Thursday, December 22, 2011

Five common challenges that Consultants face in India

The idea of penning this blog came to my mind, when I decided to take stock of my short but eventful stay in consulting. At the start of my consulting career, I got to interact with a few US based partners or principals (as they call them over there) and it gave me some insights about how consulting works in the US. My further interactions with Indian clients and colleagues tells me that India is different from its foreign counterparts. In this post, I will focus on five major challenges that consultants usually face in India. Before igniting the discussion, I must say that the list is not exhaustive and the challenges may differ based on the consulting firm one is associated with.  

Expectations: The first objective of the client and the consultant is to define the “scope” of the assignment i.e. what would be the deliverables at the end of the engagement. But “scope creep” i.e. uncontrolled changes or continuous growth in a project's scope, a major phenomena in India, comes to regularly haunt consultants and clients. Few reasons for inadequately defined scope could be underlying complexity of the problem, improper pitch made by the consulting firms or the sole focus of the client being end outcomes without fully appreciating the problem at hand. Another expectation that needs to be managed while working in India, is the imagery of business class travels and luxury hotels that one commonly associates with consulting. This may not be the rule in “price-sensitive” India.

Data: Getting accurate and adequate data is a major issue in India. If I go by the inputs from one of my US based manager, market assessment, feasibility or sizing assignments are very few and far between in developed economies whereas India is replete with such projects.  It wasn’t a surprise when I came across an article that said that Indian-based KPOs and analytics firms do an excellent job crunching numbers for their foreign clients but struggle while coming up with such insights for Indian clients. And its not a surprise that most of the blame lies with quality of data. The need for 3-4 types of ID proofs in India is another proof that data is not “proven” yet. So you may have a hard time drawing meaningful insights from them. 

Experience: Consultants, unlike scientists, don't invent new offerings rather they rely on innovation or improvisation to draw insights from “collective wisdom” be it in the form of knowledge of various team members or experiences gained through previous engagements in similar industries or by handling similar issues. With major consulting firms having less than two decades of presence in India and the country witnessing major changes in the intervening period, one may still be some distance away from being “too-old” to “know it all”. Similarly for the clients, their limited experience of engaging with the consultants is one of the major reasons for their apprehensions. 

Diversity: It is hard to imagine a country as vast and diverse as India. A sector may be organized and consolidated down south but may still be unexplored in the east. As the market matures, one may get an idea about a particular sector in a given corner of India but to come up with findings that apply to the entire country, one may have to assess them separately and independently. This would require covering the geography either as an individual or tapping into local resources if available. Different languages, cultures, dis-aggregated population, varying income levels etc., ensure that achieving the above tasks won't be easy. 

Openness: As a consultant, one has to conduct numerous interviews at the client end, participate in focused group discussions, touch-base with competitors and other stakeholders. But blame it on the pesky telemarketers or the consultants’ image, it’s not easy to convince the external stakeholders to spare a few minutes for you, unless you have a feminine voice. One of the major roadblocks, is the inability of the prospective interviewees to differentiate industry standards or macro trends from strategic or confidential information. But, things may change if you have a close contact who connects you with the right person. It could also boil down to consultant’s ability to engage with the interviewee but I would also attribute the lack of openness to the Indian culture of family owned businesses wherein the major reliance is on close relatives for critical tasks (read financials) or for sharing useful information. 

So, in a nutshell, India is undoubtedly a challenging space as far as consulting is concerned but if you have the right attitude, there are rewards to be had. Waiting to hear from you all.