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Management Consultants: The Smartest Guys in the Room?

Contributor: Ben’s experience spans regimental duty and a broad range of staff roles, giving him first hand experience of the issues covered in this article.

Departments across the Ministry of Defence increasingly employ external management consultants.  McKinsey’s contribution to the Army Command Review is a recent example.  Talent from the private sector was used to assist Army headquarters in dealing with increasing financial and project management responsibilities; none of these the natural preserve of the Army Officer.  They are also used across each of the 3 services to improve structural efficiency and effectiveness.

Consultants are often experienced change managers, exposed to the most recent theories and practice of management.  They are specialists in niche areas with the ability to call on a global breadth of experience and know-how.  In theory, they are impartial outsiders with no tribal cap badge or service loyalties.

This impartiality is, however, questionable; they are not ultimately driven by their goodwill towards the Army.  Individuals no doubt care deeply about doing a good job, but they are still formally incentivised by maximising profit.  This is most effectively done through delivering follow-on work.  A perverse (although understandable) incentive, whereby one project leads to another and another.  At the start and throughout a project, the senior consultancy leaders will be pressurising their teams to identify follow-on pitches, to set-up side conversations and prompt senior Officers and MoD staff to recognise the critical need for…more consultancy.  Thus, it is not in the teams interests to simply, directly, and conclusively answer a problem.  It is instead to ‘farm’ the client for further project revenue.

A second issue is that consultants do not have to live with the beasts they create.  A small team is often working into the small hours, as quickly as possible, so that the consultancy firm makes as much profit as they can from the project.  The project output often forms labyrinthine structural organisation charts, processes and practices that are almost impossible for anyone who is not a consultant to decipher and implement.  It was probably finished at 4am by a 26 year old just out of business school.  When the Army struggles to implement the project recommendations, it is Officers who are blamed.  They lack the capacity to understand and the capability to execute.  The problem is never the recommendations themselves, and guess what?  Only the consultant can fix the situation, so a follow-on project to ‘support implementation’ is proposed, inevitably approved, and the whole cycle starts again.

Speaking to friends who work as consultants for a wide variety of clients, they believe they are called in because the client lacks one of three things:

  1. The expertise to deal with their own problems.
  2. The manpower to come up with a solution.
  3. Senior management willing to confront a challenging or political issue – and take the responsibility for solving it.

Each of these could be addressed through the creation of an internal military strategy team or military management consultancy.

Expertise

Leadership and management skills are fundamental for military officers. Management especially seems to be increasingly important the more senior you get.  Yet management theory is barely touched on at Sandhurst and Staff College.  Much like the Battlefield Technology Course at Shrivenham is taught to staff officers going into a technical or procurement field, management should be taught in detail and made into career stream in it’s own right.  One potentially augmented by Reserves with a consulting or executive background.  These specialists would staff an internal military strategy team or internal management consultancy.  The officers and soldiers of such a team would have a deep understanding of the way Defence works and more importantly would have to own and live with the structures and processes they create.  Given the extensive use of external consultancies across defence, such an internal strategy team does not appear to exist and is sorely needed.

Manpower

The current programme of sending small numbers of staff officers out on attachment to these consultancies is a start.  However there needs to be a return of service or guarantee that they will return with enough time to put new skills to use before being posted elsewhere.  This would ensure that the Army has the skilled resources to be called upon whenever, wherever needed. We need to plan our strategic capacity in the same way we plan for having enough Majors to fulfil Sub-Unit Command appointments.

Brave senior management

It is interesting to consider that to my knowledge no senior officer has ever called in a leadership consultant when faced with a leadership challenge.  Yet a culture exists whereby management consultants are quickly and readily hired.  Perhaps in part due to the seeming impartiality that an outsider brings as well as the brand and stamp of authority.  Our senior officers are often deeply constrained by political overseers, limiting their own capability to take on difficult management decisions.  Senior staff must be given the right to take difficult decisions – and be brave enough to face the consequences.

At a time when the Army is under pressure to find in year savings (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/british-army-cuts-threaten-crucial-battlefield-training-37m2pbc3k) Defence should not be spending large sums of money on external management experts to do it for them.  Instead, we should plan to have our own capable internal strategy team, who truly understand us – and are incentivised to create solutions that work, not follow on projects that sell.


The views expressed within individual posts and media are those of the author and do not reflect any official position or that of the author’s employees or employer. Concerns regarding content should be addressed to hi@wavellroom.com

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