'Traditional' Management Consultancy and Service Design - strange bedfellows?

I am interested to engage peoples views on this site about the convergence (or not) of the world of management consultancy and service design.


My background is in what traditional consultancy firms would call 'operations', and for the past 10 years have been delivering to clients on process improvement work - usally involving process redesign techniques and occasionally whole systems analysis using rich picture facilitation.


Whilst being relatively new to the world of service design, (I have been observing its growth and development from afar)  and I am certainly not from a design background, I can clearly see how these two unlikely bedfellows are getting closer and closer.


I wondered what others opinions where on this and how they would feel about the more corporate side of the consultancy world preaching service design?

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Hi Alistair,

friends of mine are currently preparing a book on the topic of synergy between designers and consultants. They worked a lot with practitioners from both fields to derive a framework of interdisciplinary collaboration. I think the raising awareness on the consulting side that design can add more to a project than just making something pretty could lead to a lot of great opportunities for great designs. But it is also important to note that it is the *difference* between the two points of view and ways to think that makes this combination interesting.
Hello Alistair,

Thank you very much for bringing this up. Like you, I've observed the growth and development and also participated on the Service Design Conference 2008 panel on the topic "Service Design: Buzzwords or real value delivery for people and business?" where I preached the need for a service design business case. My professional role involves management consulting in the telecom and media industry.

Having a dual masters background both in business administration and interaction (service) design, I'm amazed that the two haven't met earlier. When I came in contact with service design a few years ago, it appeared to be the missing link between business and design I had been looking for. However, since then I've noticed that the conferences and academic papers seem to attract plenty more professional and academic designers than those from the business department or management consultancies.

I think design methods have a lot to offer in complement to "traditional" methods such as BCG matrices, value chain analysis, capabilities analysis, 4P and others that would be familiar to anyone coming from a business consulting background. However, I also think that this holds true the other way: service design would benefit from the inclusion of these well tested and well established methods. (N.b. that I'm not following the academic discussion on Service Design too closely so if this has happened already I'm not up to date.)

I imagine that traditional management consulting firms might on average be reluctant to adopt design-centric methods out of tradition. Design is, for many, something creative designers are concerned with and quite distinct from the analytical and process-driven Excel, Word and Powerpoint work conducted at your average firm. However: one need not exclude the other. I see many scenarios where the strict analytical work would benefit from the analytical/creative design methods where "traditional" methods does not produce as good output for the task. In my own line of work, there are some areas where design methods are very good contributors and other where the good-old management consultant's toolbox is a better fit. The trick is to know when to use what for best results.

I would be delighted to find more people involved in the "classic" type of management/strategic consulting and share best practices on methods. Also, I hope that coming Service Design Conferences will raise this issue to find more interaction between management consulting and service design. Service design might be spun out of the (industrial) design industry and academia, but I find it all the more interesting to see non-designers such as you and me to apply it in a corporate management consulting setting.

(For the record: these opinions are my own and does not necessarily reflect my employer's)
Yes, strange bedfellows that are indeed getting closer and closer - or are they really as distant relations as first appears.

I have been involved in management consulting (operations, innovation and change) and service design for ten years (though it wasn't called service design then) and the two, for me seem to be closely related in practice. In fact, I argue that you cannot be a truly successful service designer unless you have both management and consulting experience, or you would never get anything properly sold in or implemented.

The converse may well apply!

I have noticed a marked difference in outcomes using techniques such as co-creation compared to six sigma process analysis (the latter makes existing things better, the former makes new things/services from old, in essence) for example. Whereas the professional practice and tools, approaches, methodologies, models and maps used by consultants are often great for managing change within organisations purely rational approaches do not in reality work.

As Daniel Pink said it's a 'whole new mind' thing - balancing the rational/analytical with the creative/innovative.

I describe myself as a reformed MBA graduate. Having completed my MBA a good number of years ago and also having a strong innate ability and interest in 'design thinking' I have seen the light where the two practices meet, and others are buying into it, but in mid management rather than CEO level, generally. I lecture/tutor at Glasgow School of Art on the MEDes post graduate course service innovation module and have also lectured on MBA courses as well. Interestingly these two perspectives and experiences highlight that the two disciplines are not really that far apart. Bed-fellows yes but certainly not strangers, different tools but both looking at an analytical base or research platform from which to build.

It's worth considering that Service Design is in effect a 'man made' phenomenon rather than a 'profession', in that it is a response to the design industry facing a dearth of products to design as the economy moved quickly to services. It was in effect a survival strategy and one that Ideo relied on for their 'replacement' revenue stream, as they transposed design thinking to organisational challenges.

It is also a construct of academia and academic institutions in response to designers of the old type (the academic institutions 'products) being similarly less in demand by employers. Perhaps an academic innovation but finding jobs for service designer in the UK maybe hard work - until the next chapter unfolds.

The next chapter, and you heard it hear first, is that the main big 3/5 consultancy businesses will start marketing service design as a new practice specialism. I'm forecasting they see it as a more credible, practical and trendy management tool that organisations will want to try. They will also see that they have a few other ways to use this approach to build revenue from their customers.

In essence traditional consulting will get blended with service design - and that may or may not be good news for designers - as 'design' will increasingly be seen as too important to be left to designers - as someone once quoted.

I am the corporate side of the equation preaching service design, but it still breaking through as a 'thing'. Wait until the big consultancies start marketing their new, shiny silver-bullet service design departments - we'll all either suffer or it'll be the best way to grow the market as they'll educate customers faster than they can serve them.

Similarly, brand consultancies, marketing agencies and the like are already eyeing up the potential as their business models are 'broken' and they need new revenue, and quickly.

I see service design being in the same place now that branding was in the early 80's.

Effectively I run a flexible consulting company that leads with a service design proposition and we are the only true service design consultancy in Scotland covering business, not for profit and social clients. There are some small time practitioners and it will be interesting to see where they are in a few years time without the consulting skills and knowledge but facing increasing procurement hoops.

All of the above is up for grabs as it's nothing more than my own viewpoint!

You have a lot of good points. My field experience is unquestionably more limited than yours, but I find your conclusion of "service design" being a reactive design industry/academia construction well put. I sometimes get the feeling it is a "Design 2.0" for academics to dwell upon. I also share your view that interesting things will happen when the Big 5 pick it up, just as I saw McKinsey advertise for "branding experts" a few years ago. (If you say SD is now where branding was in the early eighties, I guess it'll be 20 years for that to happen..)

Until service design picks up steam in mainstream management consulting, I would much like to share best practices with those of you combining the two. @zacharyparadis shared some additional pointers on Twitter with me: http://twitter.com/zacharyparadis/statuses/10525627986.
Thanks Erik. The problem traditional consultancies have right now are their suites of propositions may be in demand decline, as with any product service lifecycle. Because this may be fairly rapid I think they'll pick up SD quite quickly and possibly set up whole new practice areas -but I'm only forecasting!

I like the Design 2.0 analogy and I do agree. Interestingly SD is also heading for SD 2.0 which I see as being focussed on two things. Firstly the ability of SD to influence real organisational strategy (not just departmental or service strategy and secondly the ability of those providing SD services to upskill an organisations employees. This upskilling is interesting because it may take the form of helping people to act and be designers not just think like designers e.g. got an idea well, well that's enough thinking - go do/rapid prototype and get feedback!

SD best practice may be a bit of a misnomer - the skills of the designer are to do the insight part, choose an approach for the project and apply tools (many of which are tools borrowed from other walks of business creativity, pyschology and the like). The tools are a commoditiy, can be found free on the internet and are easily applied.

The key skills are the order, way and quality of application - you need to be a great facilitator as well.

You can catch me on twitter at www.twitter.com/crossborder - but I do twitter about bikes alot to.
I’ve just come across this conversation and couldn’t help but pick up on the reference to branding (having been in this business myself for quite some years now).

I have to own up that the whole area of ‘service design’ as a discipline is pretty new to me (though I’m doing my best to learn more about it. The Wenovski discussion forums contain a deep pool of ideas contributed by experienced SD practitioners that help novitiates like yours truly orientate themselves to the subject).

Like Erik and David, I also believe that ‘traditional’ management consultancies will quickly adopt SD as part of their value-added toolbox in the same way they co-opted branding as 'another' part of their portfolio.

Having said that, my experience with the MCs is that analytics (the rational) tend to predominate at the expense of the behavioural (emotive) side of the brand equation. That may change since the recent economic downturn has brought ‘animal spirits’ and behavioural economics back into focus rather than dependence on pure play statistical economic modeling.

But my guess is that a similar fate awaits SD: the ‘process’ side may well become more appealing and important to MCs than the behavioural dimension. In this respect it’s interesting that David refers to Daniel Pink’s ‘A Whole New Mind’: Pink’s ‘Conceptual Age’ requires both ‘high concept’ and ‘high touch’, but I’m not so sure the MCs are so much on board – or even culturally attuned – to take on the latter though they will excel at the former.

On the other hand, the ‘traditional’ brand consultancies have done a magician’s job in assimilating management thinking and tools of the sort mentioned by Erik into their portfolios as well. They balance (or try to) 'high concept' and 'high touch' , and it's here I think they have an advantage over MCs.

SD fits perfectly well into the knowledge and application armory of a brand consultancy, especially applied to brand in the B2B service industries. Since the 1980s ‘branding’ has become a very elastic definition of what brand consultancies actually do.

We’ve moved beyond the limiting concepts of brand as logos and advertising (a forward movement ably and innovatively facilitated by Wally Olins, a designer no less) to brand as customer ‘experience’ that drives image impressions, purchase decisions, customer loyalty and ultimately present and future value. Although this is a simplification, the point is made to exemplify why SD is a perfect fit for brand consultancies, rather than management consultancies.

It’s not too much to say that branding as a concept and profession has arrived at what I would call ‘holistic plasticity’: the absorption of inter-disciplinary skills and thinking under a formerly limiting umbrella description (logos and advertising). I guess we might call it synthesis.

Dare I venture an educated guess that the BCs will – with their internal creative expertise and their antenna constantly probing consumer/customer culture – absorb SD practice (as it evolves) far more quickly, assuredly, and with less compromises (or loss of integrity) along the way than MCs?

Besides which, market and organisation-oriented SD has to (either it does now, or will need to) contend with Web 2.0 and social media and their impact on all brand stakeholders. BCs are alive to this erosion of boundaries between brands, organisations and stakeholders - and the creative opportunities they present - whereas MCs probably less so.

In sum, SD applied to design in the B2B branding sector (where brand identity should be driving brand image - not the other way round as was the case, and still is even today) has a great deal to contribute and indeed in some cases, displace (unless I have misread what SD stands for).

It is an exciting area to be involved in.

You make some really good points David.


I started life as a Product Designer before going up the promotional ladder and increasingly becoming a manager and administrator, eventually being sent off to do an MBA as part of my leadership development programme before moving into executive management. The latter served to pack my brain with logic and rational thinking, but that never really overtook my creative design oriented side. After gaining my MBA I moved off to Management Consulting - first in operations and service design, where I sometimes caused consternation because I challenged the simplistic process improvement methodology and this led me gradually into more strategy work where it was possible to be more influential in exploring radical reinvention within the process. Setting up my own firm allowed me to move even deeper into focusing on Business and Service Design as these have grown.

Interestingly the consulting firms with whom I have worked were focused on creating and implementing sustainable change for clients, and this meant I learned to use a lot of soft skills and change management tools and techniques alongside the harder analytical tools. This is the same approach as co-design. The basic tool-bag helps by providing a framework - but observation, listening, insight, facilitating others to think and create ideas, and drawing on a wide range of examples from different countries, industries, etc, all come from maintaining an enquiring and design-thinking mind, and an ability to think creatively. But I also think that having an MBA provides in-depth understanding and a vocabulary that business leaders can understand, and this makes it easier to engage with them to help them develop the strategic business case for adopting new business and service models, whereas in some recent cases I have found pure service designers struggle with this aspect.


Interestingly I am trying to get my old business school to recognise that the next generation of MBA's would benefit from learning design thinking and service design approaches, a la Stanford Design School, but finding it difficult to convince the predominant logical rational thinkers to change - even those within the field of operations management and organisational design. Likewise I predict that most mainstream consultancies will not foresee the need to embrace service design until they find that other niche consultancies like yours and mine are winning work from them, and at this point their typical response will be to buy the competition up?




Hi James

Have you seen this paper on Succeeding through Service Innovation - http://www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/ssme/documents/ssme_discussion_final.pdf - prepared by the Cambridge Uni Institute for Manufacturing and IBM.  It makes the case for a new type of Masters qualification; one based on Service Science, Management, Engineering AND Design, or SSMED for short. The report has powerful academic, industry and government backers in the UK and USA, so expect to see movement in ths area soon.

Graham Hill
Customer-centric Innovator

PS. I started my career as a biological scientist, moved through operations research to management consultancy (partner at PwC), before adopting frameworks and tools from design thinking wholesale in mywork on value co-creation. It isn't so much that MC and SD are coming together, but that they are borrowing from each others' frameworks, tools and approaches to business improvement. This is where the real value of any collaboration lies.

Hello Alistair,

I completely agree with you. I am an ICT Management Consultant and see a great lack of well designed ICT services. It turns out that companies are really enthousiastic when they hear that we incorporate service design in our work.

Me joining this network shows that times are changing :-)
I just tried to set up a group for IT Service design (look under groups). I believe this is an area that needs more work. ITIL Service Design seems to miss the most important elements of service design. It is very technical and inward oriented activity. ITIL does not recognize sales and marketing but tries to design service lifecycle. There seems to be a disconnect between real service design and IT service management.
Picking up on a point made during this thread about the benefit of the analytical approaches of management consultants being adopted in service design. For me the critical point of the analysis is the conclusions you arrive at - so basically how you end up interpreting the data. MCs have a way of training juniors to use a handful of 'tricks' (Porter's 5 forces, profit curves etc.) The thing is that all of these ways of drawing conclusions have an underlying value frame which I believe that MC's don't challenge. I think designers could just as effectively use these tools and come to entirely different conclusions simply because they pay attention to different things than MCs (for example to relationships within the data and consider the human implications beyond the narrow scope applied by most MCs).

There are a few areas which I perceive would result in challenges for integrating service design with management consultancy practices and vice-versa - would be curious to hear your thoughts as to whether they are indeed challenges or not.

Going beyond cognitive thinking - Even if McKinsey and others are preaching the benefits of service design or better leveraging 2.0, their language and approach continues to stay at cognition. At least what I've seen in service design process is that if you don't go beyond cognition, it doesn't work. So even if there are some positive aspects of management consultancies picking up on service design, if it doesn't go beyond cognitive approaches I don't think customers will see a difference and it could in fact even be damaging to the reputation of service designers.

Business model differences - I'm not entirely sure if there are that many major differences behind the business models that would make it difficult to integrate different practices. For example, what are the differences in the sales cycles? Cash flow driven vs investment driven? How much are offers tailored vs standardized?

Some points which I think that both sets of practitioners should consider:

Understanding context to determine which tool best serves the purpose - when you use tools you can become more caught up in the tool itself rather than seeing if the tool you want to use is actually the best one. I believe this is true in both fields - expanding the ability to see and understand context is a competency that I don't feel is necessarily embedded in either practice.

Co-creation vs expert knowledge - One of the major challenges I've seen when working with design teams is that they cannot work as teammates! The designer is the 'king/queen' and surrounds themselves with others who bow to their greatness. Then anyone who is not a designer by profession/training is cast aside. I think it's also true in the somewhat arrogant manner of MCs when essentially they work with clients 'borrowing their watch to tell them the time' and focus on telling the client what to do rather than tapping their intelligence. I also see this as an ability that isn't necessarily naturally embedded in designers or MCs.
Hello Araz,

My job as a mangement consultant is mainly in the "hardcore" ICT area. It is an area that is very much ruled by cognition. Customers are not important, but routers, switches and servers are. Designing services is mainly a technology push. Our counterparts on the customer side (key users) are very often also tech minded. ICT is often too complex and user unfriendly.
Good thing is that the time has gone when selling ICT was like selling magic. ICT has to be usable. That is one of the major drivers for us to change things.

We introduced service design as a way to reverse the way of thinking about and designing ICT services and start with the customer in mind. That leads to co-operation, some frowns from frustrated techheads and better services. And the fun part is: It makes my job as a consultant more fun too!



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