In the media

PA Consulting’s Neil McKeown on breaking tradition in consulting

By Neil McKeown

Sync NI

03 September 2021

This article was first published in Sync NI

PA Consulting isn’t a traditional consulting firm, and that’s what attracted me to come and work here. It’s different in what it does, and even more in how it does it. PA is an innovation and transformation consultancy that believes in the power of ingenuity to build a positive human future in a technology-driven world, and for me one of the most impressive things that it does is to create opportunity from complexity. In my short time here, I’ve been really fortunate to work with diverse teams of experts who combine innovative thinking and breakthrough use of technologies to progress further, faster, and achieve enduring results for PA’s clients.

PA is the only firm I know with the range of expertise – strategists, innovators, designers, consultants, digital experts, scientists, engineers and technologists – to offer end-to-end innovation under one roof, helping clients seize the incredible opportunities of today’s rapidly changing world.  That’s why moving to PA was an easy decision – the breadth of services it delivers is incredible and really impacts how people live for the better.  PA has designed cosmetic applicators for people living with Parkinson’s, revolutionised cell and gene therapy with automatic, compact manufacturing processes, replaced plastic packaging with dry-moulded fibre, and built a new cloud platform to accelerate urgent health studies.

In September 2018, PA enhanced its global digital expertise by investing in talent in Belfast, and plan to grow to 140 people by March 2022. Combining PA’s global value proposition with local skills and expertise, the team in the PA Digital Hub in Belfast has an outstanding track record of helping organisations to adapt and transform to achieve enduring results through technology. From Belfast, PA delivers ingenious technical solutions for customers such as Rentokil, The Home Office and the National Health Service – using market-leading cloud technologies to deliver solutions including a number of digital citizen services that many of us use daily, an award-winning Internet Of Things (IOT) platform, and a digital twin solution for a leading nuclear operator.

I was delighted to be asked to join PA Consulting in Belfast in February 2021 to lead the next phase of growth for the Digital Hub here. The story over the past (almost) 3 years has been incredible – growing from zero to almost 80 brilliant people, acquiring an enviable portfolio of customers, delivering ingenious digital solutions every day, and maintaining a vibrant start-up culture. The next step on the journey is to significantly scale our headcount, step out into new market segments, and deliver the full breadth and depth of our digital capability from Belfast – all while maintaining that culture and attitude that makes PA in Belfast such an inspiring place to work.

During my career I’ve been fortunate enough to work for – and learn from – some of the world’s leading consulting and technology organisations, along with a local start-up which became one of Belfast’s most recent success stories. But it wasn’t always straightforward – I came back to Belfast from university in Southampton in 1991, and my degree in Electronic Engineering wasn’t much defence against a crippling recession.  So I decided to think laterally and broaden my skills, studying for a post-graduate certificate in management before joining Courtaulds Textiles as a graduate entrant in 1993. Here I got my first experience of Information Technology (as it was known back then) and – most importantly – how it could be used to benefit customers and end users.

I enjoyed working in IT so much that I decided to make a career of it – working for two of the ‘Big 4’ professional services firms (Deloitte and PwC), the biggest technology company in the world at the time (Microsoft), and most recently as Head of Digital Transformation for a local digital solutions start-up (Neueda) that successfully scaled from 10 people to over 300 in the space of just 5 years.

From each of these experiences, I learned, refined and reinforced my own personal ‘rule of three’ that has helped me to build effective successful teams and deliver business growth.  I use these three things as the foundation for everything I do – they are:

1. It’s all about people – hire brilliant people, set out what you need them to achieve, and get out of the way.  Sure, knock down obstacles for them if you need to – but don’t micromanage or tell the talented people, that you yourself have chosen to hire, how to do their jobs.

2. Walk in your customer’s shoes – never lose sight of who you are delivering for, and how delighted they’ll be when you deliver something amazing.  Put your customers at the heart of every digital solution.

3. Focus on outcomes, not ‘cool technology’ – remember why you are doing what you do.  It’s to deliver business outcomes, improved services, or cost efficiencies for your customers. Cutting edge technology – though fascinating – is only an enabler, it’s not the main event.

It sounds simple – but over the past 25 years the single most important thing that I have learned is that a laser focus on these three areas is absolutely fundamental to successfully growing any business. Your team, your customers, and delivering results – that’s what it all boils down to.

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