Mobility and social skills critical for consultants

Technical expertise is not sufficient if consulting firms are to be successful: social skills and mobility between workplaces are also important. This is the conclusion of a new doctoral thesis from Linköping University.

Svjetlana Pantic-Dragisic. Photo credit: Mikael Sönne

An industry in growth

Technical and engineering consultancies make up more than half of the industry in Sweden, and such firms are growing steadily. The advantages for clients are obvious: consultants can start (and end) their work at short notice, and bring expertise that the client does not have. In addition, they bring knowledge about methods and processes in other companies, which may be valuable.

In her doctoral thesis, The interplay between organizational capabilities and individual skills: Studies of technical and engineering consulting firms, Svjetlana Pantic-Dragisic examines the characteristics not only of successful consultancy firms, but also of successful consultants. The study is based on observations and interviews with managers, consultants, industry experts, and clients.

Even though the field of industrial consultants is expanding, previous studies have been mainly focussed on other fields, such as accounting and management.

Svjetlana Pantic-Dragisic.

“There are clear differences between companies. Some offer further training which may be more-or-less compulsory, while in other companies this offer is essentially only theoretical. In such cases, it’s more important that the consultants are out at the client premises, earning money”, says Svetlana and continues:

“The results show that the interaction between organisational capabilities and individual skills is important, and that companies differ in their level of organisational capabilities.”

Crucial concepts

In the thesis, Svjetlana Pantic-Dragisic uses the concepts of “swift transition” and “knowledge cycling” to define the most important factors for success. The former has very much to do with matching: What are the needs of a particular client? What is the corporate culture? It is not enough for the consultants to be good at what the client needs help with: it is also necessary to fit into the new surroundings.

Consultants often join ongoing projects are expected to contribute from Day 1.

“One manager I interviewed expressed this very clearly. ‘If you have the wrong piece of the puzzle, it’ll never fit – no matter how hard you press. It just won’t work’."

"For the individual consultant, this means that social skills are extremely important. A common cause of project failure is that the people involved have not been able to work well together. This is a form of ‘soft’ knowledge, and I believe that engineers need to improve here.”

Don’t stay too long

The concept of “’knowledge cycling” concerns the ability to transfer knowledge between various projects and clients. The consultancies do not, of course, reveal details of previous customers, but can even so use experience from previous projects in new ones. Are there case studies and general methods that benefit the current client? It is exactly this type of knowledge that distinguishes consultants from company employees.

This places a heavy demand for mobility on the individual consultant, who must not remain at any one client for too long. They must, at the same time, remain sufficiently long to contribute added value to the client and to gain further knowledge themselves. Most projects in the study lasted between one and two years, although some were as short as a couple of months, and some as long as ten years.

“Consultants must move around, to learn new skills and obtain new experience. If you stay too long, there’s a risk that you become too specialised and more loyal to the client than to your employer. Most managers consider that the maximum duration of a project should be two years.”

Svjetlana Pantic-Dragisic is convinced that technical and engineering consultancies will continue to grow, as companies concentrate on core activities. She believes also that the consultancies will come more often to offer teams to deal with the complete project, rather than selling individual resource-based consultants.

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