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Business Schools React To Consulting's Digital Revolution

The management consulting sector wants MBAs who combine tech skills with business acumen

Thu Sep 27 2018

An increasing portion of management consulting revenue comes from digital service lines—data analytics, artificial intelligence and the cloud. But now firms, in the midst of a digital transformation, are struggling to acquire staff who can combine tech skills with business acumen.  

Companies are crying out for advice on how to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the digital revolution—and how to avoid being disrupted. Revenues of the consulting line have increased by more than $20 billion since 2016.

Digitization has been a big theme for consulting for a number of years, but it isn’t just the clients who are impacted. Technology is changing the way consultants operate, such as firms introducing AI tools into their workflows to reduce their reliance...


And while once the competition for talent was with other management consultants, firms that have for years enjoyed masses of job applications, are now fighting with tech companies such as Google and Amazon, and startups for the best and brightest.

Business schools have been one of the biggest sources of talent for management consultants for decades, but they are now having to upgrade their curriculum in response to the digital revolution.

Keith Bevans, global head of consulting recruiting at Bain & Company, says there is a huge shortage of people who can understand and use complex data, but who possess the core consulting skill set—problem solving, strong communication and teamwork ability.

He adds that it is now more important to work in multi-disciplinary teams, to directly lead the technologists. “That is much more common than when I started at the firm and it’s a very different challenge,” Keith says.

As a result, business schools are having to revamp some of the curriculum as they try to keep abreast of digital technology more generally.

Zoe McLoughlin, head of consulting careers at London Business School, says: “Perhaps counterintuitively, consulting firms are actually more determined than ever to recruit people with robust soft skills for their digital teams. The ability to understand complex information and communicate this clearly and compellingly, will be at the core of the value that consultants’ firms bring clients.”

She says LBS has responded by introducing electives in critical topics like machine learning and big data, optional courses in the SQL and Python programming languages, as well as creating a new masters in analytics and management for 2019.

More than 40% of MBAs at LBS last year were hired by the consulting sector, by firms such as McKinsey & Company and the Boston Consulting Group.

Some have questioned the digital preparedness of MBAs, who are sometimes said to be spreadsheet-heavy and rigid in thinking. But Stephane Ponce, global consulting lead at INSEAD, notes that nearly one-third of the business school’s 1,000 MBA students have an engineering background and 10% come from the TMT (tech, media, telecoms) sector.

“If you add the fact that some students have just [a] few years of experience, are as we call ‘digital natives’ due to their age and affinity with technology, I think they will be able to contribute significantly on some of the most strategic issues pertaining to the digital space,” she says.

To help attract digital-savvy talent amid what Zoe calls a “war for talent”, Bain & Co is stressing the vast training and development opportunities on offer at the firm, which bolsters the skills of existing employees.

The firm once lorded it at business school jobs fairs, but today is facing heightened competition from the tech world. “The brand and overall attractiveness of Big Tech is one thing, but the professional development often doesn’t meet students’ expectations,” Keith says.

Meanwhile, the company is also adapting to more cross-disciplinary working, and is working “smarter”, according to Keith. Half the work consultants do at Bain & Co has a digital component to it, and while consultants are hired as generalists they can later specialize in tech. “We have a broad ecosystem of digital experts and external partners, and people are excited by that,” he says.

Technology is ultimately the enabler of change but it is not an end in itself. “It’s the means to an end. You can have the best machine learning algo, but if you don’t have increased capability of people to use the tools and execute strategy, you won’t win,” Keith says.