COVID-19 cements the future for gig economy professionals

28 April 2020

The consulting industry was ripe for disruption well before the onset of a global health pandemic. Traditional strategy consulting and the associated fees that come with the service have increasingly been pulled into question in recent years. Digital transformation established a trend in organisational change that is here to stay. The rise of the gig economy has forced established firms to successfully adapt their value propositions. It was in this maelstrom in which newcomers and independent consultants started to thrive.

But added to this proverbial teacup then came additional tsunami-sized factors in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic and global lockdown to create the perfect storm. In all of this, the value of management consultants specialising in change management continues to be stress-tested to the max to help organisations adapt rapidly.

Organisations need operational expertise to navigate the way

Think of executive teams and key decision makers in organisations as cars in the fast lane on Germany’s high-speed Autobahn averaging 160 kilometres per hour. The pace of business in the tech-obsessed 21st Century is so fast that executives find themselves in need of the most competent teams and data to prevent them from making a bad decision that might lead to a crash.

Keeping the car in lane at such high speed also requires a host of predictive and active safety technologies. The unique value that change management consultants bring in terms of their objective perspective can be equated to blind-spot monitoring, adaptive headlights and lane departure warning systems that keep the steering wheel of the organisation agile and pointed in the right direction.

The proactive investment into safety systems and mechanisms is therefore an investment to avert potential risks hidden by natural blind spots.

But now the uncertainties and volatile outlook for the next 12 to 18 months propelled by the fast-moving and unpredictable COVID-19 pandemic requires organisations to maintain the same speed – not on the Autobahn, but on a narrow twisty country road, at night, with a deer crossing after every blind corner.

Executives are increasingly finding themselves in ‘crises-management’ mode to keep organisations and teams adjusting forward. They are relying more on their safety systems than ever before.

In conjunction, consultants are advising clients during a time when they themselves may simply not have enough data to formulate answers and to predict what is around the corner from one month to the next.

Organisations expect far more from consultants and their teams than to merely deliver a strategy. They will need to put rubber to tar by bringing accountability to strategic acumen and implement a range of operational and practical digital expertise.

Organisations need results to flow from adaptable strategies that can be implemented now, along with the implementation knowledge to guide and facilitate teams to manage systems, processes and operations and adapting the strategy as risks arise.

Expert gig-economy resources

It is no secret that most data point toward the fact that the consulting sector has already been thriving prior to the pandemic. Think of large consulting firms such as Accenture, well-known for its digital and operational expertise. The format of retaining such consulting services is however increasingly starting to look different, with clients not only retaining consultants in the capacity of ‘consulting executive’, but they are also devising their own in-house consulting teams headed up by former employees of reputable firms.

With an estimated industry size of around $1.3 billion, South Africa is Africa’s largest management consulting market by revenue, and accounts for over half of the continent’s overall industry. Organisations will need to retain the expertise, knowledge and advice packaged in alternative formats to justify consulting fees during a time when every organisation is trying to carefully plan and streamline overhead costs.

With that said, a new external consulting team lead by a partner and an army of associates may not resonate with organisations in a pandemic and post-pandemic era. However, more cost-efficient, experienced and nimble teams and independents are likely to find favour. We are also entering a time when phased relaxation of lockdown regulations has been introduced. Therefore, we foresee that change management consultants may start to engage in a gig economy approach to work, making work more adaptable to the needs of the moment and answer the demand for a nimble approach.

Reframing who is included in the gig economy

Investec estimates that there are as many as 3.9 million South Africans working in temporary employment. While the gig economy in South Africa is mostly associated with proving alternative income or working arrangements, it is worth considering that the labour trends of independent contractors with valuable professional skills have not been studied in-depth in South Africa.

Whilst the South African government has not adapted labour laws to be as ‘accommodative and welcoming’ towards independent contractors compared to the USA and Europe, it is argued that market conditions in South Africa, combined with technological advancements to work from anywhere, have cultivated a growing number of independent contractors – gig economy professionals. With the pandemic normalising work-from-anywhere arrangements, the market will arguably be more welcoming to independents.

The value of independent truth during times of extraordinary change

Change management consultants are inherently mandated to represent the best interests of the organisation and stakeholders that appointed them – let’s say to keep the vehicle safe on the Autobahn, not protect the integrity of the driver, e.g. the CEO, executive board or any particular employee, even though those roles might be the consultant’s reporting line of authority. The entire organisation needs safeguarding, which means its overall well-being is the consultant’s overall focus.

Currently, organisations are increasingly relying on external consultants to fulfil this mandate – offering clients advice on what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.

If the data and analysis suggest the likelihood of a deer expected to jump around the next bend, the organisation needs to know.

The ability to facilitate challenging conversations with senior executives not only requires experience and emotional intelligence, but also an intelligence dubbed ‘decency intelligence (DQ)’. The act of shaping ethical change based on data and recommendations that is truly in the organisation’s best interest will be a key stress test for change management consultants in months and years to come as bottom-line profits are not the only metric that will count in a pandemic era. We look at job retention, business continuity and agility as important metrics of a successful organisation.

Change management consultants with a formidable and proven network of professional services spanning IT, HR and OD and digital leadership capabilities have the potential to become the designated driver to oversee the safety of all passengers in that vehicle traveling full speed on the windy country road.