Opinions - 06.06.2017 - 00:00 

Competition between universities and consulting firms

Universities and consulting firms are competing with each other: they are contending for consulting services and research competence. Who offers qualitatively superior expertise? Who exercises a stronger influence on management decisions? Who can best master the balancing act between methodologically reliable and practice-relevant research results? An article by Wolfgang Stölzle, professor at the University of St.Gallen (HSG).

7 June 2017. The consulting market is saturated. For years, sales in the industry have been stagnating in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. However, consulting firms are not simply competing amongst each other. They are also competing with universities: established consulting companies are trying to supersede universities. In this context, large consulting firms have established their own research departments to generate new knowledge themselves. Since consultants often have doctorates, they use their research competence for their own purposes.

Who advises better?

Consultants often have a methodological tool kit they can use to quickly and pragmatically arrive at solutions. However, this leads to less reliable results, among other things, and therefore increases the risk of incorrect decisions. After all, the stagnating consulting market is not least the result of a certain consultant fatigue on the top floors of management, caused by recent cases of "bad advising" (just think of the Elbphilharmonie or Märklin). It is speculated that the consulting results are "bought" in part because the generation of sales at consulting firms may be prioritised over providing optimal customer consulting. Universities that take on consulting roles may be able to deliver a better-founded basis for making decisions. In this case, though, customers cannot reckon with quick results because universities have a limited amount of resources at their disposal and feel obligated to fulfil the demands of scientific correctness.

Who researches more quickly?

The situation is similar when it comes to research: scientists at universities often lag behind when it comes to new trends and topics because the demands for methodologically correct research at institutes of higher education are opposed to the fast, future-oriented analyses performed by consulting firms. Owing to lacking empiricism (data collections), it is very difficult to publish visionary studies in high-ranking specialist journals, which is the central performance standard for university researchers. Consultants, on the other hand, are quick to turn their own investigations to trends like "Industry 4.0" to market their expertise. The consultant studies are often less rigorous than university analyses, but they are closer to the pulse of the times. At the same time, it is becoming evident that university research no longer has significant chances on markets that consulting companies already have covered.

Who works with greater precision?

Who wins the competition for practical relevance and methodological precision? There is no clear victor here: one the one hand, consulting houses are speckled with academicians and on the other, researchers at universities also offer consulting services. Consulting firms deliver compact information for quick decisions on current issues while universities offer solid insights as the basis for strategic decisions. Co-operations between consultants and academicians, such as research laboratories and joint studies, appear to be a good opportunity to create win-win situations.

A podium discussion at the annual conference of German-speaking business administration specialists addresses the competition between universities and consulting firms. The debate, which features SBB CEO Andreas Meyer and Professor Andreas Hermann at the HSG and others, will be held on 9 June 2017 at the University of St. Gallen. You can find information on the event at

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