x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Opportunity knocks for bold consultants

To exploit the Gulf’s fast-growing market, management consultancies have to meet clients’ demand for local professionals in implementing their advice.

Don Cheadle plays the role of Marty Kaan, a resourceful and energetic consultant, in the television series House of Lies. Jordin Althaus / Showtime via AP Photo
Don Cheadle plays the role of Marty Kaan, a resourceful and energetic consultant, in the television series House of Lies. Jordin Althaus / Showtime via AP Photo

There was a time, not so long ago, when a management consultant could reasonably expect to be able to turn up at his client’s office occasionally, press some flesh and impart a few words of wisdom while notionally overseeing a team of brilliant but inexperienced young analysts.

The consultant would then return home, leaving behind a shiny report and an eye-wateringly large invoice. That time has passed.

The GCC consulting market is among the most exciting in the world today. Although small by global standards – our latest GCC report estimates it at US$1.9 billion, compared with America’s $39bn market – it is nevertheless growing at an annual clip of about 20 per cent, a growth rate you would be hard pressed to find elsewhere in the world.

But if its success has so far tended to follow a formula long since challenged by clients in more developed western markets, then its recent maturity curve has been a steep one.

That’s because the offices of Dubai-based clients are now filled with people making the same demand of consultants as their counterparts in London or New York. And their demand can be summed up in a word: implementation.

In fact the clamour for consultants to implement the findings of their reports is arguably even greater in the GCC than it is elsewhere, and it certainly represents the biggest opportunity in the region’s consulting market today.

There are a couple of factors at play here: the first is maturing clients, many of whom have had their metaphorical fingers burned by consultants in the past.

Those clients will often be the first to admit that the fault for failed projects lies as much with their own failure to scope, monitor and measure consulting work in the way they should have (or at least to have reasonable expectations about what could be achieved in a certain amount of time).

But the truth is that consulting firms were lured by the promise of a fast buck and, by their own admission, failed to live up to the standards long since expected of them elsewhere.

There was, as one client so succinctly put it to us recently, “some bad consulting going on around here”. Asking consultants to implement their recommendations is, by common consensus, the most effective way to make them accountable for their work.

The second factor is also the biggest: an absence of talent. The simple reality is that organisations in the GCC are scratching around to find the talent they need to sustain their rapid growth plans, and when they can’t find it, they look to consultants to help them fill the gaps.

That’s not uncommon elsewhere either: our research consistently tells us that about a third of the global management consulting market is actually what those of a more sophisticated disposition would call contingent labour, and what those with a tendency to speak more plainly would call body shopping. But it may now be an even bigger part of the market in the GCC than it is elsewhere.

That spells trouble because consulting firms are struggling to find talent just as their clients are. In theory they should be able recruit people to the GCC from their global networks, but in practice it’s rarely as simple as that.

True, the continuing economic stagnation in Europe has led to a certain amount of oversupply that consulting firms are only too happy to have a home for, but that assumes that they have the right people, with the right skills, who are willing to consider moving to the Middle East.

It’s a situation which is compounded by clients’ demand for a cultural fit between consultants and their employees in the implementation phase of consulting projects.

Consultants are expected to be able to work alongside their clients’ staff, sometimes doing the same work, at other times playing the role of trainer and motivator. They have to fit in.

In other words, what consulting firms really need to find are people with the right skills who are also GCC nationals. And right now – for all that they’re compelled to do so by policy, let alone the market itself – that’s the hardest kind of talent to find.

The opportunity to act as “body shops” to talent-starved GCC nations is one that consulting firms will not want to pass up.

That’s even if they say that their real interest lies at the purer, higher-value end of the consulting value chain.

But finding a way to do so is vital if they are to take advantage of the biggest opportunity in the world’s most exciting consulting market.

This viewpoint is based on the findings of a Source report on the GCC consulting market

Edward Haigh is the director of Source Information Services