Andrew Hooke: seeing demand for ‘multiple specialist skills that a single firm does not possess’ © Graham Lee

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The UK government wants the long arm of the law to stretch even further, by encouraging police forces to collaborate across their borders, cut costs and detect and prevent crime better.

Yet implementing the IT system that would facilitate this data sharing and intelligence gathering across police forces is an example of how consultancies — often competitors — are increasingly collaborating, too.

PA Consulting, a UK firm with a strong technology focus, first collaborated with Canadian software provider Niche to combine Sussex police force’s 60 software systems into one. The two companies worked together again to implement the same system for Surrey police, then again across five forces in the Midlands and nationwide for British Transport Police.

So when a big metropolitan police force in Europe was looking to transform its core systems and processes, PA and Niche were confident enough in their alliance to work together for the first time as a single commercial entity under the name PA Niche.

The one-stop shop consultancy — where one consulting firm offers an end-to-end service — is dead, claims Andrew Hooke, head of consulting sectors at PA Consulting. “Increasingly we are seeing a growing complexity in the nature of consulting projects. That requires multiple specialist skills that a single firm simply does not possess,” he says.

He cites transforming the health services in a city or region as an example. Such a project would demand specialist skills in advanced analytics to process data, such as waiting-list times and performance of operating theatres.

It also needs expertise in technology to make systems more efficient; in HR to manage people issues; and in change management to deliver the programme on time and budget. These skills, says Mr Hooke, can only be provided by companies working together.

“It won’t be long before the big consulting firms won’t be able to deliver on their own, nor should they. Collaboration won’t be needed across all consulting activities but it will become the norm,” says Mr Hooke, who predicts that alliances will soon account for more than half of a consultancy’s revenues. “Clients want it and even the big firms are seeing a real need to work together,” he says.

Clients are fed up with being force-fed advice and project teams they have little input in shaping, says Chris Preston, managing partner of Odgers Interim Consulting, a firm that supplies interim consultants. “Naturally, business leaders want expert consultancy delivered by experienced individuals. But all too often, the senior director or partner who won their confidence simply staffs the project with young and inexperienced associates who are likely to be learning on the job,” he says. “The value of external advice and support has not disappeared, but the way this guidance is offered and purchased has.”

Big data tools mean clients can quickly create a collaborative environment to develop multi-sourced projects, says Chris Geldard, UK managing partner at Capco, a consultancy focused on financial services. “These environments are self-contained, which means the technical know-how and competitive advantage can remain with the client,” he adds.

So far, so good. But the challenge with more collaborative approaches to consulting is ensuring all partners are accountable for the project and its outcomes, says Mark Lillie, a partner in Deloitte’s UK business. “Clients may demand that outcomes are delivered in a collaborative way, so the challenge for consultants becomes one of establishing accountability and incentivising the behaviours of the partners, so you don’t end up with a blame culture,” he says.

He adds that there are lots of conversations going on about how these less hierarchical alliances and ecosystems might be bound together in a more formal way. Deloitte is exploring the opportunities for more extreme collaboration, through crowdsourcing. Its Pixel platform enables Deloitte teams and clients via crowdsourcing vendors including Topcoder, 10EQS, Wikistrat and InCrowd to seek input from the public on developing new products or ideas, and even on designing, building and testing new digital products.

The key to successful alliances, multi- or crowdsourced projects is managing them tightly, says Mike Hockey, director at Roc, a consultancy whose clients include Tesco, BAE Systems, Nestlé and the BBC. He cites a study by Bent Flyvbjerg, a management professor from the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, whose analysis of more than 250 infrastructure projects from around the world showed 90 per cent ran over budget.

One common factor, Prof Flyvbjerg found, was “strategic misrepresentation” — otherwise known as lying. “Naturally, there is an element of competition between consulting firms when they are involved in a multi-sourced engagement, each party is angling for a bigger piece of the pie,” he warns. “These individual priorities can have a detrimental effect on the overall success of a project.”

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