Three Emerging Consulting Business Model - Research white paper

Three Emerging Consulting Business Model - Research white paper


After some dark years in the consulting sector, the sun seems to be rising again(1). Over the past years Sioo has extensively researched trends in the management consulting sector, culminating in a book about new business models in consulting(2).

Sioo documented the trends leading towards new business models and the type of new business models consultants are experimenting with. An open question is the extent to which consultancies engage in using new business models. Does business model innovation occur widely? Or is it limited to a few start-ups? What is the pace at which the consulting sector is changing? And in what direction? To answer these questions large scale research is necessary.

In the first half of 2016 Sioo, in collaboration with de Vrije
Universiteit Amsterdam, started a project to carry out such research. This white paper contains the first results of our analysis. Our key takeaways are:

  • In the short run consultants are satisfied with their current business model and they see little impact of new business
    models in the market;
  • However, the majority believe their business model is not sustainable in the long run and will have to change;
  • The reason for this is that clients and technology force consultants to seek new ways of working;
  • Therefore consultants are experimenting widely with new business models
    • The focus of the experiments is more upstream (how consultancies operate internally) than downstream
      (how they work with clients);
  • Consultants working in the private sector are more actively searching for new business models than those
    working in the public sector;
  • Both large and small organizations engage in business model change;
  • Three types of business models seem to emerge: the collaborative, continuous and instant model.

The sun rises over the consultancy sector, but it rises on a dynamic and changing landscape, in which careful experimentation with new business models is the norm. Widespread investment in specialization, networking and speeding up the impact of advice in clients coincides with traditional revenue models like hourly and fixed fees.

In this white paper we first sketch the background of business model innovation in consulting, before discussing our research approach. Next we report on how consultants perceive their current business model, followed by their view on the most important trends affecting their business. After that we identify which business model elements change the most and the least. The penultimate chapter describes three emerging business models. In the final chapter we look at the implications of our findings for the near future of consulting.

It is not easy for consultants to navigate a rapidly changing world. That is why it remains important to stay in touch with developments in the sector. With this large scale, in-depth look into business model innovation, we hope to help consultants in forming their strategy in the area of business model innovation and to give them some insight into the most recent developments in the sector. Because of the fact that all consultancies appear to work on business model renewal, we are optimistic about the future of the consultancy sector.

1. Business model innovation in management consulting

Ever since consulting came into being as a profession, it has renewed. Various phases of development in the consulting sector can be identified each with its own characteristics(3). Since a few years, it seems a new round of innovation has started. McKinsey for example has added several new business models to their traditional consulting offering. Some believe that the impact of these models will disrupt the industry(4). Sioo has taken a more balanced approach arguing that experiments with new business models take place and are necessary to ensure a vital consultancy sector, but that their impact remains to be seen.

Based on case study research, Sioo developed a tool for consultants to help them think about the possibilities for business model innovation: the Business Model Mixer (see table 1)(5). It identifies the direction of business model innovation specific to consulting in four core areas(6): value proposition, profit formula, processes and resources. By now dozens of consultancies, from internationally operating firms to local specialty shops, have used this tool to kick off their thinking about renewing business models.

The Business Model Mixer pointed at various elements that make up business model change. For value propositions, we found that many new business models aimed to decrease the time before the client sees the value of advice. Instant consulting is the extreme here: it occurs when consultants deliver tangible benefits from day one. Specifically around big data, firms like AlfaBering and Perkins Consulting aim to speed up the delivery of results. Lowering the risk for clients when hiring consultants is another element in the value proposition that new business models seem to target. This may mean taking a stake in the client, as Bain Capital does. The third change in value propositions we observed was the increased specialization of consultants. FlorPartners is a consultancy that specializes in advising the management of cooperatives in the Dutch horticultural sector. How much more specialized can you get?

Changes around the profit formula include a greater focus on shared value and the search for recurring and multiple revenue streams instead of hourly fees in one-off projects. Lower fixed costs and higher variable costs also characterize many new business models. McKinsey Solutions offers numerous business models along these lines that diverge from the traditional hourly fee. Subscription models occur as well. Putman Advies for example gives online advice about HR to small- and medium-sized enterprises based on an annual subscription fee.

In the consulting process we noted changes in market development, where consultants change from being reactive to creating demand for their services or even setting up new organizations that next become their client. The consultancy firm Dutch creates cooperatives around sustainable initiative, that next become their consulting client. Interaction with clients changes from face-to-face to virtual, while consulting roles increasingly include those of being a co-entrepreneur of the client in addition to giving advice. Finally in terms of resources new business models tend to rely on collaboration with external partners. Access to a network increases the number of assignments a consultancy can compete for, because additional
resources make it possible to bid for more or more diverse projects. Some consultants go as far as to co-create new knowledge and value propositions with their partners. Solution Consulting for example collaborates with a handful of partners to quickly deliver business and IT transformation based on jointly developed value propositions.

The Business Model Mixer is grounded in in-depth research into a limited number of cases. It is not clear to what extent the consulting sector in general scores on the various elements in the business model mixer. So far research into business model innovation has remained qualitative and anecdotal. A larger scale study into the extent of innovation is absent. We therefore translated the Business Model Mixer into a large-scale survey.


2. The survey and sample

For this study we developed a 51 question survey, the core of which consisted of questions based on the Business Model Mixer. Some of the elements of the Business Model Mixer were operationalized by more than one question in order to be complete or to ensure clarity of the questions. In addition we gathered information on the most relevant trends in consulting, the respondents’ perception of their current business model and some demographics. Most questions were statements that required respondents to indicate their extent of agreement with them on a 1 to 5 Likert scale. Where relevant, we asked respondents to indicate the business model used in the latest consulting project they worked on. For the majority of the questions a higher score meant a more radical innovation in the business model. Some questions were reversed, meaning that a lower score meant the application of a more radical business model.

The survey was web based. We approached 300 persons from two groups. One was the Sioo network. In addition we approached alumni from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam who graduated from the Master program in Business Administration with the specialization Management Consultancy. In total 143 consultants responded. For our statistical analysis we could use 104 complete surveys. Table 2 lists the main characteristics of our sample.


3. Perceptions on the current business model

A starting point for our research was to find out how consultants perceive the success of their current business model. In order to assess that, we asked questions about the current success of their business model and about how they perceive the future of their business model. Even though consultants are relatively satisfied with the financial success of their business model (3.6 on a 1 to 5 scale), they are less certain that their business model will be viable in the long run (3.0 on a 1 to 5 scale). Some details shed more light on these figures. Figure 1 for example shows that when confronted with the statement ‘My business model is profitable’, 75% of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed with that statement.


When we raise the bar a little and ask whether the respondents were also able to increase revenue or enter new markets with this business model in the past three years, 48% (strongly) agreed. Still a sizeable percentage, but clearly less than the 75% satisfaction rate on current profitability. It seems that consultants do well in their existing business, but focus less on creating new business. We also put the statement ‘My business model distinguishes me from my competitor’ to the respondents (see Figure 2). 42% of the consultants (strongly) agree with that statement, while 37% (strongly) disagree. A sizeable minority does not use their business model as a distinguishing element in the market, but the 42% shows that a considerable group believe their business model to offer something distinctive.

Figure 2: Answers to the statement: ‘My business model distinguishes me from my competitor’


Looking further into the future, we asked the respondents’ opinion about the statement ‘My business model will have to change to remain competitive’. Here things get interesting (Figure 3). Only 22% (strongly) disagree with this statement. They believe their business models will stand the test of time. A majority of 59% (strongly) agree with the statement that their business model needs to change. In summary: even though the respondents believed they were OK in the short run, the majority have concerns about the long run viability of their business model.

Figure 3: Answers to the statement: ‘My business model will have to change to remain competitive’

4. Trends

A second set of questions we put to our respondents related to the trends that affect their business. Their view on these trends may help to explain their concerns about the long run viability of their business model. The trends we asked consultants to rate were taken from previous Sioo research(8). Table 3 shows the importance consultants attach to these trends. We also show the difference between the responses of consultants that mainly work in the private sector and those that mainly work in the public sector.


In the overall sample, clients wanting faster results is the most important trend. The speed of change in business is such, that clients expect consultants to affect change immediately. Linear consulting projects in which consultants first execute lengthy research projects, than present an intermediate report, next come up with a redesign and finally start to implement, do not fit with this demand for speed.

Increasingly sophisticated demand comes a close second. Only 11% of
consultants claim not to be affected by that. Clients have become more knowledgeable, they employ many alumni of consultancies and face a more complex world. This ups the ante for consultants.

The impact of technical innovations completes the top three. Information technology is the big driver here. New ways of delivery of technology like cloud and everything ‘as-a-service’ lead to new questions being asked to consultants. The use of information technology in the consulting process itself is another element here. Big data and online consulting change the way consultants organize their own processes. It is through the use of such new tools and processes that consultants are able to meet the demand for faster results(9). We also find there are specialized firms who develop tools for other consultancies. Such suppliers to consultants may have a considerable impact in terms of time and quality of assignments. One example is Concentra that among others delivers a tool using data for organization design (see Box 1)(10).


Interestingly, when asked whether at this point in time non-traditional consulting business models make a discernable impact in the market, most consultants estimate this is not the case. The impact of new business models is not felt widely in the market yet. There are however differences. 46% of the consultants state this does not affect them at all or hardly affects them; 24% state it affects them strongly or very strongly. Combining this finding with the results from the previous chapter, we discern a logic. There is a limited impact of business models in the market up till now, which also shows in the satisfaction with the financial performance of consultants. But given the impact the other trends consultants expect to have, they question whether the current business models can be sustained.

This conclusion holds particularly for those consultants that mainly have private sector clients. Consultants operating in the public sector score lower on all trends save one: pressure on the hourly rate. This probably is a typically Dutch element as in the Netherlands the government implemented regulations that limit the fees consultants can charge.

5. Changes in business models

Figure 4 identifies the elements in consulting business models that have undergone the most and the least change. It shows the five elements of business models with highest and lowest scores. ‘Highest’ means the consultants indicate they are closer to the ‘Radical’ column in the Business Model Mixer, while ‘Lowest’ means they are closer to the basic column in the Business Model Mixer, implying the use of a traditional consulting model. The highest scoring elements show that consultants have specialized more and more on services and on particular market segments. The consultant that can ‘fix anything’ does not exist. In keeping with the finding that clients demand faster creation of value, consultants also focus more on delivering fast impact in their client. They also co-develop more with their clients, although delivering shared value (meaning delivering benefits for societal problems) is not yet among the highest scoring elements. Finally, consultants increasingly network and collaborate with other consultancies.


The lowest scoring and hence most traditional element is that consultants still are physically present at clients’ locations, instead of interacting with them online. The go to market strategy is surprisingly passive as well: most consultants report that clients contact them for an assignment. Finally, consultants are conservative in their use of revenue models. All questions about how revenue is generated are in the top five lowest scoring elements. The hourly fee still reigns supreme, subscription services are rare and most revenue is generated in one time projects, rather than in a continuous relationship (e.g. by creating joint ventures with clients).

Figure 5 shows more detail about a question concerning the use of hourly and fixed fees versus performance based fees. The vast majority (70%) of consultants use hourly fees or fixed fees. A minority of the assignments work with performance based fees. Nevertheless there are some notable examples of other financial models in the sector. Bain Capital offers a service on the interface of consulting and private equity. Rebel Group does not only offer performance based contracts, but is also willing to invest in projects. Dutch is a consultancy that helped to create a cooperative of sustainable fruit farmers. Its consulting hours were not paid out but put on the balance sheet of the cooperative as subordinated debt in exchange for shares.

It now has revenue from dividends, increases in share price, a small interest on the debt and, when the cooperative is really successful, the debt will be paid back as well. These examples show that risk sharing and performance based contracts are not confined to projects in which very clear and measurable outcomes can be achieved. A case in point is Fahrenheit212 that offers performance based contracts in the highly uncertain and highly volatile environment of innovation management.


Some people argue that innovation is usually done by start-ups rather than by large incumbents. We find no support for this viewpoint in the consulting sector. According to our data, small consultancies are not more or less innovative than large ones. They have lower fixed costs and collaborate more with their network, but this seems to be more due to their size than to their higher use of innovative business models. The profit model is the same for small and large firms. The idea that only small firms are leading the change is therefore not supported. Large firms also experiment with their business models.

Another observation is that for most consultants giving advice is only one of the things they do (see figure 6). The majority of the consultants are also involved with the client in a non-advice role, like execution, implementation, acting as interim manager or coaching. About a quarter of the consultants state that giving advice is the only role they perform. This underscores the idea that under the name of consultant many different activities take place and it confirms the idea that the boundaries between traditional management consulting and other business services are fading(11).

Figure 6: Role performed by consultants

Our conclusion based on these figures is that there is considerable change in some areas of consulting business models, but that it seems to focus mainly on the upstream part of the business model. When we would plot these changes in Osterwalder’s business model canvas(12), most of the change is on the left-hand side of the canvas: networking, activities, resources. There is change in the value proposition area as well, mainly aimed at speeding up the delivery of value and increasing the value added through specialization. Activity on the downstream side (new routes to market, client relationships, revenue models) is more limited or even absent.

6. Three emerging business models

It is likely that elements of the Business Model Mixer occur jointly. For example, when a company works intensively with partners, it will probably also jointly develop knowledge and innovation with them. Using factor analysis we studied whether such relationships exist in our data (see Table 4).


In collaborative consulting we distinguish two models. The first model is the closed network; the second model is the open network. In this network a fixed set of companies collaborate repeatedly on client assignments. Other consultancies are allowed into the network only after an extensive selection process. Solutio Consulting works in this way. Another example is Terra Numerata, the network Roland Berger is creating to foster the development of digital business models. The advantage of closed networks is that long-term and more intensive relationships lead to more intensive knowledge sharing, enable the development of value propositions that deliver value in the longer run and make it easier to collaborate because people build up social capital(13). In the second model, open networks, consultancies and other firms collaborate on projects in different constellations. There may be different partners for different projects, but also during a project partners may enter or leave. OpenIdeo, in which the Ideo design approach is used to solve big societal problems by means of partnerships, is an example here. The virtue of this model lies in obtaining a broader set of knowledge and higher flexibility in adapting to changes in demand.

A related model that did not show up in our analysis, but that does have network characteristics, is the virtual consultancy. In this model clients hand in the projects they would like to see executed and the virtual consultancy next matches independent consultants in its network with this assignment. There are quite some firms focusing on this, each with slightly different models or focusing on different topics. To name a few: Comatch, EdenMcCallum, Wikistrat, Hourly Nerd, 10EQS, Gerson Lehrmann Group, Business Talent Group(14).

The continuous consulting model often centers around data analytics and subscriptions. The examples mentioned earlier of Concentra, McKinsey Solutions and Putman Advies fall into this category. Their tools and processes are attractive for clients to use repeatedly, because of their ease of use, the fact that they are up to date or help with regularly occurring problems.

Instant consulting is the model in which consultants show their value to the client from day one or at least in a very short time span. The Great Game of Business is a nice example here. By organizing short running games, they are able to teach employees in a client company the basics behind financial principles. By applying what is learned in the form of a real-life game, the gains become clear very fast. Other forms of consulting falling under this heading occur when consultants are involved in implementation or interim management.

It is striking that the classical image of consultants does not show up in our data. If we look at the traditional leverage model (use of junior consultants, hourly fees and focus on advice only), we find that about 15% of the respondents work according to this model, but that they have made changes in other elements of their business model (like networking or new tools to speed up value). For that reason they no longer show up as a separate category, but are spread over the three categories of new business models. It seems that in the more traditional consultancies, changes to the business model are made by building on the existing situation and making incremental changes on that.

7. The near future: Multi Model Consultancy and the Consultant-Supplier

Our measurements were done on the level of the individual consultancy project. How does this add up on a company level? Based on the diversity we see in our data we predict that larger consultancies will increasingly deploy multiple business models. This does not always translate into new revenue models and therefore an important part of business model change may go unnoticed for the outside world. The increased use of the collaborative model for example is not always visible from the outside. Many consultancies using networks may still execute ‘traditional’ projects based on hourly fees.

Overall our estimate is that business model change is occurring and that in some parts of the business model it goes fast (networking) whereas in others it is slow (client relationships). Large firms seem to make incremental changes instead of radical changes. Given the nature of this development our best guess at the moment is therefore that consultants will increasingly operate as Multi Model consultancies, in which different business models are deployed simultaneously(15). An example here is McKinsey that offers several business models to clients like McKinsey Solutions, McKinsey implementation and McKinsey Restructuring.

The rise of such Multi Model Consultancies raises some interesting questions that are yet to be addressed:

  • What is the impact on the organization form? Do different business models require separate operating companies? Do they require different brands?
  • What is the impact on HR? Do different business models require different people? Or can the same person work in
    different models? What does this imply for hiring policies?
  • What does it mean for remuneration, promotion, incentives, targets, billable hours? McKinsey recently abolished their well-known up-or-out system for a part of their staff, for example(16). For their data analysts this system just was not meaningful.
  • What is the impact on existing client relationships?
  • Which risks occur in these models and how to experiment with these models?

Smaller consultancies face different challenges. One of them is the very high specialization they tend to have. Hyperspecialization, focusing on a segment and a service, is a way to undercut the competition of the larger consultancies. But what happens when your hyperspecialization is no longer wanted in the market? Larger consultancies may be able to build on other markets or products they have when parts of their market fall away. Small consultancies do not have that option.

One emerging option we see is that some consultancies focus on
becoming a supplier of data-driven tools to larger consultancies. It may not be possible for one consultancy to recoup the sunk costs required to build those tools, databases and software because these tools are highly specialized. A single consultancy simply may not have sufficient assignments to put those tools to good use. On the other hand, because these tools are highly specialized, they do deliver tremendous value for the client. The logical solution in this case is for companies to emerge that provide such tools to consultancies on a nonexclusive basis. This enables these companies to recoup their investment by selling the tool to several consultants. That is what we see happening in the market. Hence a new type of company is emerging in the consultancy industry: the Consultant-Supplier. The Consultant-Supplier is not a consultancy itself, but delivers high quality, data driven, specialized tools to consultancies that embed those tools in their client offering.

The landscape of the consulting sector is changing. In this study we sketched the current changes and the questions that still remain to be answered. In the coming years we will find out to what extent the experiments with new business models will be successful.


1 Tempelaar, M., H. Volberda, J. Jansen, 2016, Global Consultancy Index 2015, Amsterdam Business School/Rotterdam School of Management.
2 De Man, A.P., M. de Man and A. Stoppelenburg, 2015a, Nieuwe business modellen in consulting: Changing the game, Amsterdam, Mediawerf.
3Washburn, S.A., 1996, Challenge and renewal: A historical view of the profession, Journal of Management Consulting, 9, 3, 47-53.
4 Christensen, C., D. Wang and D. van Bever, 2013, Consulting on the cusp of disruption, Harvard Business Review, October, 106-114.
5 De Man, A.P., M. de Man and A. Stoppelenburg, 2015b, The business model mixer for consulting, Sioo, Utrecht, Dutch readers are referred to: De Man, A.P., M. de Man and A. Stoppelenburg,
6 Johnson, M.W., 2010, Seizing the white space, Boston, Harvard Business Review Press
7 Due to rounding, the figures may not always add up to 100% in this table and at other places in this paper
8 Man, A.P. de, M. de Man and A. Stoppelenburg, 2015.
9 Seipl, D., 2016, Emerging trends and their impact on the consulting model, MSc thesis, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, June 30th.
10 Morrison, R., 2015, Data-driven Organization Design, London, Kogan Page
11 Gross, A., J. Poor and E. Solymossy, 2014, The Western ways of management consultancy: Shifting from credentials to competency and creativity, Pannon
Management Review, 3, 3, 11-33
12 Osterwalder, A., and Y. Pigneur, 2010, Business model generation: a handbook for visionaries, game changers, and challengers, Chichester, John Wiley &
13 De Man, A.P., 2013, Alliances: An executive guide to designing successful strategic partnerships, Chichester, Wiley.
14 Many of the examples in this paper were taken from Santos, R., 2016, Business model innovation in neo-professional service firms, MSc Thesis, Vrije
Universiteit Amsterdam, June 30th
15 In other professional services firms the concurrent use of business models has also been identified, see Breunig, K.J., R. Kvålshaugen and K.M Hydle, 2014,
Knowing your boundaries: Integration opportunities in international professional service firms. Journal of World Business, 49, 4, 502-511.
16 Het Financieele Dagblad, 2016, McKinsey: niet iedereen hoeft meer naar de top, 5 februari.

Note: The above whitepaper is being republished with the permission of the author.


Ard-Pieter de Man

Expert in the areas of alliances, networks and partnerships. Consultiant in the strategy and organization field. Author of over a dozen books and over fifty articles in this field.

Rotterdam, Netherlands Ard-Pieter de Man

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