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Tough days in the oasis: GCC consulting market grows up says Source

Desert oasis
Edward Haigh

Edward Haigh, Director of Source Information Services, talks about what's driving growth in the GCC consulting market.

The GCC must have seemed like an oasis to weary consultants in recent years. Clients may have had wild expectations about the timescales in which things could be done, but they bought a version of consulting — concerned primarily with the delivery of ideas and advice — which had long since been challenged elsewhere and which never really required consultants to move out of their comfort zone. What's more, they bought it in rapidly-increasing quantities.

It remains one of the most exciting consulting markets in the world. Small by global standards — our latest GCC report sized it at $1.9bn compared to the $39bn US market — it's nevertheless growing at about 20% year on year; a rate of growth you'd be hard pushed to find anywhere else in the world. But if it really was an oasis then its recent maturity curve has been a steep one, because the offices of Dubai-based clients are now filled with people making the same demand of consultants as their counterparts in London or New York. And their demand can be summed up in one word: implementation.

In fact the clamour for consultants to stick around to implement the findings of their shiny reports is arguably even greater in the GCC than it is elsewhere, and certainly represents the biggest opportunity in the region's consulting market today.

There are a couple of factors at play here: the first is maturing clients, many of whom have had their fingers burned by consultants in the past. Those clients will often be the first to admit that the fault for failed projects lies as much with their own failure to scope, monitor and measure consulting work in the way they should have (or at least to have reasonable expectations about what could be achieved in what amount of time) but the truth is that consulting firms were lured by the promise of a fast buck and, by their own admission, failed to live up to the standards long since expected of them elsewhere. There was, as one client so succinctly put it to us recently "some bad consulting going on around here." Asking consultants to implement their recommendations is, by common consensus, the most effective way to make them accountable for their work.

Talent drought

The second factor is also the biggest: an absence of talent. The simple reality is that organisations in the GCC are scratching around to find the talent they need to sustain their rapid growth plans, and when they can't find it they look to consultants to help them fill gaps. That's not uncommon elsewhere either: our research consistently tells us that somewhere in the region of a third of the global management consulting market is actually what those of a more sophisticated disposition would call contingent labour, and what those with a tendency to speak more plainly would call body shopping. But it may now be an even bigger part of the market in the GCC than it is elsewhere.

That spells trouble because, guess what? Consulting firms are struggling to find talent in just the same way that their clients are. In theory they should be able to pull people in to the GCC from their global networks but in practice it's rarely as simple as that. True, the continuing economic stagnation in Europe has led to a certain amount of over-supply that consulting firms are only too happy to have a home for, but that assumes that they have the right people, with the right skills, who are willing to consider a move to the Middle East.

It's a situation which is compounded by the fact that the implementation phase of consulting projects tends to be one in which clients are more demanding about the cultural fit between consultants and their own people. Consultants are expected to be able to work alongside internal staff, sometimes rolling up their sleeves to do the same work, sometimes playing the role of trainer and motivator. They have to fit in. In other words, what consulting firms really need to find are people with the right skills who are also nationals. And right now, for all that they're compelled to do so by policy, let alone the market itself, that's the hardest kind of talent to find.

The opportunity to act as body shops to a talent-starved GCC is one that consulting firms will not want to pass up — even if they'll tell you that their real interest lies at the purer, higher-value, end of the consulting value chain — but finding a way to do so is vital if they're to take advantage of the biggest opportunity in the world's most exciting consulting market.

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