Why there’s been a digital revolution in consulting

The top management consulting firms in the world used to be very much generalist enterprises.

McKinsey, Bain and BCG consultants could be deployed to projects in any industry and would be expected to pick up the specifics of how different sectors worked largely on the fly.

Individual offices or individual consultants might develop “soft specialisms”, but, on the whole, by individuals were not expected to have any particular knowledge base or experience when being hired.

Generalist consultants still exist in large numbers across the top firms. However, the direction of travel in recent years has very much been towards specialism.

Thus, growth in the big, MBB firms has disproportionately been within divisions, where expert staff deal exclusively with projects in a particular industry or requiring certain technical skills.

Nowhere has this been more pronounced than specialist digital and tech consulting. McKinsey Digital, BCG Gamma and Bain Vector have sprung up and are growing strongly, pulling in a whole new kind of consulting recruit.

In this article, we discuss how a changing industrial reality has led to the need for specialist divisions in the big consulting firms, requiring new, specialist staff members. We note that this, in turn, has generated unprecedented opportunities for those from “non-standard” backgrounds to work in consulting.

New challenges for the industry

The economy in general has changed enormously in recent years, with the speed of that change seeming to accelerate, if anything.

It has become cliche to point out how the revolution in computing technology and the advent of the internet has drastically changed the entirety of the human experience and – in particular – radically altered how business is conducted.

Whole new sectors and kinds of business have sprung up – from online retailers like Amazon to social media giants to fintech to the “gig economy” centred around online operations like Uber and Deliveroo.

At the same time, old businesses face new challenges as they adapt to do business in a changing marketplace.

Some challenges are existential threats. Think of the travails of the print media sector trying to make the newspaper trade viable in the face of falling circulation for physical papers and growing online-only competition.

However, positive new opportunities can also bring challenges of their own. Consider the huge new potential to micro-target marketing based on the increasingly detailed data set which can be assembled on the average consumer.

The potential for enhanced profits brings with it the need to store and rapidly analyse huge volumes of data to the importance of cybersecurity.

New demands on consultants

For the consulting sector, the result of all this change has been clients bringing much more specific, technically-involved problems to the big, previously-generalist firms.

Large as firms like McKinsey are, they cannot afford to turn these projects away and thus lose out on both the revenue of a growing slice of the economy as well as the prestige of continuing to work on the cutting edge of new technologies and emerging industries.

However, taking these projects ultimately means a staffing problem for generalists.

The cardboard cutout consultant

In previous years, generalist management consultants were a homogenous bunch. An undergraduate degree, with engineering being a common choice, but the subject being less important simply than having excellent grades at a top institution (think Ivy, Stanford, MIT in the US; Oxbridge, Imperial, LSE etc in the UK).

After undergrad, an MBA at a top-flight business school (HBS, Wharton in the US; LBS, Judge or Said in the UK; HEC Paris, IE or Bocconi in Europe).

No doubt acutely clever individuals with resumes most would be jealous of. In practice, they are well equipped to add real value to a great many firms in generalist projects.

However, these individuals will simply not have the specific knowledge base required to address the hyperspecific, highly technical projects common today. It simply isn’t feasible to pick up all the technical details required or to learn programming languages and the like on the fly – regardless of the consultant’s cognitive horsepower.

Bring on the boffins!

To address this issue, consultancies need to recruit staff with the required technical expertise and background knowledge in the relevant fields.

This might be in the form of direct work experience in the industry they will be working on or a strong academic and/or research background – likely a PhD – in a relevant field. Thus, consultancies are increasingly hiring programmers directly from tech firms and computer scientists and engineers straight from academia.

Certainly, though, MBAs are not as relevant as they were. Most business schools will not teach students how to deal run cutting edge, complex data analyses, for example!

A changing selection process

One noticeable symptom of this immediate commercial need to bring in recruits from historically unconventional backgrounds is the advent of new pre-interview screening tests like the McKinsey digital assessment.

These tests assess general thinking skills without any kind of business background being required. Indeed the McKinsey Digital Assessment 

This is opposed to older tests like the McKinsey Problem Solving Test (PST) which shared a lot in common with the GMAT test used to admit MBA candidates and was used to select the same kind of recruit. These tests would actively rule out talented technical specialists before interview, so had to be changed.

New opportunities

Of course, all this means that there are now ways into high-flying consulting jobs for candidates who might not have been considered suitable before.

If you are sitting on strong programming experience or a computer science qualification, but without an MBA and never having studied business, economics or the like, you might well be a very sought after new recruit for major management consulting firms.

A new career? Go for it!

If you’ve been reading through this and thinking “hey, I could do that”, then you very well might be able to! A lot of potentially promising recruits have been put off applying to MBB and other top-level consulting firms by persistent myths that an MBA or some other specific background.

In reality, MBAs have never been a strict requirement to work in consulting, as firms have always had the capacity to spot useful individuals. However, now more so than ever, they urgently need to bring on new kinds of talent.

So, if you think you can – apply!