Let’s start with the old consulting answer – it depends. Most firms, particularly the larger ones, are broken down by industry and by solution offerings. These solution or service lines often are some variation of (1) Strategy and Operations, (2) Human Capital, and (3) Technology. Nearly every project that you work on will have some sort of strategy or process element, a people side, and a technology component. When considering which business line is right for you, start by asking yourself how you approach a problem. Do you see a problem as fundamentally a function of the processes behind that problem? Do you find that if people are effective, the problem is resolved? Do you feel that technology provides the right solution?
- Strategy and Operations (S&O): Process Drives Results
These projects tend to be very analytical and focusing on developing the right strategy, objectives, and supporting actions to achieve a desired result. S&O projects tend to be about optimizing processes or building a plan that incrementally moves an organization towards its goals. S&O consultants tend to be very methodical and metric-driven. They are analytical and look for quantitative and qualitative data to evaluate the current state of the effort and to help them shape the future state of the organization. Common S&O projects may include helping an organization build a 3-5 year strategic plan that prioritizes actions and resources, reviewing a process and identifying areas of waste or ways the process could be re-engineered to operate more efficiently, reviewing market share and evaluating prospective mergers and acquisitions or market growth strategies to increase market share.
- Human Capital: It’s All About the People
These projects focus much more on the behavioral and qualitative side and tend to focus on how to attract, select, recruit, train, promote, and incentivize people to perform. Human capital consultants look at projects from a people-centered lens and there is a lot of psychology, empathy, and communication associated with these projects. While all consultants need to exhibit strong interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence, perhaps it is most important in this business line of consulting. Human capital consultants are often dealing very closely with people who are undergoing a change. Human capital consultants need to be adept at projecting confidence, proactively addressing uncertainty, and building coalitions to guide change. Common human capital projects may include determining the core knowledge and skills that an organization needs to prepare for the workforce of the future, aligning incentives and performance metrics to increase employee output, designing training and communications that helps an organization prepare for a major organizational change.
- Technology: Implementing the Future
These projects focus on building the right technology solution and associated behaviors to address a complex business challenge. Technology consultants tend to be agile with an eye towards human centered design, the ability to capture requirements to make a system function, and are able to iterate and adapt technology solutions to the customer’s needs. Technology projects are often under tight timelines with scopes that can quickly creep beyond project expectations. Technology consultants need to have strong technical skills and understanding, while also the ability to balance risk and project management. Common technology consulting projects include designing and implementing a customer relationship management system to track data and key touchpoints for the client, building a technology platform that helps document and track approvals and orders for a product, developing a donor database to track relationships and actions with current and prospective donors and prospective grants for a nonprofit.
I’ve worked in and across these business lines at various stages in my career. While I find myself gravitating more towards the people side of business challenges, oftentimes, these skills and understanding are complementary and mutually reinforcing. When you consider a business challenge, or even a challenge in your daily life, how do you approach it? Do you look for the latest app to help you change your behavior? Do you try to develop a habit or process? Do you think through incentives and how to best motivate yourself? When you read about business challenges in the news – which approach comes to mind? How would you have approached that problem? Consider these situations and find people in the industry to talk with and learn more about the types of projects they work on, problems they solve, and why they chose a particular business line of consulting.
About the Author
With over twelve years of experience consulting and working in the government and nonprofit sectors. Evan started his nonprofit career as a member of Teach For America (TFA), where he served as a teacher, volunteer, and in operational support and training roles for the organization. He has supported BDO Public Sector in the launch of their management consulting practice and has provided strategy and operations, human capital, and information technology support to government and nonprofit clients. At BDO Public Sector, Evan led efforts building internal practice recruiting processes including interview questions, cases, and candidate evaluation criteria and developed their Graduate Advisor internship program.