Businesses and governments facing major challenges regularly turn to the consulting companies to provide insight and recommendations. These may be large multinationals or boutique firms, who make their money by providing expertise and personnel to their customers. It is a huge industry. Billions of dollars are spent annually to seek the advice and people provide by these companies. However, not all issues that organizations face are best addressed by consulting firms.

There is an alternative to the consulting organization that is much less often used.  This is the broad network of professors and researchers in post-secondary institutions – universities and colleges. Why is it that we so rarely tap into the academic environment rather than going out and spending money on consultants?

One reason is that the schools do not market their talent and expertise sufficiently or in a way that makes sense to organizations. They don’t

have an army of partners and sales people marketing themselves to industry and government.  Another is that there is an assumption that those in the ivory tower cannot understand the realities of the business world. Exacerbating all this is the lack of the common language. Academics speak in conceptual terms. Business people use action oriented vocabulary.  Larger institutions, major corporations and governments, also have their own bureaucratic jargon. Without a translator it is difficult for the public and private sector to tap into the academic resource.

There is also the difference between what academics call rigor and relevance.  Academics want to deal with the larger issues, the underlying problems that have to be understood and resolved. Practitioners, as academics call those of us outside the ivied halls, are focused on solving a specific problem now. This difference keeps us apart.  This is unfortunate because often immediate problems have their roots is those underlying processes and systems that drive the organization. Without understanding the big picture we risk making Band-Aid fixes, only to have to return to the problem in the near future.

There is a real opportunity for organizations to look to the academic sector to fill certain roles in providing strategic consulting advice that should be more often utilized. Not only do academics have a better ability to see our organizations in a new light, they’re also a lot cheaper than paying the big consulting firms. The academic community is not the answer to all of the sourcing requirements of any organization but it is foolish to dismiss them as an option for these needs.

Organizational leaders should seek to build relationships with the academic institutions either in their geography or in their area of expertise.  It will take effort to build a common language to communicate ideas and understanding.  This should not be viewed as merely ‘overhead.’  That effort itself can turn up significant insights.  Having an ongoing relationship with trained professionals who have a different viewpoint has the potential to go far beyond that of the consulting firms. We cannot afford to overlook any source that can make us better at what we do.

Rob Collins

August 30, 2017