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Management consultancies: Inventing the future

Work is more or less a constant and, at the same time, continually changing its form. And yet the future of work emerges only periodically as a focus of debate and speculation, often sparked by seemingly unprecedented changes in technology or the environment – it becomes a hot topic. Here, work as an idea is appropriated by various actors and organisations who trade in commentary, analysis, prediction and policy making. Who these groups are and what their own agendas consist of is important, as they can help shape the nature of work as much as any environmental context or technological development. These actors include university academics, public and private thinktanks, foundations, civil servants, professional bodies and – our focus here – management consultancies, large and small.

Although by no means universal, homogeneous or uncontested, these individuals and firms have historically played key roles in the changing nature of how work is organised and experienced and how it is governed through different forms of regulation (or its removal). Take, for example, the assembly line; human relations; corporate culture and strategy; the war for talent; and healthcare privatisation. More recently, these firms have also been central in developing the idea of Manufacturing 4.0, (i.e. increased automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies) and the creation of ‘smart factories’ going alongside the Amazon concept of the ‘smart warehouse’ and the development of platform technologies. They promote ‘best practices’ and, especially through multinational clients, help disseminate these globally.

In short, consultancies are increasingly becoming key players in providing what their clients have asked for. Here then, consultancies can be seen as servants of power. But they are also active in shaping client understandings and preferences in a manner which conforms to the services they wish to offer. Part of this involves setting the agenda and terms for debate as well as creating incipient demand or anxiety and uncertainty, all this before any particular set of consulting tools or models is offered – ‘thought leadership’.

In previous research, we have examined how large management consultancies are central in defining the problems faced by corporations and governments such as climate change. Characteristically, they move ‘matters of concern’ from general discussion and debate into the realm of certainty, in part by bringing legitimacy to sometimes quite speculative statistical data about impacts (e.g. from CEO opinion surveys); from this they provide an initial language and discourse of competing scenarios, risks, opportunities and benefits. In the process, they potentially reinforce their role as ‘thought leaders’, not least because in the context of management, the quality and outcomes of analysis and services is often highly ambiguous and so not easily verified.

The recent decade of changes in technology and the structuring of work fit very well into this model and all the big firms are highly visible in generating and shaping the future of work agenda. Take, for example, the coverage of such issues in the McKinsey Quarterly, the publicly available journal produced by McKinsey, where ‘organizing for the future’ was addressed in 2016 and a year later, they led a ‘research effort aimed at understanding the impact of digitization, advanced analytics and artificial intelligence on the future shape of global industries.’ Accordingly, in December 2017, the firm’s Global Research Institute (MGI) published a 160-page report – Jobs lost, jobs gained: Workforce transitions in a time of automation and six months later an 84 page ‘discussion paper’ on ‘Skill shift – automation and the future of the workforce’.

Other firms, while sometimes less prolific or visible, produce similar documents and content. Deloitte, for instance, published a report on ‘Talent for survival – essential skills for humans working in the machine age’ predicting the replacement of 10 million UK employees. They also funded a $20 million, three-year project for a future of work centre of excellence in Singapore. Part of the agenda is to instil concern or anxiety to prompt action from policy makers and potential clients. Thus, Deloitte’s website has a two-minute video from ‘Deloitte University Press’ entitled – ‘the future of work is coming – are you prepared?’ And KPMG similarly asks – ‘The changing face of work – are you ready for the cognitive era?’

Firms may also work with other organisations in an effort to further credibility or diversify communication channels. PwC for example, produced a ‘Workforce of the future’ report which identified four distinct worlds or scenarios of competing forces to 2030. This was produced in partnership with a university-based organisation – the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilisation at Saïd Business School, Oxford. Likewise, the CEO of PA Consulting, Alan Middleton, gave a presentation – ‘the robots are coming!’ – at Management Today’s 2017 conference on the future of work.

But not all players are large multinational firms or generalists. Some specialise in technology consulting, including global players, while other small firms may gain specific commissions to set out work futures for policy makers and government bodies. For example, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills produced a short report on different scenarios for ‘The future of work – jobs and skills in 2030’. This was put together jointly by the University of South Wales and Zpunkt – a strategic forecasting consultancy. Likewise, almost all the large consulting and IT firms seek influence through transnational and governmental bodies such as through being ‘strategic partners’ of the not-for-profit, World Economic Forum, which itself recently released a report on ‘skills for your future’.

The connections firms have to governments, big business, think tanks, the media, NGOs and conference organisers, for example, both enable and reflect the securing of legitimacy in setting agendas and options for the future of work. They can become the go-to source of expertise and advice, not least because they can be agile and responsive with resources, given the funds they have at their disposal – ‘fast policy’. Furthermore, they manage the making of connections between other players in hosting and facilitating events and networks such as those based on benchmarking. Much of this activity is far less visible than the high-profile thought leadership outlined above. However, here it is the assumptions which these firms bring to their analysis which are generally opaque. Instead, they prefer to present themselves in terms of technocratic expertise, as neutral purveyors of knowledge, rather than as agents of their clients’ preferences which often follow logics of marketisation and technological determinism.

While the presence, or even dominance, of consulting firms in the current round of ‘the future of work’ agenda is very clear, their influence as active players through thought leadership or other means has yet to be established. It is important for example, to highlight how consultancy activity might be spread globally, but is highly concentrated nationally in terms of fee income. Similarly, the visibility and availability of thought leadership might reflect the high margins of consulting work more than its effectiveness, much as the effects of TV advertising were long debated. Indeed, the little research undertaken on the relative influence of consulting suggests that there is some plurality of expertise in many contexts and that external consulting does not always dominate over internal sources, for instance. Indeed, a recent study by Sahir and Brutus of business story sources cited in the New York Times since 1978 saw consultants come behind business leaders, financiers and government officials (but ahead of employees and academics). While this finding may partly reflect journalistic practices as much as relative credibility, it highlights the need to investigate not simply the future of work, but how the agenda is set and by whom.

 

Andrew Sturdy is Professor of Management at the University of Bristol

Glenn Morgan is Professor of Management at the University of Bristol

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