Are Consultants Transformers?

Transformation is one of those words that means different things in different settings. In the popular Transformer movies, cars turn into robots and blast away at each other. In consulting, consultants “transform” struggling organizations and turn them into great organizations that leapfrog competitors (or more commonly, make them less-struggling organizations that live for another day).

Among today’s major consultancies, “transformation” ranks with “digital” and “innovation” as among the most hyped buzzwords. Nobody makes a business more efficient; they “transform” an organization to compete in markets that are, themselves, are being transformed.

Transformation as sales concept is hardly novel among consultants. In the mid 1990s, I interviewed the leaders at Gemini Consulting. At the time, Gemini – a highflyer that resulted from the merger between MAC Group and United Research – touted “Business Transformation” as a holistic consulting approach quite different from the step-change, project-by-project approach of other leading firms. Gemini promised clients would experience a caterpillar-to-moth metamorphosis, with no chrysalis stage in between.

Through a tortuous series of events, Gemini flew too close to the hype fire and was subsumed as part of the whole Capgemini Ernst & Young (CGEY) IT technology play of the early ‘00s.

But transformation lived on!

Today, when pressed to explain transformation, I hear the same hyperbole Gemini presented nearly 25 years ago. Yet examples of transformation seem more mundane: a traditional media company moving to digital platforms (boring); a manufacturer implementing sophisticated supply chain solutions (yawn); a bank that mines customer data to offer new services (eh).

These and other case studies mimic the same step-change projects on which consulting has always thrived. Consultants are supposed to make things better. Consultants make clients more efficient and profitable, and hopefully push them further ahead of their competition. That’s why clients hire them.
But is that really transformation?

Let’s put to rest the notion that transformation is solely on the consultants’ shoulders. Nor should consulting firms tout transformation as some type of differentiator. Just like Bumblebee in the latest Transformer movie, a client ultimately decides whether to transform. And as much as consultants might say otherwise, they are merely facilitators in that process.

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Tom Rodenhauser