Many important events—such as the Industrial Revolution; advances in technology; federal regulation of the financial, business, and health care industries; and the COVID-19 pandemic—have shaped the evolution of consulting from a fledgling industry into the high-tech, multifaceted field it is today.
The Industrial Revolution Creates Demand for Consultants
The beginnings of the modern consulting industry can be traced to the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s. During this time, the economies of the United States, England, and other nations began to change, with agriculture matched in importance by the mechanized processing of raw materials, such as iron and steel, and mass production of finished goods. According to the “Origins of Modern Management Accounting,” by Christopher D. McKenna, the “growth and complexity of the largest industrial organizations in the United States created a market…for the professional firms of engineers, accountants, and lawyers, which offered independent corporate counsel.” These professionals became the first management consultants (or management engineers, as they were known at the time), and their advice was sought after by a growing number of companies. According to McKenna, “this expanding corporate clientele enabled younger partners [at engineering, accounting, and law firms] to build practices of management engineering within older, larger firms or to found new specialty firms”—and, thus, the field of management consulting was off and running.
Marvin Bower and the Culture of Professionalism
Many consider Marvin Bower to be the father of professional management consulting. He was a guiding influence at McKinsey & Company, one of the Big Three consulting firms (along with Bain & Company and the Boston Consulting Group), from the time of his hiring in 1933, through his retirement in 1995, until his death in 2003 at the age of 99. His decisions as managing partner of McKinsey & Company (the firm’s founder, James O. McKinsey, died suddenly at age 48 in 1937) helped management consulting firms expand their service offerings (from strategies to improve accounting and manufacturing efficiency to advice on organization, management, marketing, and distribution) and develop a reputation for professionalism that remains today. As he told Fortune in a 1993 interview: “My vision was to provide advice on managing to top executives and to do it with the professional standards of a leading law firm.”
Bower created a variety of rules and practices to encourage professionalism. He required his consultants to adhere to a conservative dress code that included hats, white shirts, and long socks (Bower thought it inappropriate to show flesh in a business setting). Bower insisted that consultants use “professional,” not “business,” language when talking with clients. (For example, McKinsey and Company is always “the Firm,” not “the company”; the Firm has a “practice,” not a “business”; and “jobs” are “engagements.”) He also established the following rules that are still part of McKinsey and Company’s operating philosophy:
- Put the client’s interest ahead of our own.
- Behave as professionals.
- Keep our client information confidential.
- Tell the truth as we see it.
- Deliver the best of our firm to every client as cost effectively as we can.
After World War II, Bower, who had both a law degree and an MBA from Harvard, began recruiting graduate students and MBAs, instead of established experts, to work as consultants. Many firms followed his lead; Bower has been credited with inspiring the founding of many new business schools to meet the staffing needs of consulting firms and the business world. Bower also structured McKinsey and Company as a meritocracy by creating the concept of “up-or-out,” which is the practice of requiring employees to either advance their careers to the next level of responsibility or move out of the firm. This practice created a highly competitive, but also high-performing, workforce that achieved excellent results—and profits—for McKinsey and Company. Many consulting firms still use this model today.
Bower stressed these beliefs and practices so often that they eventually defined McKinsey & Company—helping it to achieve a sterling reputation for much of its existence. (Recent investigations by The New York Times, ProPublica, and other news organizations have raised questions regarding the firm's work for countries such as Saudi Arabia that have a poor track record regarding human rights, as well as for the advice it gave drug makers regarding opioid sales, which many believe helped fuel the U.S. opioid crisis.) The firm rapidly became one of the top management consulting firms in the world, and competitors took notice, integrating Bower’s business practices and principles of professionalism into their own practices. Today, thanks to Bower and other pioneers, consulting is one of the most prestigious and lucrative industries in the United States.
Key Laws Generate Job Opportunities
Consultants can thank the members of Congress for passing several important laws that have fueled the growth of the consulting industry.
The first major boost was provided in 1933 with the passage of the Glass-Steagall Act, which prohibited commercial banks from providing “non-banking activities” such as management consulting, insurance, and real estate development services. Simultaneously the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission was established to regulate financial markets and promote more extensive corporate financial disclosures. These developments opened the doors for consultants to provide these services, and, as a result, the industry expanded quickly.
In the 2000s, financial scandals prompted public outrage at the abuses engaged in by corporations (such as Enron and WorldCom) and financial firms. Congress passed several laws to address improper activity, including the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which requires higher levels of financial accounting and disclosure from all publicly held companies, and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, which increased regulation of the financial industry and offers improved protections to consumers. In 2018, Congress weakened some aspects of the act, especially relating to financial oversight of small- and medium-sized banks. The act has proven to be great news for consultants, as financial firms and companies have struggled to comply with new regulations or identify loopholes to reduce the effects of the act on their bottom lines.
Demand is also growing for consultants who can help large financial institutions, as required by Dodd-Frank, to develop “living wills,” or emergency plans, which will wind down their businesses in the event of a financial collapse. The New York Times reports that “firms are hiring small armies of outside advisers to develop the plans and handle the mountains of paperwork…[and] accounting firms like Deloitte and PwC and financial consultancies like Oliver Wyman and the Promontory Financial Group are all working overtime to land assignments.”
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 has also created more opportunities for health care consultants who have expertise in the digitization of health records, improving efficiency, and managing costs. Although the Trump administration continues to try to revise or repeal the act, there will still be a strong need for health care consultants.
The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 has created demand for consultants in tax, finance, and renewable energy/environment, and health care, among other fields. It earmarks approximately $79 billion in additional funding to the Internal Revenue Service over the next 10 years for use in taxpayer service, tax law/regulations enforcement, operations support, and business system modernization. The act also includes tax credits, loans, and grants to boost the domestic production of renewable energy and tax rebates and credits for households to lower energy costs.
Promoting Quality in the Profession
The Institute of Management Consultants USA (IMC USA) was founded in 1969 by 143 experienced management consultants. Today, this nonprofit association plays an important role in the management consulting profession by offering certification to management consultants and firms. The consulting industry is largely unregulated, and the institute’s certification program serves as an effective way for consultants and firms to demonstrate that they have met the highest standards of practice. Only 1 percent of all consultants have earned the IMC USA certified management consultant designation. In addition to certification, the institute offers continuing-education opportunities and a variety of other resources for management consultants.
Technology Changes the Face of the Consulting Industry
Technological developments such as the business computer, the Internet, mobile devices, cloud computing, and social media have changed the way consultants do their jobs. E-mail and instant messaging have replaced snail mail. Meetings are held using Zoom or other online video conferencing software. Consultants now promote themselves via Twitter, blogs, and personal Web sites, and they can be “on the job” anywhere they have an Internet connection. The Boston Consulting Group, for example, connects with clients and potential clients and employees via social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Instagram, as well as a Specialized Insights Web site (https://www.bcg.com/featured-insights/thought-leadership-ideas.aspx). Many consulting firms allow applicants to apply for jobs at their Web sites. In a matter of a few decades, technology has changed the way the consulting industry does business, and these changes are expected to continue at a rapid pace in the coming years.
Technological innovations have also expanded career options in the industry. Technology consulting was formerly just a small subsector of management consulting. Today, information technology (IT) consulting—from e-commerce and Web site design, to digital security and hardware and software development, to social-media marketing, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence—has grown into a separate specialty. “Clients are embracing technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, automation, and Internet of things to gain competitive advantages, and in doing so, tapping the expertise of consultants who stand at the forefront of such developments,” according to Consultancy.eu. “Consultancies now work with clients to design and develop apps, prototypes and intelligent systems, among other areas.”
The U.S. IT consulting sector had revenues of $665.9 billion in 2022, according to IBISWorld, up from $481 billion in 2020. This was more than double the amount earned by the management consulting sector.
Advances in technology have also created challenges in the consulting industry. Clients expect consulting firms to be experts on all aspects of constantly changing technology. “In an attempt to meet the mammoth demand for such limitless technology knowledge, some larger consultancies are now acquiring high-tech start-ups; mergers and acquisitions of digital agencies, for example, are fast becoming common amongst leading consultancies,” according to the technology company InfoDesk. Customers are also asking their consulting services providers to partner with technology companies and technology consulting firms (in a process known as multisourcing) to tackle IT-related tasks. This emerging trend toward multisourcing is forcing management consulting firms to develop collaborative relationships with IT knowledge providers to retain clients and provide requested services.
COVID-19 and its Aftereffects
In late 2019, the coronavirus COVID-19 was detected in China and quickly spread to more than 180 countries, causing hundreds of millions of people throughout the world to get sick and more than 6.8 million people (as of April 2023) to die, as well as massive business closures and job losses. In the short-term, the COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected the health of individuals; employment opportunities at businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies; and daily life and the job search process. It also had a major effect on the consulting industry. Many consultants were forced to work from home (telecommuting was already a trend in the industry, but it was greatly accelerated due to the pandemic). Some consulting firms delayed and even rescinded job offers, and many companies transitioned internships and fellowships to online-only experiences. Most consulting firms conducted job interviews and career fairs and other recruiting events online. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic caused many clients of consulting firms to halt work on ongoing projects and delay the start of planned projects. This caused industry revenue to decline significantly. Firms with strong technology consulting practices—especially those that provided technology-related services to government agencies and the financial services and banking industry—performed well during the height of the pandemic. On the other hand, consulting firms that provided services to the hospitality, restaurant, airline, fossil fuels, and cruise line industries experienced significant revenue declines in the short term.
In early 2023, the Biden Administration rescinded the COVID-focused national emergency and public health emergency declarations and announced that the federal government would treat the coronavirus outbreak as an endemic threat to public health that could be managed through agencies’ normal authorities. Although COVID-19 remains a threat to human health and life, the availability of vaccines and treatments has significantly reduced the number of people who become severely ill or die from the virus. Some consulting firms have returned to normal (i.e., employees in the office, client visits), while others remain nearly entirely remote or are operating under a hybrid (remote/in-person) model. Many consulting firms are expanding their digital communication and remote consulting services based on client demand.
In the long term, consulting firms that provide services to a variety of sectors (e.g., healthcare, information technology, financial, manufacturing, retail) will likely have better prospects than those that specialize in just one or two areas. Consultants' expertise will be in demand post–COVID-19 as companies, nonprofits, and other organizations seek to recover, rebuild their operations, and establish safeguards to reduce the risks associated with future pandemics, natural disasters, or other potentially catastrophic events.
- Agricultural Consultants
- Bank Examiners
- Business Intelligence Analysts
- Chief Restructuring Officers
- Chief Trust Officers
- Corporate Climate Strategists
- Customer Success Managers
- Decision Scientists
- Energy Consultants
- Environmental Consultants
- Financial Analysts
- Financial Consultants
- Financial Quantitative Analysts
- Fraud Examiners, Investigators, and Analysts
- Health Care Consultants
- Health Data Analysts
- Human Resources Consultants
- Indoor Environmental Health Specialists
- Information Security Analysts
- Information Technology Consultants
- Information Technology Security Consultants
- Internet Consultants
- Internet Marketing and Advertising Consultants
- Learning Innovations Designers
- Legal Operations Specialists
- Life Coaches
- Management Analysts and Consultants
- Market Research Analysts
- Marketing Consultants
- Political Consultants
- Press Secretaries
- Project Managers
- Security Consultants
- Security Guards
- Strategy Managers
- Workplace Diversity Experts