academic thinking into what may look like complex operations. Defining the parameters at play and establishing how they interact can make wonders in clarifying the discussion.

And last but not least, since they intervene at competitors, they can get a good view on other industry practices and recreate the best-in-class methods. This is however akin to industrial spying, so make sure you are on the receiver side and protect your replicable competitive advantages.

A consultant, like a smart but turbulent kid, needs to be tightly managed

Consultants should not be called-in with an open mandate, like “here is the status of our operations, please come up with a plan to digitalize our processes”. Instead management should first have a clear view of their financial institution’s strategy and goals for the coming years. What is the ambition, what role to play in the forming ecosystems, how much of a transformational journey is the organisation ready to undertake?

As I mentioned in the previous article, if for instance the focus is on short term cost cutting, a low-tech streamlining of individual workflows across the organisation will likely deliver the best results. If on the contrary the institution is aiming at a leading role in the future financial ecosystems where interoperability is a prerequisite, the consultant’s mandate should include a review of the overall technological architecture.

The risk otherwise is that, with a too open mandate, consultants will be all over, advising on the overall strategy as well as on specific operational processes, and maximising their billing hours while doing so.

The road less travelled

I see my role initially as a sparring partner to the management of a financial institution, starting with a review of their vision, strategy and goals, and the means (money and resources) they are ready to use to achieve them. When this is clear, the next step is to understand how the existing operational model, including the business processes, fit into the future picture and how much will need to be changed. This is then a good basis to scope the process efficiency project.

The next step is to appoint a project driver and a core team from inside the organisation. I view myself as an initiator and mentor of related projects, relying on the own staff of a financial institution to carry out the bulk of the work (if needed aided by my fellow Uhma Solutions’ colleagues). The aim is to build the know-how within the customer itself and make sure that, once the consultant has left, the project is self-sustainable.

This differs markedly from the usual approach of the large consulting firms and is in my opinion the best guarantee that there will be value for money.

Jean-Francois Tapprest