Matt has 10 years experience as a leader in the British Army. He has deployed operationally to both Iraq & Afghanistan and formed his opinions of management consultants while working in a 4* HQ.
Over the past year or so Army HQ can at times seem like a retreat for teams of management consultants, of all breeds, feeding off the latest staff manpower/ efficiency drive crisis…but do we need them? My view is yes, in small numbers, because as von Moltke observed (I paraphrase) “overworked practical men and women are often unable to squeeze the required creative juices out of their frazzled minds.”
The previous post on management consultants made the case strongly for consultants to be only really used in specific circumstances and for the military to develop and listen to its own internal versions. This is indeed possible but I wanted to comment on the three main points made in the post as my own view, whilst not a ringing endorsement, is now more nuanced. Regardless, as much we dislike their smug faces and ridiculous cost, these consultants do provide the horse-power that we as an organisation cannot / will not generate and we would be struggling without them as a result. Yet we should not be totally blinded by the Emperor’s New Clothes; there is much that can be done at the coal-face.
Taking the three reasons, my comments would be:
1. The expertise to deal with their own problems. To an extent. As the article mentions, Army Officers and Civil Servants do not have the continual exposure to the ‘white hot’ edge of commerce and some real expertise is therefore brought in by consultants. The most obvious areas where this has been evident are in the mixed teams of the Army Continuous Adaptation teams, the shock troops of the efficiency agenda. The measures that are being considered are in the main, complex and with a minefield of vested interests to overcome, all against a pretty sharp set of timelines. Whilst not personally involved, my observation would be that the consultants have genuinely helped provide the analytical focus and experience to help the MOD staff cut though the noise and dead-ends to get to the best set of recommendations.
2. The manpower to come up with a solution. We are terrible at moving people around in a genuinely flexible manner. The MS system, 2 year postings and the friction of CS Trade Unions make this a ‘wicked problem’. This has been added to by the removal of any spare capacity/ staff reserves. Initiatives like the Army Advanced Development Programme (AADP) are a step in the right direction but it is still only 10-15 officers.
3. Senior management willing to confront a challenging or political issue – and take the responsibility for solving it. Spot on. This is the most important reason (in my opinion) why we have herds of management consultants across Defence at present. Few of the conclusions that management consultants have endorsed have not been suggested before, they just never had the credibility for senior Officers to accept them. Expensive consultants get to speak directly to the most senior decision makers and given the cost (and experience and ability to communicate), they are listened to. It remains an uncomfortable truth that it is much more attractive to sell unpopular measures within an organisation by saying that ‘well, it was recommended by X’ after extensive study. This trend for ‘independent views’ can be seen across the public sector and the Military is no different. That said, our leadership do actually take responsibility for the final decision and communicate it as such…which is the right thing to do.
So what to do about it? Well for a start I would suggest that the above areas are pernicious and will take time to solve but I offer following areas of consideration:
– Management Consultancy is a process not magic. We have a Management Consultancy Service. Yes they are civil servants, yes they have been greatly diminished over the years and only number a handful – but they still exist. They are excellent at helping to undertake process reviews and to provide context on other parts of the organisation, they do get around. The toolsets they use are simple (as most effective things are) and across government there are other excellent resources to help decision support (policy lab/ Defence Statistics) that just need corralling. Time and awareness as ever remain the enemy of this but we can do much more to help ourselves.
– More flexible use of manpower. New measures such as the Voluntary Ex-Regular Reserve are not perfect but they do technically address the need. VERR allows us to bring in ex-military who have now left and gained relevant skills (P3M for example), and employ them for up to 180 days without being bound into other Army Reserve or FTRS constructs (both great but not suited for sprints). Funding is the ever present issue here in addition to the time taken to recruit, but progress is being made in trying to be (a bit) more flexible.
– Much of what we do in Army HQ is akin to management consultancy. People often find themselves trying to solve problems with no real direct personal KSE in the area. Instead they are using their wider experience and the views of both experts and wider stakeholders to analyse the problem and come up with realistic solutions. What they lack is the experience with the analysis tools and the data crunching. The answer to this is not just a wider proficiency in Excel (although our average skill there is terrible) but better education and training. ICSC(L) students will not thank me but they need to be hammered in MS Office…it is a reality of the modern world, not an inconvenience. Both of these will take time but we can also adopt structures that help. McKinsey for example have about a 50/50 split between business support and the consultants out there earning the fees. We may not be able to rely on such resources but we can do something. The creation of knowledge managers (a vague term but look it up and you will agree that you want one) at the 1* level is one idea that is being trialled. There are some excellent internal training packages that are becoming more common in the HQ and ‘SQEP’ness’ is being ‘contracted’ out to areas like the Fd Army on many issues so that those in Army HQ can be more akin to a pool of consultants, putting out those fires and solving the difficult problems.
Way forward. Given the scale of the efficiencies challenge (scale, scope and complexity), management consultants providing niche skills are here to stay and as long as the views of intelligent, experienced public servants are also listened to, there is no reason why that is not a good thing.
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