The rise of the adviser

April 17, 1998

Consultancy is a growing area for academics. Ayala Ochert reports.

These days, it seems, everyone is a consultant. Over the past decade, the word has gone through a proliferation of meanings - a flashy name for every unemployed executive or anyone contracted in to do their old job. But do the changes go beyond the semantics - are there now more opportunities for consultancy work?

Broadly speaking, a consultant is someone who gives independent, expert advice. Consulting engineers, for example, have been around since Brunel's time, but the 1980s were famous for their multiplication of management consultants. Large firms were preying on final-year students, luring high-flyers with salaries double what new graduates could expect elsewhere, and promising intellectually stimulating and rewarding work. It has often been claimed that consultancy is the closest thing there is to academic work, as it involves in-depth research of a problem, constructing hypotheses and then testing them out in the real world.

But the analogy probably holds up better for the sort of consultancy work academics do in their "spare time". Lawyers, engineers and scientists are sought by businesses and governments for specific technical advice, or even to act as expert witnesses in court. But now more than ever, there is a large overlap between what management consultants and academic consultants are asked to do, and even some competition between them. Over the past decade, there has been an explosion in the number of information technology consultancies, and changes in legislation have given birth to hundreds of environmental consultancies, many set up by academics and often popping up around university towns.

Cambridge Environmental Research Consultants is a typical example of a small firm, set up by university lecturers and professors in the late 1980s. In demand mainly from government agencies for their expertise in modelling air pollution, they eventually had enough work to set up on their own. They soon found clients were more interested in their expertise when it was bundled into specialised computer models, so they now principally develop and support such software.

Economics is another subject area that businesses are keen to exploit, as Derek Bradden has discovered. Bradden, who is based at the centre for economic and social research at the University of the West of England, advises the defence and aerospace industry. Such companies used to call in large management consultancy firms for help, but dissatisfaction with the often high fees charged and their level of expertise led them to turn to universities, he says.

Some subject areas will always be more in demand than others, but Bradden believes many more academics could find consultancy work than currently do. "It's a cultural thing. You need the mindset to recognise that the work is out there and go and get it."

Although he admits he would have a hard time persuading Rolls-Royce to find work for his colleagues in social psychology, he points out that business needs are always changing. For example, colleagues in sociology are being approached to advise on business ethics and new company structures. And, as more accountability is demanded of charities, they too are seeking independent evaluation.

Universities themselves are among the last to pick up on this trend, although they tend to be sympathetic to academics pursuing outside work. But there are exceptions, with some encouraging consulting, coordinating it, handling funds and giving staff a cut of the profits. Such operations mean that places like UWE's centre for economic and social research gain a reputation for consultancy work, so academics need not rely as much on personal contacts.

Other universities market their collective expertise more aggressively. UMIST Ventures Ltd, for example, is a company that promotes its staff to industry. Where such companies do not exist, outside agencies such as the Cambridge-based Oakland Consultancy fill the gap, matching academics to their industrial clients.

For those mature academics who wish to set up on their own, help and advice is at hand from professional societies. Some, such as the Institute of Physics and Institution of Electrical Engineers, operate support networks and encourage collaboration between members, and most publish lists of consultancies. Michael Day, of Oxford University's careers service, encourages young researchers, disillusioned with their prospects of an academic post, to look up these lists and then make speculative applications. But he also suggests they broaden their horizons beyond consultancy: "Many have a prejudice that academic work is the most intellectually demanding there is, but they are often extremely ill-informed about how the rest of the world works."

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