The Future of Consultancy could help consultants create new strategies to come out on top in emerging areas such as asset operation – if they take action

Simon rawlinson landscape

Last week I attended the launch of the Future of Consultancy. This initiative was developed by the Association of Consulting Engineers (ACE) with support from the Transforming Construction Challenge.

I’m delighted to see a joined-up contribution from the consulting sector adding value through better targeting of skills on new challenges rather than depending on legacy business models.

But will the Future of Consultancy make a difference to consulting businesses, and more importantly, will consulting businesses be able to implement it? 

Consultants have seen their markets transform. Automation and offshoring of volume design activities threatens the long-term sustainability of fee-based, output services, while events such as the Grenfell disaster have challenged assumptions about the assurance, value and benefit we provide. 

Demands such as carbon reduction from stakeholders will create a growing range of opportunities at each stage of the asset lifecycle

With the net-zero carbon agenda expanding at an unprecedented rate, it is vital that consulting businesses rethink their role in relation to this.

The ACE vision and strategy is clear – proliferating data and new demands such as carbon reduction from stakeholders will create a growing range of opportunities for consulting businesses at each stage of the asset lifecycle.

To make this work, consulting businesses need to combine skills in fresh ways as well as developing a range of business models in response to the needs of the client.

The present core of our work – designing and managing the delivery of capital projects – will of course remain a big part of future workload. However, the greater potential for growth lies in the operation of existing assets.

One could argue that this is not a significant change. After all, consulting businesses have been offering asset management services for many years.

However, such a view underestimates the pace of change in the world of asset operations and the way in which data could transform our ability to participate effectively in this market. 

ACE has wisely spotted that the development of the Digital Framework and Digital Twin concepts by the Cambridge Centre for Digital Built Britain could be a huge market-maker.

Linking data to assets, integrating data across assets and systems and basing decisions on predictive analytics is a niche activity mostly undertaken by specialist consultants. How big could that market be if all asset owners saw data, analytics and advisory as a route to better outcomes?

So far, so good, but at the moment, the consulting sector does not really have the capability to pursue this potential. Without action, the opportunity highlighted by the Future of Consultancy could be snapped up but the tech sector.

Thinking about the enablers necessary for competitive advantage is as important as identifying the target markets, and the one that intrigues me most in the ACE strategy is business models.

Developing new business models requires us to re-examine how we work with clients and customers and how we add value to them and wider society.

I’ve recently been working on the Procuring for Value workstream with colleagues from the Construction Leadership Council and Construction Innovation Hub.

A lot of our work is on finding ways for clients to value proposals that deliver different outcomes – carbon reduction or local jobs for example – so that it isn’t just the lowest price option that is selected and taken forward through a procurement process.

To navigate away from the comfort zone of fee-based project delivery to different models based on products or assured outcomes will take brains, money and courage

This way of buying services starts to recognise and pay for different sorts of value delivered on projects. Finding new methods of delivering and demonstrating value, increased capacity of transport networks, improved air quality, or even doing less new-build work if it saves on carbon, are opportunities businesses need to pursue to be financially sustainable and answerable to wider stakeholders.

To navigate away from the comfort zone of fee-based project delivery to different models based on products or assured outcomes will take brains, money and courage. There is a danger that in doing so, the construction consulting sector could waste scarce resources by competing against ourselves.

This could happen if we concentrate on developing similar solutions for the challenges of today rather than those that will emerge in a few years’ time.

So, a transformation in the business model may well go beyond how we earn our revenue to how we develop and test our ideas. Open, industry-wide innovation around standard solutions could be one way forward.

Alternatively, one-on-one collaboration with clients, stakeholders and their ecosystems could be used to access the data and customers. 

The Future of Consultancy is a timely report. It highlights a data-driven innovation trend already under way. ACE predicts that our future will be increasingly focused on dealing with the existing portfolio – maintaining, optimising and decarbonising assets.

It highlights how consultants can bring together asset knowledge and technology capability to make a valuable and valued difference. What the report cannot do, of course, is to set out how a business should manage its own transition. For that, the future is most definitely in our hands.

Simon Rawlinson is head of strategic research and insight at Arcadis and a member of the Construction Leadership Council