The good times continue to roll for management consultants: In 2017, fueled by digital transformation and tax reform, their market grew by an impressive 8.1 percent.

And as they have done every year since 2010, the Big Four once again outperformed the market a whole: growing by 9.4 percent in the same period. But can their success continue?

There are plenty of reasons for optimism: As long as the digital transformation agenda remains as all-consuming for client organizations as it is now, it’s hard to see the demand for external support declining. Clients simply have too much to do, and lack both the capability and the capacity to do it with the resources at their disposal internally.

The Big Four also find themselves in something of a sweet spot in the market: The nature of digital transformation projects means that consulting firms need to be able to offer a wide range of services to their clients, from strategy to technology and from advice to implementation. While there are often questions about the extent to which disparate services are being knit together into a seamless whole, that breadth has always been a central part of what the Big Four bring to the market.

What’s more, tax reform means the Big Four are often sitting at the table when the money to fund ambitious transformation programs becomes available in the first place. Provided they’re joined-up enough to spot them — and they aren’t always — the opportunities to cross-sell are arguably greater than they are for any other type of consulting firm.

And then there’s the risk agenda, which, in all its forms, is forcing its way towards the top of the CEO’s list of priorities. Although technology credentials are hugely important here, particularly when it comes to things like cybersecurity, a cultural pre-disposition for this kind of work puts the Big Four in pole position. Clients want a safe pair of hands, and by and large the Big Four offer them that.

But there are also reasons for concern. For the first time in a number of years the Big Four weren’t actually the star performers in the U.S. consulting market in 2017: that accolade went to technology firms (a group dominated by the likes of Accenture and IBM Global Business Services, but which also includes the consulting arms of the big Indian tech players), who grew by 10.8 percent. In fact, our forecast for 2018 suggests that the Big Four may be outdone by both technology firms and strategy firms (McKinsey, BCG, Bain and their smaller competitors). That tells us something about the extent to which the interplay between strategy and technology is at the heart of everything that clients are doing today. The Big Four all have strategy and technology capabilities, but it’s not yet clear that they’re able to “out-strategize” the strategists, or “out-tech” the technologists.

It’s also likely that years spent working in their clients’ back offices may be creating problems for the Big Four now. Although there are plenty of opportunities connected with the back-office implications of front-office digitization, what’s driving the market today is a pressing need to find new ways to grow. Consulting firms that are aligned with that agenda stand to benefit more than those that aren’t, and despite progress, the Big Four have work to do here.

Of course, the elephant in the room is the threat, by the authorities in the U.K., to break up the Big Four. But it’s far from certain how that could be achieved, unless the U.S. and other countries follow suit, and from an advisory perspective anything that de-restricts access to the market would presumably be welcome.

Indeed, the bigger concern right now is that all the talk of a breakup distracts the Big Four from what they need to do to fend off competition and maintain the momentum they’ve created over the last few years.

Edward Haigh

Edward Haigh

Edward Haigh is a director at Source Global Research, a research and strategy firm for the global management consulting industry.