Although consulting firms primarily help businesses, it should not be forgotten that they also frequently serve governments. Here’s an example: In the 1970s a team from a well-known consulting firm was asked to help the State of California figure out how many new prisons it would need to build. Before I go any further, just think how you would go about answering such a question. What could be predictive of future criminal trends in such a way as to determine the likely size of the prison population in the future? However clever you might be, it just isn’t an easy problem to solve.
The challenge was to collect and analyse a wide range of data that would provide a fact-based understanding of the problem and hopefully sufficient insights to recommend a robust solution. To cut a long story short, the team combed through crime and demographic statistics to understand what types of people were committing the most crimes and what the link was between these people and current / previous prison population sizes. Gradually, a picture began to emerge. A link was established between education and crime. The consulting team determined that if a child didn’t have the basics of an education by the time he or she was 9 years old, the probability that they would turn to a life of crime was close to 1. This may seem like an obvious answer with hindsight, but no one had established such a link before the consulting firm presented it. Nor was not a chance discovery or an inevitable one. It was the result of intense analysis of reams of data.
The insights uncovered not only helped the State of California identify how many new prison places it would need, it also inspired programs that prioritised education among the poorest and most disadvantaged communities. As a result of this study and the initiatives it drove, between 1990 and 2000, almost a generation later, the total amount of violent crime and theft in California dropped dramatically. Check the statistics and see for yourself.
Based on this analogue, can consulting firms help Defence Departments improve PM, procurement, organisational and management tasks? Absolutely. Wherever there are vast amounts of data, consultants can rigorously analyse it to make specific recommendations. That said, I’m just not sure that the Army is good at capturing, storing, sharing and enhancing accumulated knowledge. The problem from the Army’s perspective is not that officers in key positions are stupid or ineffective, but that they change roles so frequently. Very often the accumulated knowledge that resides within a department is lost when key managers rotate.
Consulting firms generally excel at bringing structure and discipline to the execution of key management roles and functions. More than that, consulting projects train key personnel to be more effective in their roles.
When personnel change ever 2 to 3 years, the collective memory of the organisation fails to codify key learnings, systems and processes that make the organisation what it is. In other words, the Army is not organised in a way that maximises the benefits of using consultants. Another aspect of this is that reduction in Army numbers has also seen a huge amount of learning and experience exit the service. Dr. Matthew Ford of the University of Sussex has captured this very well in his writings on this and related topics, including military innovation.
Of critical importance, there are elements of military organisational effectiveness that consultants will invariably fail to understand because they are not equipped to.
These are the emotional aspects of army life: concepts of service, loyalty, courage, the unique sense of belonging to a particular unit, determination and the very things that contribute to building of esprit de corps, that make soldiers go the extra mile in the direst of situations. These are things that cannot be codified or classified because they are so intangible. Getting a firm like Bain & Company or BCG or McKinsey to make recommendations about how to “take emotion out of the Regimental System” is dangerous nonsense. The Army has a better understanding of its identity than any consulting firm. Consulting firms should be used to provide the services they excel in.
One area where the Army can learn from consulting ethos is the “obligation to dissent.” This is the process whereby all consultants working within a team, even the most junior ones, can express a negative opinion or view on a desired plan or course of action. The process of expressing concern in an open forum allows leaders to explain their plans to achieve a better understanding, or for new information to be included that changes or improves or even cancels the plan. Within a military context, we probably cannot have soldiers questioning orders in the heat of battle, but at the moment we have a situation where any officer or soldier who openly expresses doubt or criticism feels they could be censured.
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