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WCoMC On digital: thinking and wisdom in an era of information overwhelm

Just because you can - does that mean you should?

It’s 30 years since my first experience of a ‘digital’ revolution – a home computer to program, write up reports and do interesting things (rubber keyboard and all). About ten years later came email and the internet followed eight years after that by the first instances of ‘social media’ (Friendster, 2002) and the pace of change keeps increasing. So what does this mean to management consultancy, our clients and us as management consultants?

I see seven key issues:

·         Accessibility of knowledge

·         Transparency and lack of privacy and security

·         Volume of data and its meaning

·         Volume of communication

·         Distractions – managing choice

·         Understanding challenges and opportunities – beyond tech

·         What people do better (and worse) than machines

Firstly, anyone can ‘know’. Knowledge has never been so accessible. It is no longer protected by a few people or organisations. It is widely published and shared, both formally (within organisations or sector knowledgebases or through training – often free) and informally via social networks (both structured ones like LinkedIn or informally between friends and colleagues, online and offline). A great deal of so called proprietary information is no longer locked away – so what does that mean for IPR and the value of knowledge based consultancy? Likely that your knowledge and expertise is worth less than you think.

This leads us to transparency and the lack of privacy and security. Notwithstanding continued breaches to systems and data (whether Wikileaks or big companies losing customer data or individuals not understanding what they are backing up to iCloud and when), the more open a system, the harder it is to secure. The more people involved with data, the more likely it is to be leaked and breached. Generation Y (anyone younger than 35) is much more likely to share – for good and bad. Opening up data to mobile apps means we lose absolute control but not doing so means we may lose substantial benefits. Terms and conditions mean nothing if you can’t enforce them.

The volume of knowledge and data in the world grows exponentially year on year. Websites (and their associated businesses) collect huge amounts of information and by implication (and their use of algorithms) know more about individuals than the individual’s partners and employers. Target’s use of customer data is so well refined it can identify a customer is pregnant before they even know for sure themselves – this backfired spectacularly on Target who sent pregnancy specific money-off coupons to groups of women who didn’t know they were pregnant (and didn’t appreciate Target knowing something so personal when they didn’t - ). Education consultancies are now mining publicly available data to ‘predict’ the results of Ofsted inspections with a surprising degree of accuracy – perhaps an extension of this is to do away with the actual inspection? Are we reducing people and organisations to mere datasets and computer profiles? How do we keep on top of what we actually ‘need to know’? 

The volume of communication can be intimidating. I long for the days of a single email inbox (with a handful of emails) and one phone and the time to talk. There are technological solutions to managing the number of devices and sources we need to check but the sheer numbers of contact methods (desk phone, mobile, multiple voicemails, emails, social media accounts, project workspaces on top of face to face contact) can make managing communication a full time job. That’s great if managing communication is your full time job but less so if you have to think and do other things like write reports.

This leads us neatly to distractions and managing choice. Ultimately it’s up to us as individuals to decide what we do at any specific time. Just because you can be ‘always on’ doesn’t mean you should be. Researchers at Stanford University have long explained the myth of multitasking and the misuse we make of our brainpower in trying to do too many things at once and not focusing on what’s important in the moment. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Choice (which is inherently linked to decision making and focus) is likely to become an ever more significant skill and one we can help develop. Here’s an area we can support clients with – cutting through and helping see the wood for the trees.

Understanding challenges and opportunities in a fast moving world is always difficult and this is where management consultants (and their networks of subject specific experts) come in. We can develop and share our up to date experience in specific areas of interest to clients – areas clients can’t hope to keep up with. Technology diversifies so quickly we need to use our core skills to scenario plan what we want to offer and make sure we are best placed to do that, ahead of the client needs. It’s about supporting the decision makers to understand things well enough to take advantage or leave well enough alone.

So what value is a management consultant or management consultancy? This boils down to what people can now do better or worse than machines (somewhat, but not entirely, different to 30 years ago). We know that technology can replace our interpretation of data (whether through simple apps which record data and produce reports or complex algorithms which predict behaviour and automate responses) and we know that technology is getting better at processes and sharing knowledge (saving money and providing a personalised experience). But we’re not redundant just yet.

In a world of overwhelm, we can cut through the complexity and offer our clients the time and space to think and reflect. We can offer reassurance of what we have seen work elsewhere (very recently bearing in mind the pace of change – nothing can be rolled out indefinitely anymore) and how it might change tomorrow. And we can offer support through personal service (mentoring, advisory, critical friend) and expert, flexible implementation as circumstances change, enabling them to get on with the day job. Ultimately we can help them choose and feel comfortable with the choice.

But in order to do this we must remember ourselves. We need to create our own time and space to think, to find our own critical friends, to cut through the volume and distractions, to recognise the need for focus and realise we can no longer know everything. Change through wisdom perhaps?

Freeman Simon Davey








Dr Simon Davey, Omega Alpha Limited,