Consulting in Development Sector – Attempting a McKinsey?

A sunrise opportunity?
A sunrise opportunity?

My partner and I got talking about the next five years of our careers as well as the small consulting practice which has grown over the past 3-4 years, starting straight out of college with our first degrees. It is only later that we both went for higher degrees, standing on some hard work experience and practical insights from having built a small business from zero to something. By the third year of our small firm we figured we were offering documentation, analysis and all kinds of help to non-profits in India (and then abroad last year) as well as to small businesses all of whom are in some way or the other linked to the development sector.

Well, you could say that about any company or corporation, but I am working with the popular/conventional notion of ‘development sector’- which includes aid agencies, NGOs and businesses who deal with programs that deliver food, education, healthcare, livelihood or any such service/support to the society. By the fifth year, we figure that the need for strategic as well as process consulting in development sector is a fairly good opportunity. Opportunity in two ways – the sector sure needs some good infusion of efficiency and speed and second, in that the sector is increasing by its value in terms of budget and role. Also, that at least in India, the sector in our understanding is in desperate need of high quality professionals who understand the complex challenges of a globalized world and an extremely diverse society which is being served by an equally complex governance and political system.

So, a consulting firm in this space could bring in the ideas and values just as McKinsey introduced in business consulting. They thought of themselves as ‘management engineers’ who would help corporations tackle challenges of growth, expansion, operation and more importantly strategy (more on this later). The space is as broad in development sector too, which today lives by the word of the international aid agencies of the governments or civil society groups of the west. We have a DFID, USAID, IDRC, the clutch of agencies from UN and ‘the bank’ and ‘the Fund’ dictating the terms, practices and ideas in the sector. From the random and scattered set of consultants in the sector and companies which are generally a club of retired boys from important government positions or ex-bureaucrats the sector has benefited little. A startup like enthusiasm and dynamism is what we think can do a lot of good to the sector.

The other concerning scene here in India is the quality of professionals who enter the development sector. They are either a consequence of poor tailoring done by the universities or people with tunnel vision churned out of institutions run by thinkers and intellectuals of a heavy ideological bent. It isn’t surprising that many of them then see taking the streets, endless paper writing and picketing conferences (if not themselves participating in those conferences) as their roles in the sector. (At least this is true of that old social service poster boy university in Mumbai.) This must go. The sector could sure do better with activists who also carry plans or could suggest alternatives, which is a rarity. For instance, all that picketing at WTO meetings in the US and then in Canada later (couldn’t do much in Doha) was a lot of action with no result. They could have been better organized and represented by their contribution than just a show of strength.

That minor digression aside, the small wave of management and technology graduates starting their own small initiatives across India in the 1970s and 1980s (PRADAN, BASIX, Development Alternatives, Barefoot College and the likes) need to happen again. In the wave of revival we need a marriage of business acumen and outcome oriented focus with ideologies, not just a flirt of ideologies with pseudo market ideas . A consulting firm could then help them gain steam, ramp up their processes and get ahead delivering the outcomes that they set their vision on. And that idea of ‘our success would be when we are no longer required in a region’ is absurd! If that is how you see yourself in a space then you are creating a self-destructive future, with which you may be fine but not your team. And this is happening. We feel that this is an interesting experiment we are on to, at least for our own selves and our success would be when we can bring in a change of dominant ideas of development which are often flawed in the way the goals and incentives are articulated.

James Kondo, who heads Twitter in Japan recollects this analogy that he was given when he joined McKinsey to understand the Firm. The insiders compared the Firm to the Jesuits and the tailors of Savile Row, who “unlike fashion houses and designers … are always in the background”. We find that this is already happening in development sector too. Like when our company’s reports shape practice and use of approaches in water management projects in a few states. We feel like Savile Row tailors whose ideas are shaping country strategy of an agency entering India. We see it happening when our work is used by organization heads in presenting themselves abroad as well as in India.

2 thoughts on “Consulting in Development Sector – Attempting a McKinsey?

  1. You have worded the thought of a Mckinsey in Development and why we need one quite well.

  2. Very well said, this is exactly the requirement in the development field. The challenge of implementing the management strategies and improving efficiencies methods. Because society development has real people as stake holder but in corporate people can be influenced their mindset can be changed.

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