Culture: The Overlooked Weapon

Much has been written about the Culture of technology firms created in the last 10-15 years that turns the ideas of the 20th Century on their heads. Whether it is the Culture deck from Netflix or the handbook from Valve, they seek to use Culture as a differentiator in the war for talent.  Rather ironically due to the reliance on people, these ideas have not been applied extensively to the consulting industry.  For lots of consultancies in this sector, Culture is a very distant runner up to "bums on seats". Meaning that many companies in this sector do not even consider it to be in their strategic arsenal.

When we were designing MV37 we recognised that attracting and retaining the best talent is critical and so we spent considerable time on what Culture we wanted for our emerging technology consulting firm. In doing so we considered the following factors:

  • The Three Forces

  • The Digital Business

The Three Forces

When running a consulting firm, or any professional services firm for that matter, you are faced with balancing the usual triangle of forces:

  • What challenge the client is facing

  • What services you are offering and who is available

  • What your consultants want individually

Consultancies have various metrics of success (or KPIs) that monitor the performance of the business like dials on the machine. While the particular combination will vary, the profitability of a consulting firm is usually related to utilisation, i.e. the ratio of billable time versus “bench” time.

For many consultancies, this triangle of forces is always under stress and the three forces are quite often not pulling in the same direction because of the constant need to maximise utilisation. Most of the time, in our experience, the consultant’s career objectives and aspirations come a very distant third and so their career is driven by the projects they deliver rather than the other way round.

One way of alleviating this stress is to focus the firm. One of the reasons we have focussed solely on emerging technology is that the forces are more naturally aligned and you have a higher chance of satisfying all of them in a given opportunity.

From a Cultural point of view, however, it is how you behave around these forces that crystallises the Culture of a consulting firm. For example, would you sell a consultant onto a project that is only marginally related to your core offering for the extra utilisation? Or would you leave one of your superstars working at a client project for years to maintain stability, even though you know that their personal aim is to gain experience with multiple clients?

The need to maximise utilisation also has the effect of reducing the authenticity of your company values. These values are meant to articulate the Culture making it digestible for everyone from new joiners to managers. For example, there is no point in having the cultural value of “Nurturing” (as many consultancies do) if career development is left solely to the individual and then let them go if they are on the bench too long. What consultants experience versus what is in the handbook is tested in those moments of stress.

The Digital Business

The large consulting firms are all pursuing a Digital Agenda and offering services using emerging technologies to their clients - in many cases they are creating the mandate, budget and innovation teams for the clients to execute. However, progress is slow. Why is that?

When talking about a Digital Business, the technology they are focussed on is always discussed, but equal importance should also be applied to the way of working or the Culture that goes with it. This test should be also applied to the consulting business advising the Digital Businesses.

For most consultancies there are issues in both the technology and Culture:

  1. Cobblers Children. To be a “digital business”  (or..“data organisation”, “emerging technology company” etc) you have to actually use the technologies yourselves. For example, which large consultancies run their enterprise systems entirely in the browser, have a mobile first strategy, or invest in user experience for their systems?

    Most of the major consultancies (and their clients) are only now waking up to the promise of the Cloud, with some migration programmes for their own data centres. The desktop still feels like it has a way to go, and even though AI is talked about as being the electricity along which business will run; in our experience AI is almost nowhere in consulting and looks like it will take a while to get there.

    They suffer from the same issues as the large institutions they are advising. They don’t have senior technical leadership on their boards. They have come to rely on standardisation, the wall of service desk and when not saving money, are motivated to maintain security with little consideration for internal innovation.

  2. The Culture of a digital consultancy should be fundamentally different to that of a classical consultancy. We believe that the Digital agenda is about finding “Move 37 Moments for our clients. These are moments where a business is transformed by thinking of radically new ways to operate. To find these Moments, an organisation’s culture needs to support experimentation, challenge assumptions and tolerate failure. Consulting firms need to learn this lesson as much as the institutions they advise.

    Innovation, doesn’t come topdown, it comes from people at the coal face - the people who see the problems. Therefore, a digital culture must support experimentation in all areas, and the framework to roll out innovations to the rest of the organisation.

These two factors show why the culture is a critical weapon in the armoury of any consulting firm. We have built MV37 from the ground up, to specifically address how we operate and how we deliver “Move 37 Moments” to our customers.

For more information on the Culture at MV37 please see We will publish our “Culture Deck” in the coming months and will be evolving it constantly as we experiment and grow our Emerging Technology business.

Richard Miller