This article summarises the history of the Institute of Management Consultants (IMC) as described in a paper by Nick Butler and David Collins of the University of Hull (1). The paper, published in 2016, also analyses what the history means for the sociology of professions.
The Management Consultants Association (MCA) had been set up in 1956 as a trade association for UK consulting firms; only firms with more than five full-time consultants could become members. The IMC was set up in 1962 by practitioners from four major British consulting firms as a professional association for management consultants. Unlike the MCA, it admitted individual consultants. Its long term objective was to obtain a Royal Charter, an instrument awarded by the Privy Council and conferring a special status on professional institutions that represent a unique body of knowledge and are deemed to be pre-eminent in their field. A Charter would provide legal protection for the term ‘management consultant’ and allow the IMC to control entry to the profession and ensure ethical conduct. By the late 1960s, nearly 60% of UK consultants were IMC members.
In order to ensure professional standards and support its attempts to obtain a Charter, the IMC introduced a written entry examination for new members from May 1980. However it quickly became apparent that many new entrants to the profession were not bothering to take the exam and the IMC experienced a decline in membership. Trends in the consulting sector undoubtedly had a bearing on these developments. Consulting firms were broadening the range of services they offered to include IT services and hiring staff who considered themselves IT professionals rather than management consultants. In addition, the larger UK consulting firms were losing enthusiasm for the IMC’s attempt to control professional standards and no longer encouraged their employees to seek IMC membership. As a consequence, the interests of smaller firms and sole practitioners came to the fore in the IMC.
In response to these developments, the leadership of the IMC reviewed its membership strategy and overall direction in 1983. The written exam for new members was scrapped in favour of an oral interview which would take into account other criteria for entry such as the candidate’s practical experience. These changes encouraged more applications from small firms and sole practitioners but did not increase the appeal of the IMC to the employees of large consultancies and the accountancy-based practices that were entering the market. As the 1980s progressed the IMC had to retreat from its ambitions to speak for the consulting profession and from its Royal Charter aspirations.
The 1990s saw accounting and IT companies offering an increasing range of consulting services until, in the early 2000s, the consulting market was dominated by a small number of international professional services firms. These firms, with their roots in other sectors, were not interested in the IMC controlling professional standards in consulting and its influence declined accordingly. By 2002 just 7% of UK-based consultants were members.
In 1998 the Institute changed its name to ‘Institute of Management Consultancy’ and allowed organisations as well as individuals to join. It introduced a Certified Practice scheme that enabled consulting firms to assert that employees who had passed through their development and training programmes possessed the requisite skills to be recognised as consultants. The IMC thereby retained control in principle of the professional standards framework but ceded the task of ensuring that individual consultants met those standards to the firms.
This shift in the locus of regulatory control also reflected a change in how consulting expertise was viewed. The IMC was rooted in the concept of management consulting as a profession characterised by a discrete body of knowledge and set of skills. However by the early 2000s the Institute recognised that many consultants identified with a different primary professional discipline (e.g. accounting, IT, procurement or marketing) and that consultancy was about the delivery of that technical specialism in a consulting context. The expertise of consultancy was therefore primarily behavioural, so that the IMC developed a competency-based model of consulting knowledge. The Certified Management Consultant (CMC) qualification came to be viewed by the Institute as one that practitioners would acquire in addition to accreditations in their core discipline. Unfortunately by this time the appeal of the CMC was limited as the major consulting firms had developed their own training systems and established their specific brands.
In 2003 the decline in membership of the IMC and consequent financial challenges led it to seek a merger with another institution. The Management Consultancies Association was considered as a candidate, but the IMC eventually merged with the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) in 2005, while retaining its outward identity.
Butler and Collins’ history of the IMC stops at this point. Their article can be accessed in full here (the abstract can be read for free but the full article is behind a paywall). There is an interesting story to be told about how the CMI and MCA subsequently joined forces to develop and gain accreditation for the Chartered Management Consultant qualification, which is currently being piloted. The full launch is scheduled for Spring 2021.
(1) Butler N. and Collins D. ‘The failure of consulting professionalism? A longitudinal analysis of the Institute of Management Consultants’, Management and Organizational History 11 (1), pp 48 – 65, 2016.