The Coming Disruption in Professional Services


Is there a way for advisory service companies, which provide accountants, lawyers, consultants and marketing experts to other businesses, to adapt to changing demands?

Some pundits, such as the Harvard scholar Clayton Christensen, have questioned whether traditional consulting firms will get less work as more innovative business models emerge.

I think challenges bring opportunities and that firms which change with the times will remain relevant and flourish.

Like many other sectors, the advisory service industry has had its ups and downs. Its current slowdown may herald the start of a darker period thanks to three significant trends:

1. Democratization of information

Prior to the Internet, advisory service firms offered clients knowledge and insight, which they couldn’t find elsewhere. Now, a lot of information is available for free, or at low cost on the web, and that includes expertise through freelancer portals like guru.com. To find critical facts and figures on market trends, customer research, or industry costs, organizations no longer need to hire a traditional advisory firm.

2. Fewer intermediaries

It used to be that if you needed top talent to address a business issue, you paid the price and dealt with a blue chip firm or hired a leader in the field. Today, a manager has many more options, often with lower costs and faster turnarounds. The rise of the freelance and sharing economy allows companies to find talent and knowledge as needed on a global basis.

3. The rise of machine learning

Machine learning, also known as artificial intelligence, has the potential to disrupt many facets of the professional services industry. Using machines for rote and even complex tasks can reduce the need to hire firms to do mundane tasks, or for an expert’s analysis, judgment and time. For example, judges and lawyers are increasingly resolving small claims through “e-adjudication” as opposed to using the expensive and time-consuming legal system.

Power of disruption

Despite these disruptive forces, traditional firms aren’t going away any time soon: the fact that they have a wide-range of services and expertise to offer, the changing regulatory and technological environment and fickle customer needs will ensure it. However, they need to evolve if they want to stay relevant to their clients, outflank competitors and maintain juicy margins.

Terry Donnelly, chief marketing officer for Canada of New York-based MDC Partners Inc., an advertising and marketing company, agreed.

“The traditional ad agency model is dying,” Toronto-based Donnelly said. “Marketers want leading edge, unique and practical solutions that drive measurable results and provide a durable and sustaining competitive advantage. MDC Partners recognized the ‘new normal’ early on and built a unique portfolio of agencies that retains the visionary founders as partners, motivated to do great creative work, versus the staid multinational agencies that regularly lose their best people.”

Advisory service leaders who want to better assist their clients and avoid disruption might want to consider these strategies:

1. Become a virtual provider

Companies can leverage their strengths such as client relationships and a trusted brand to create their own, on-demand virtual offerings as a complement to their traditional business. This model could mean acting as an online skills, data or problem-solving hub, and delivering of the best services to suit a client’s needs.

2. Get more involved in execution

While people and expertise may be plentiful, that’s not the case for excellent execution. Advisory service firms can offer follow-through and even take on line responsibilities through a shared service model. This could go beyond being an outsourcer to actually embed adaptable and skilled individuals and tools directly into the client’s workflow process.

3. Focus on capability building, not projects

Advisory services should focus their work on addressing long-term projects and needs instead of short-term contracts that deal with a specific issue. They could help clients build strategic capabilities to ensure competitiveness. One way to do this is to train people to do the work themselves.

As an example, a lawyer would not just draw up a contract based on the client’s needs and then walk away, rather they could give the client tools to become somewhat proficient in their own right.

In addition, companies could provide regular advisory support to make sure long-term goals are met.

Mitchell Osak is managing director, strategic advisory services at Grant Thornton LLP.

Mitchell.Osak@ca.gt.com

Twitter.com/MitchellOsak

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