Remarks from “Future of Professional Consulting” at PATCA June-13-2013

PATCA is a non-profit organization created in 1975 specifically to help connect businesses and independent consultants. I was invited to take part in a PACA panel on “The Consulting Landscape: Forward Looking Skills and Practices” on Thursday June 13, 2013. It offered me a chance to clarify my thinking on the future of professional consulting and to have it critiqued by seasoned professional consultants.

 “Future of Professional Consulting”  PATCA  June-13-2013

Here is the overview for the panel

Change happens. In the present it comes more rapidly than in the past. Are you prepared to steer your business and the services you provide to clients through the changes that will impact your consulting business?

This panel of three experienced consultants will look at trends and potential disruptions that will affect how you run your consulting business and what your clients expect from you. They will examine client business practices, economic trends and uncertainties, and technology that affect how we do business.

Future of Professional Consulting

Looking toward the future of professional consultingI have included my remarks and some of the questions, both edited for brevity. Here are the bullets from the five slides I presented:

Skills Still Valuable in 2020

  • Face-to-Face and Phone Conversation
  • Written Communication – E-Mail, Blog
  • Text Chat
  • Webinar / Screen Share
  • Negotiation and Sales Skills

Key Service Parameters

  • Outputs – What does the client get? What problem do firms hire you to solve?
  • End Time – How long will it take?
  • Cost: How much will it cost?
  • Inputs – What do you need to get started?
  • Controls / Interim Observations – How will we jointly manage the project and our mutual expectations?
  • Start Time – When can you start?
  • Inside the Black Box: questions not normally asked:
    What do you do?
    What is your process (beyond how do we jointly manage)?
    How do you do it?

Skills That Will Become More Important In 2020

  • Service Innovation
  • Podcasting and Audio Production
  • Video Presentation / Production – Video is the New HTML
  • Task and Project Management Systems
    • Stop E-mailing status and attachments
    • Don’t Let Discussions Get Buried in Inbox
  • Synchronous Docs Complement Conversations

Trends and Technologies to Watch

  • Trends
    • Non-Billable Hour or “Value” Models
    • “Flipped Classroom” Models
    • Continuous – Connected – Transparent
    • Global Practice
  • Technologies
    • Simulation
    • Diagnostic & Service Configuration Tools

About SKMurphy, Inc

  • We Are Customer Development Consultants
  • Our Focus is on Technology Entrepreneurs
  • We Help Them Find Leads & Close Deals
    • Early Customers
    • Early Revenue
    • Early References

Partial Transcript of Edited Remarks

What can you negotiate and sell is as important as what you can do.

The half life of skills seems to be shrinking, this means that you have to be strategic in the capabilities that you choose to develop and you need to continually invest in renewing those skills that offer competitive differentiation.

Service innovation is becoming increasingly important: how do you raise the bar not only by how you package your offering but also by adding new features or capabilities. Decomposing what you can do into building blocks that you can knit together with other partners is one way to increase your rate of innovation.

Continuing to increase your differentiation is going to become more important. Whether you face Silicon Valley competitors or global competitors, they are going to go to school on you if you win business.

Challenge as a consultant is to build trust. Voice presentations help to do that. Consulting websites are going to include a lot more audio and video because production costs have plummeted and done right it’s more compelling and helps to build trust more rapidly than print content alone.

Synchronous documents that several people can edit at once are becoming more important. If you are in the same room with someone we are used to collaborating on a white board or sheet of paper. Combining these synchronous docs with chat and a phone call makes distance collaboration much more effective.

We even use synchronous docs in a face-to-face meeting because it’s a much better model than one person taking minute or each person taking their own notes. The synchronous document is shared and persistent, you end the meeting with something everyone feels some ownership of, and it surfaces misunderstanding much more rapidly.

Involving your customer in co-creation–this is the natural evolution of passing people taking turns drawing on the same napkin or piece of graph paper–is something to consider.

If part of your value has been to deliver training, the flipped classroom model where the information is available beforehand–think MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and Kahn Academy–is going to put a lot of pressure on traditional classroom lecture models.

Question: why change if what you are doing now is working?

If you believe that these trends are at work and your current billing and service delivery models are going to be impacted, you may compress the need for a lot of change in a short amount of time if you let your competition move down the learning curve before you take the first step.

Another challenge is to start to be explicit about your intake, diagnosis and service configuration. Whether is going to a Jiffy Lube or an ER, the intake process is very efficient and follows explicit protocols for problem identification. I think consultants need to look at automating aspects of both their diagnosis and service delivery.

I think we are going to see expert services embedded and intermingled of these emerging communications infrastructure: tables, smartphones, and VoIP models.

Q: what about things that are “off the radar” like innovative materials and quantum computing? How much attention should you pay to these things and incorporate them in your planning?

Bill Buxton, the original inventor of the multi-touch interface, wrote a great article in Business Week called “the long nose of innovation.”  The time constant from lab demonstration to successful mainstream adoption of an innovation seems to be 30 years, and that lag doesn’t seem to be changing. 3D printers are 30 years old for example. The science fiction author William Gibson observed more than a decade ago that “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”

The things that will affect you in the next five years you will be able to see instances of today. They won’t come out of nowhere; somebody is already doing it now.

But the clock cycle for distance collaboration has sped up considerably in the last 30 years. We have moved from Fedex for overnight delivery to Internet downloads available in a few seconds. Understanding how to work with global teams is increasingly important.

Closing remarks

My perspective is that I am going to be consulting into the 2030’s. This is what I want to be doing: so I have a long term planning horizon.

That means that I try and cultivate relationships with people who are in their 20’s and 30’s as part of a talent spotting exercise so when they are in positions of authority they remember me as that SOB who helped them out.

I think too often we focus on “how do I get to the decision maker?” This used to be someone older than us, and is now someone our age, and pretty soon will be someone younger than us.

You have to be planting acorns every year if you have long term ambitions to be a consultant. So that’s one strategy: talent spotting to support a twenty year planning horizon.

I think the consulting model is going to become more pervasive. There is a great book by Michael Malone called “The Future Arrived Yesterday” (which was initially titled the “Protean Corporation”) where he looks at employment relationships becoming much shorter term and more contingent. So I think there will be a lot more people working as consultants.

I started this firm in 2003 in the middle of what was nuclear winter in Silicon Valley. Total employment in Silicon Valley has yet to recover to the number of jobs that we had here in 2001. It was very hard.

Our first two clients were consultants who were trying to make  mortgage payments to hold onto their houses. It was an interesting time–kind of like the Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times.”

I realized a few years in, if I can actually make it in this climate I could probably do OK when things turn around. The fact that I made it through that and it’s ten years later taught me that it was important to have a long term vision and willingness to see it through.

You need to think about how you are going to plan acorns, whether it’s with relationships or with capabilities that you develop.

Postscript: More on an Unevenly Distributed Future

More on the unevenly distributed future from Rob Rodin in “Free, Perfect, and Now

The problem is that, in reality, the future can be hard to recognize. It’s not evenly distributed; it’s hidden in corners. While there is no shortage of clues, they are buried beneath a crush of information. Radical adaptation to shifting customer demand is the first law of business survival today, but how can you learn what you need to know in order to anticipate those shifts?

h/t to Brian Dear for this citation. I blogged about Rodin’s book in “Tangible Costs, Time, and Pricing to Value.‘ I was fortunate to have Rob Rodin on a panel at the 1995 Design Automation Conference that addressed “The Impact of the World Wide Web on Electronic Design and EDA.” He talked about several the principles he was using to transform Marshall to leverage the Web, his experiences there formed the basis for “Free, Perfect, and Now.”

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Image Credit: “Binoculars” (c) Doug Berger used under creative commons.

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