Building a more ethical consulting ecosystem
July 18th 2023
By Pilar Balet Robinson
Stone Soup Communication Coordinator and Principal Consultant
The strategy consulting industry serves all sectors of society, from small businesses to large corporations, government agencies and non-profit organisations. Although citizens may perceive consulting companies to be far from their daily lives the influence they have over all kinds of decision-making stakeholders is critical, from hospital managers to social service providers or educational programmers.
In the social sector, strategy consultants are expected to create value for their clients while keeping their independence and integrity at the highest standards. Consultants have to get the job done, be efficient and solution- oriented; they need to be empathetic, flexible and always thrive for the greater good. On their side, consulting companies must embrace a culture of accountability and promote a secure space where ethical dilemmas – so common in our sector – can be shared, reflected upon, and openly discussed on a daily basis.
Although this is the theory, reality shows that our current strategy consulting ecosystem – valued in 35 billion US dollars in 2020 and growing – is still far from reaching the highest standards. Even in the social innovation sector, consultancies often face endless ethical situations regarding blurred procurement processes, clients that want to influence evaluation analysis or even bidders that offer strategic skills that do not correspond to the reality behind their teams. The truth is that there is still a long way to go to achieve a more ethical performance in the consulting business. Many companies may ask themselves: is it possible to remain competitive in the market while moving further on our journey towards a more ethical practice?
The obstacles on the way
“I am an advocate of consulting work if it provides the right structure and is not used to replace staff work for the client”, says Manuel Pirino, Programme Lead for the MENA region and Team Lead for Thematic Initiatives at Transparency International. “Over the years, I have had the opportunity to work with many consultants, enjoying the fast deployment, the focus and the freedom to advance the work without enlarging the teams I was in at a given time, but this must be done following strict due diligence”, he adds. However, replicating the work developed with a client in a completely different project claiming it is original work is something we have seen around. Also, less ethical consulting companies guarantee tailored support but then resort only to standardised processes
Within a client-consultant relationship there are potential risks and issues that need to be addressed throughout all stages of the process. At Stone Soup Consulting we believe that ensuring a clear and independent relationship is key to maintaining strong ethical standards in our work. “Senior consultancy executives must know the sector very well to understand risks before they appear, to prevent possible external influence over junior colleagues doing the field work, for example”, Pirino agrees. In addition, for consultancies to be ethical there must be a transparent and trusting environment on the employer’s side. For example, public tendering calls need to be openly regulated and analysed; information must be accessible for the stakeholders involved all throughout the selection process.
Certifications and monitoring systems are important steps but they can’t work in isolation. Some governments and even the EU are providing legal frameworks such as the CSRD Directive to strengthen and increase accountability. However, there is still a lot to do. Consulting companies that practice values such as honesty, integrity or justice should go beyond themselves and share and work together to overcome the challenges, to transform the root causes of unethical professional behaviours.
The role of society
In Europe, the B Corporation movement is setting one of the paths towards a more ethical consulting industry. In 2021 they created The B Corp Way, today a platform with 63 consulting partners that enables large businesses and multinationals in Europe to find B Corp consultancies that meet their needs and can help them address the big challenges of our time. “We promote collaboration over competition. We believe in working together towards a bigger vision in order to transform companies on a systemic change level”, says Neila Benamara, Head of Programs at B Lab Europe.
Having a support system helps ethical consultancies to be vocal, to stay consistent and continue their journey towards a new way of doing things. Nevertheless, many companies will only change by force because of due diligence. But ‘having to do it’ is already an important first step towards change. “Our role is to promote our success to inspire others to join the movement. We need to embark everyone, especially those that are not convinced”, says Benamara. Bit by bit, B Corp is inspiring companies of all kinds to improve their accountability and good practices. Since 2020 the number of certified companies has grown nearly 30% every year.
The COVID crisis has been a turning point for most businesses, including the consulting industry. It has shown us the gaps in the global system and has enabled people to question the way we do things, to be more demanding. Also, we now cohabit with climate change and companies need to adapt to new social and environmental rules. Either genuinely or not, they will have to comply with – hopefully – a more ethical system that is still to be built. At Stone Soup, we believe that our Honesty Report helps us to become a better consultancy firm. That not just having ethical values, but also practicing them on a daily basis, is a plus in the equation that solves the riddle to create this new system. We believe that they are an essential step on the journey as they light the road and are key in our decision-making processes. The more partners we find on the way, the better. Ready to join us?