Ask about the list of top strategy consulting firms and the answer will hardly change across the world—McKinsey, BCG, Bain, Accenture, Arthur D Little, Deloitte and so on. Almost all these firms, though global, are US-bred.
Are Americans fundamentally better consultants? No. Consulting is a tertiary industry. Primary and secondary industries must grow to create the consulting industry. For most of the 20th century, the US was the engine of global economic growth. This created the platform for US-bred consulting firms to build the experience, credentials and methodologies that they effectively exported to other countries. US-bred consulting firms are the missionaries of the American way of doing business globally.
Extending this logic, given India will be a key engine of global growth in the 21st century, shouldn’t there be a set of India-bred global consulting firms? Absolutely.
Is this trend already playing out? In some ways, yes. Almost all the firms listed above leverage Indian talent to support their global engagements. McKinsey leverages its knowledge centre based in Gurugram, Bain does the same with its capability network as does Accenture with its global network. Deloitte recruits consultants in Hyderabad to support its US offices in high-end consulting work. These US-bred firms leverage thousands of India-based consultants to support engagements globally. In addition, there are thousands of Indian consultants working for these multinationals in international offices.
If US-bred firms are already leveraging India for high-end consulting services, why aren’t India-bred firms taking the lead? The answer is complex: Since the advent of globalization, its rules have been designed to favour the West, with India positioned as a source of “cheap” talent, no matter how high-end. International firms have been quick to leverage India’s talent and cost-advantages while Indian firms have struggled to build against the tide.
Even India’s enduring success story, the IT services industry, is pegged as a support service at the CIO-level, instead of a strategic service at the CEO-level. This positioning has been challenging even for leaders such as Infosys, which has struggled to build a globally competitive consulting practice.
Are there indications that this trend may change? Yes, we are observing the convergence of a few critical change drivers. The Indian economy has grown to an extent that India-bred firms can build the experience, credentials and methodologies to succeed globally. As digital technologies become integral to every business, Indian IT majors now have direct access beyond the CIO to the CEO and board. Indian consulting talent, both in India and abroad, have reached a critical mass. Access to top-class talent is no longer restricted to a few multinationals. Finally, covid-19 has significantly lowered the demand for physical co-location for high-end consulting services. The benefit of co-located offices that multinationals enjoyed has reduced significantly.
So, what needs to happen to create at least five India-bred global consulting firms? First, we need a few India-bred firms to build scale and establish the business model. This will create a body of global case studies and sponsor clients that are necessary to build on this trend. That is exactly what we are trying to do in Auctus Advisors: More than half our business is already global and we have sponsor clients in the US, Spain, UK, Brazil and the Philippines. Second, India-bred consulting firms need to come together to form an advocacy platform like Nasscom (or perhaps Nasscom needs to expand its remit to include India-bred strategy firms). Finally, while covid-19 may be the equivalent of the Y2K event that propelled Indian IT to the global stage, we need someone to build and own this narrative, like Thomas Friedman did for IT services with The World is Flat.
Strategy consulting firms may employ smaller numbers than IT services, but the impact this industry can create is disproportionate. The soft power that an India-bred global consulting industry can wield is critical to India’s overall competitiveness in the global stage. India needs its own consulting firms to re-position its economy from cost-leader to thought-leader.
The time has come for India-bred global consulting firms. Unfortunately, the window is short, and we must build this narrative now. The competition won’t wait.
Abhisek Mukherjee is co-founder and director, Auctus Advisors.