Management vs. Technical Consulting

Consultants come in all types of sizes, shapes, and specialties. However, most fall into one of two broad categories — management consultants or technical consultants. While both provide services and advice aimed at helping the client, there are some significant differences.

As a consulting engineer, I am more familiar with the technical category. Nevertheless, I’ve known and worked with a number of management consultant over the years, so I feel comfortable sharing observations on this category as well.

Technical consultants are usually problem-oriented, and typically live in a “concrete” world. Most are specialists by education (engineers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, architects, etc.) with years of advanced professional education and experience.

  • Most technical consultants focus on solving technical problems or addressing compliance issues. (Think doctors, accountants, lawyers, and most engineers.)
  • Other technical consultants, however, focus on creating new ideas, concepts, and products. (Think architects and design engineers.) They all apply hard science, logic, and even art to achieve results.
  • Technical consultants often need to be licensed by government boards before they can offer their services to the public. The licensing requirements are strict, and require in-depth examinations combined with suitable professional experience. As such, they can confer a high degree of credibility.
  • A word of caution. Non-licensed professionals can be censured or even jailed for practicing without a license. Don’t even think about practicing medicine or law without a license.

Management consultants are usually process-oriented, and typically live in an “abstract” world. Most are generalists by education (business, liberal arts) but may have extensive experience in business specialties (marketing, advertising, personnel, etc.)

  • Most management consultants focus on solving business problems or improving business processes. Profitability and ROI are major measures of success (or failure) for management consultants.
  • Management consultants are typically more “people oriented” than technical consultants, and often apply soft science (psychology or market research) and emotional appeals to achieve results.
  • Management consultants rarely require specialized legal licenses, but may still need simple business licenses.
  • In order to enhance credibility, many¬† management consultants pursue certifications by nonlegal entities. Depending on the client, these credentials may or may not have meaning, so choose your credentials with care.

Two different types of consultants — two different cultures. In my experience, the two types sometimes even distrust each other, but much of this is due to misunderstanding. Personally, I have great respect for both types of consultants. Hopefully this post has promoted some tolerance regarding these cultural differences.

As a final thought, consider opportunities where the two cultures collide. For example, if you have a technical background combined with marketing or finance experience, you’ll have a big advantage with high tech clients over the liberal arts major.

The same is true if you have management background combined with legal or medical experience — you’ll have much more credibility in your core community than a generic consultant. I’ve seen successful examples for both.

The bottom line — understand the differences, and then build on your own unique strengths and experiences.

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