The annual conference of the Institute of Consulting’s Welsh branch builds much needed local links for consultants, says Mick James,’s management consultancy columnist.

Small consultancies can punch above their weight

A couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to be invited to attend the annual conference of Institute of Consulting’s Welsh branch in Wrexham. I’d been asked to act as MC for the event, a task I can confidently say I performed to the best of my abilities.

Local events like these normally depend on the strenuous efforts of one or two individuals to even occur, so all credit is due to North Wales Chair Jeni Winstanley and her cohorts for pulling it off. As well as an impressive line-up of presenters, the IoC had also managed to pull off the coup of persuading nearly 50 consultants and business advisers to contemplate the state of their own shoes.

It’s both a worrying and exciting time for people advising businesses at the local level. Existing infrastructures for delivering advice and support have been disrupted and for some it’s unclear how they will connect in the future with the businesses they will advise. At the same time, new opportunities are emerging: the main trends I can discern so far are that the government’s localism agenda is going to have significant effects on the way business support is delivered and that we are entering a much more robust culture of payment by results. In times like these, it’s clearly vital that consultants and business advisers build strong local networks because the structures that have previously kept many of them afloat simply aren’t going to be around. So, let’s hope the other regions of the IoC are being equally active in building these local links.

Meanwhile, back in the smoke, it was time for the Institute’s annual awards, which I wasn’t able to attend because a) I was on the way to Wales and b) I wasn’t invited anyway. So what, I’m big in Wales.

Belated, but hearty, congratulations to Phoebe Dunn and her consultancy Square Peg International who carried off the awards for Consultant of the Year and Practice of the Year, respectively, and also to runner-up for Consultant of the Year Dr Simon Haslam, Director of FMR Research Ltd.

One of the reasons these awards dropped beneath my reader is that the consulting awards have been subsumed into the annual awards of the IoCs “sister” institute, the Chartered Management Institute, hence the rather slimmed down number of prizes on offer. It’s a far cry from the days when we all used to roll down to the Waldorf Astoria.

That said, I’m not averse to the notion of an award such as management consultant or consultancy practice of the year being made by an independent body of managers rather than one’s peers. Since there’s still a widespread opinion that consultancy is a criminal conspiracy, a bit of outside validation can only help. Perhaps if the awards were structured more along the lines of “managers crown consultant of the year”, it might be more valuable to the recipient? Because there’s no point in having awards unless they generate the maximum amount of publicity.

That’s important, not just for the members but for the Institute. Square Peg is one of a small but select group of consultancies who are “recognised” or “premier practices” of the IoC (I can’t be more specific because the list of recognised, and indeed premier practices has vanished from the IoC site). It’s a small firm, but its clients are anything but: as such it represents what I am coming to think of as the “dark matter” of the consultancy industry.

If you were to divide the consultancy industry into quadrants defined by size of client and size of firm, then you would have two clearly defined segments: Big/Big, which is occupied by the larger firms and well-represented by the MCA, and Small/Small where the IoC has carved out a clear niche with sole practitioners, smaller practices and business advisers. Big consultancy-small client is an intriguing quadrant—some of the Big Four firms developed mid-market or private company offerings while rebuilding their consultancy practices but the industry as a whole has yet to have its “Tesco Metro” moment.

But it’s in the quadrant where small consultancies consult to big clients that all the excitement is, and yet how much do we know about it? MCA membership now stands at 60, and there are (or were) over a hundred IoC recognised and premier practices. The rest of them are just out there. God alone knows how many of them there are. I run into them one by one, and have yet to meet one that didn’t have something interesting or different to say. Some are clearly on a trajectory that will take them into the MCA, either under their own steam or when they are acquired by an existing member. Others will always remain largely unknown to anyone but a devoted circle of clients.

It seems there really is a huge opportunity just begging here. Whether more of these dynamic little consultancies that punch above their weight could be persuaded to join organisations whose centre of attention is clearly elsewhere is the real question. Perhaps I’ll start my own.

All views expressed in this article are those of Mick James and do not necessarily reflect the views of and

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