Management consulting is the practice of helping organizations to improve their performance, operating primarily through the analysis of existing organizational problems and the development of plans for improvement.
Organizations may draw upon the services of management consultants for a number of reasons, including gaining external (and presumably objective) advice and access to the consultants’ specialized expertise.
As a result of their exposure to, and relationships with numerous organizations, consulting firms are typically aware of industry “best practices.” However, the specific nature of situations under consideration may limit the ability to transfer such practices from one organization to another.
Consultancies may also provide organizational change management assistance, development of coaching skills, process analysis, technology implementation, strategy development, or operational improvement services. Management consultants often bring their own proprietary methodologies or frameworks to guide the identification of problems, and to serve as the basis for recommendations for more effective or efficient ways of performing work tasks.
In general, various approaches to consulting can be thought of as lying somewhere along a continuum, with an ‘expert’ or prescriptive approach at one end, and a facilitative approach at the other. In the expert approach, the consultant takes the role of expert, and provides expert advice or assistance to the client, with, compared to the facilitative approach, less input from, and fewer collaborations with the client(s).
With a facilitative approach, the consultant focuses less on specific or technical expert knowledge, and more on the process of consultation itself. Because of this focus on process, a facilitative approach is also often referred to as ‘process consulting,’ with Edgar Schein being considered the best-known practitioner. The consulting firms listed above are closer toward the expert approach of this continuum.
Many consulting firms are organized in a structured matrix, where one ‘axis’ describes a business function or type of consulting: for example, strategy, operations, technology, executive leadership, process improvement, talent management, sales, etc. The second axis is an industry focus: for example, oil and gas, retail, automotive.
Together, these form a matrix, with consultants occupying one or more ‘cells’ in the matrix. For example, one consultant may specialize in operations for the retail industry, and another may focus on process improvement in the downstream oil and gas industry.