The grass is always greener on the other side of the hill, they say. But of course they mean that the benefits of a move might prove illusory. A recent trend in the IT world has seen senior staff moving to and fro between consultancies and public and private sector clients, sometimes permanently, sometimes by secondment.
But what do people gain from the experience? Do they enjoy it? Is it good for their CVs? Are their new insights real - and worth the upheaval? And from a business perspective, do clients get better work out of consultants if they themselves have done a stint in consultancy? And vice versa, does a period in manufacturing, retail or local government help consultants serve clients better upon return to consulting?
Ian Young is a senior civil servant currently on secondment to my own company as senior advisor on public sector matters from the Ministry of Justice, after five years heading the flagship Criminal Justice IT Programme. One post-move surprise, he says, was the amount of work behind the scenes to present a joined-up service to government, pulling together all the disparate areas of expertise that a major consultancy must offer to present a seamless face to the client.
‘This was invisible to me as a civil servant', he says, ‘and has hugely expanded my knowledge of what consultancies need to do - and know - to give of their best to Her Majesty's Government.' Young wants to see more secondments between government and consultancies - especially at senior level. ‘Consultants need to appreciate the real drivers and motivations behind change programmes, and to do this they need to operate at a level where they can understand and influence the decisions made.'
Nick Jackson (pictured) has moved in the opposite direction, from executive consultant at Capgemini to a senior role at HM Treasury where he is tasked with improving financial professionalism across central government. Having seen both sides now, Jackson thinks clients dealing with consultants should ‘give more, challenge more, and expect more'.
‘Too often, consultants come back with a single plan that goes unchallenged', he says. ‘From my new perspective in government, it's clear that consultants must offer a range of options supported by firm evidence, ones that they are able to discuss and defend. I need more clarity and detail on costs and benefits, and more courage from consultants. If I'm going to spend £100k then I want the consultant to explain precisely how I'm going to get the £2 million benefits in six months time.'
Jackson also sees more consultant-government interchange as inevitable. ‘The professionalism agenda in government is key - including IT - but professionalism means experience as well as skills, so the public sector definitely needs more people who have gained the broad experience typical of consultants'.
Eddie Short moved 12 months ago from a vice president role with Capgemini to become Global Head of Business Information at giant multinational BAT. As a result, he now understands what ‘access to the business' really means: ‘All consultancies boast of intimacy, partnership, collaboration etc but in truth their face-time with senior client business people is very limited. They would do better to accept this and put greater trust in working through the client IT person - often the CIO - who is their mentor and champion.'
Now he is a consumer not a producer of consulting, Eddie advises his peers to ‘suss out which consultancies put their own commercial management ahead of delivery management, and which put helping the client ahead of making megabucks.' A careful look at track record and references usually turns up a clear answer, he says.
With lots of new insights, Short stresses that he has no regrets about his move client-side - nor about his years of consultancy experience.
Kieran Norris, CEO of leading European recruitment consultants Careerwise, agrees that consultant-client moves are increasing but disputes that the phenomenon is new: ‘If you look at FTSE 100 companies, you'll find that 99 per cent of their CIOs have worked for one of the big consultancies. You also find that either they are strong operational CIOs with great technical strengths, or strategy CIOs with business skills far exceeding their IT knowledge - rarely both.'
This has implications for their use of consultants, he reckons. ‘They must be unafraid to admit to gaps in their skill-sets - and use consultancies to plug those gaps. A top surgeon whose career has been in hearts wouldn't pretend to be an expert in brains, noses - or management. Why should the IT profession be different? Acknowledging gaps - and plugging them - is not a sign of weakness but of sense.'
However, says Kieran, consultancies are often too fragmented into separate specialisms, and too quick to ‘projectise' everything, making them hard for clients to approach. ‘Consultants need to listen more, reflect more, and take a longer-term view of how best to help clients. More moves across the divide, permanent or secondment, have an important role in increasing mutual understanding between clients and consultants to the benefit of both.'
All this is admittedly a small sample of views, but it reveals just how valuable moves and secondments can be, both to the individuals involved and to the organisations they work for. If more of us have the chance to stand in each other's shoes, then surely we'll find better ways of working together and building some mutual success stories.