Boston Consulting Group and virtualisation: Interview with Marcos Aguiar -BCG Senior partner




Luca Collina

Good afternoon. Marcos, thank you very much for having agreed to participate in this interview; it is a pleasure to have you here. I know your profile, but I would like the readers to understand your extensive experience and your role today in BCG.


Marcos Aguiar

Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you today. By way of introduction, my name is Marcos Aguiar. I am a senior partner and managing director at BCG, the Boston Consulting Group. I am based in Brazil, between San Pablo and Rio. But most of the work I do stretches beyond this geography. I focus a lot on organisational transformations and do a lot of work in framing and conducting transformations. Over the past two years, I’ve been focusing on trust and digital trust, a topic which we are pushing and developing in the BCG Henderson Institute, BHI, as part of a fellowship.


Luca Collina

Very interesting. Thank you very much.


Luca Collina

The first question is related to the level of virtualisation today in BCG, such as communication, tools for collaboration, training.


Marcos Aguiar

First, with the pandemic, we have rapidly accelerated what we define as BCG virtualisation. At the spike of the pandemic, most teams were forced to work completely virtual. And while some teams have begun in-person collaboration, virtual teaming is still the predominant norm worldwide in BCG. We have small levels of occasional client travel, which vary with each geography and with the degree of openness based on vaccination in each geography. Still, we can operate 100% virtual, and we are operating 100% if needed.


Luca Collina

So, this involved communication, of course, and tools for collaboration, I assume, and training?


Marcos Aguiarr

Exactly. Without the tools and the platform for supporting productivity, or what we call relational productivity, or team productivity and collaboration, related to that. And it’s no rocket science, quite honestly, here, the communication tools; otherwise, we all know how to use zoom and slack. But we also use whatever the client prefers, which means Microsoft Teams, WebEx, Google; we need to adapt. This is very important to make it work, especially in our business of consulting. We use Trello, Microsoft whiteboard, OneNote, and offer training that’s a bit more specific to BCG. We have virtual in-person training and an internal Learning Portal, which has loads of on-demand classes. That’s bespoke; that’s something that we’ve put together and had a lot of the BCG intellectual property embedded in that. And the learning is also from COVID, we’ve incorporated it in that.


Luca Collina

Yeah, fantastic. My compliments. How did you overcome this challenge? The pandemic exploded from one day to another, so you had to draw that from a situation where you said, “Sorry we can’t be on-site, but we can help.” So, what are the factors that allow this shift?


Marcos Aguiar

The pandemic has tested resilience, which had to be incorporated and adapted by every single organization. And there was a challenge also in what to do; it’s not a matter of adapting only because quite a lot of the stuff was not very clear early on. We tend to say that the pandemic is typical of what we call an evidence-based approach to strategy in BCG. We had to learn along the way with the process and the new data coming in. The key feature of that, what we call advantage in adversity, is that you act, and you adapt according to the learnings from the evidence you gathered. So that stayed with us throughout the pandemic, and then we had to adapt and resiliently shape the way we worked, based on new information, the pandemic and the level of risk and what to do and so on. I have been working remotely for over 14 months, but an essential element of what I and many of our partners and teams do is align on how we work. This alignment between BCG teams and clients depends on the client’s own needs or the team’s own needs and constraints. Alignment is essential to adaptation, not only what we learn from the context but also the internal constraints of each team. For me, it was a trust enhancement experience. And in this process, in essence, we are creating what we called in my research systemic trust with clients and teams to make it work. There are two poles of trust – relation and systemic trust, and there is not much time to develop relational trust because it comes with actually doing stuff together for long periods of time. So we need to incorporate that into the systems we create, and that was crucial to make it work in my perspective and face up to the challenges.


Luca Collina

Thank you very much. Could you please expand the concept of systemic trust?


Marcos Aguiar

Yeah, this is something that may be more accessible for people to capture. The idea of systemic trust is that we are starting our first interaction face-to-face when the two of us are here. We don’t have relational trust: it’s the first time we are interacting. So, part of what brought us together is the relationship you may have with BCG and BHI; thus, I interact with you. And I’m trusting you because another senior partner has brought us together. In quite a lot of what you have done and what I know about you is positive. So, I transfer the focus or the target of my trust to that. And then we start interacting, and, of course, as we interact, we develop relational trust. To bring it closer to people’s reality, for instance, when you call an Uber, you don’t know the driver. There is no trust there – he is a stranger. So how do you trust the experience of getting into a stranger’s car? You do not trust him, but you trust Uber, you trust the rating system, you trust the whole platform. We call that systemic trust, the actual manifestation or embodiment, if you like, of trust in the actual instruments or tools used by those platforms in the ecosystems. An example of that instrument is a rating system when you know that the guy has 4.9 stars. And you trust that instrument. That is what we call systemic trust.


Luca Collina

In my research, I found three fundamental benefits of virtualisation: efficiency, collaboration, and service quality. Now, can you confirm or not that these are the outcomes? And is there anything to add?


Marcos Aguiar

Yeah, I can confirm that these benefits are related to virtualisation; we have experienced that as well. And some of the notable benefits are related to the efficiency dimension. So, to give you some numbers on what we have seen: we’ve perceived between 15% to 40% increase in productivity for employees, with this optimized remote work models that we put together. There was a reduction in the turnover from 10% to 15%, reducing absenteeism by about 40%, which is interesting. We also perceived cost reduction in real estate and resource usage of 20%. Because of course, we will spread the resources in our homes. This is about the efficiency, or the first one, efficiency and efficacy, which are elements of the quality of the services perceived, but they are also related to the collaboration function. We solved the problems, which we do in consulting clients, with virtual teams, you know, teams which involve clients and BCG teams, and have found very positive results on that dimension. And it reflected in our people survey as well as in client consultations. Here it’s important to understand that – because there is one point when we talk about systemic trust in the client interaction – we didn’t have any problem at all. We reinforced the relationships during COVID and the underlying trust, and it was easier to adapt. And for BCG, that was great with 80% of our clients, our current relationship clients. However, with new clients, and it is similar to my point on the Uber there, we had more of a challenge because you didn’t have face to face interaction; everything had to be done virtually and so on. And the elements of empathy, human connection were not there. But then what we did, which compensated for that, and I call this a booster, with a new client starting a relationship with us, is showing our content and our deep global expertise and credentials. Before COVID, sometimes you had a client, and it was not easy to fly across the world. For a client meeting, sometimes a two-hour meeting, we had to fly and assemble ten experts. Now I can assemble a board of 10 experts from everywhere for these calls, and the clients are stunned with the level of expertise I can bring.

So, a bit of the systemic thing, the actual content plus the technology that enables me to bring that content, had to be suited for relational trust. And that is the key point that we see as very relevant in the collaboration dimension. Collaboration is anchored on trust, and the levels of perceived trustworthiness in those interactions are something that we are studying very intensely because they can affect our ability to adapt and our resilience, which is, as I mentioned, a key element of this discussion on how we face up to the pandemic. Still, there may be other pandemics and other challenges that we need to adapt to.


Luca Collina

Excellent, especially the mechanisms that a company like yours, with many consultants, has adopted to the customers’ mentality.


Marcos Aguiar

It is a competitive advantage: learning.


Luca Collina

Do you think that in the future, we will use virtualisation and we will not go back? And what are the benefits/challenges for the future, without pandemic?


Marcos Aguiar

Yeah, I do believe it will stay, but it may stay as a hybrid model. And we can talk a bit more about that. Some elements, such as social connectivity, are relevant and the flexibility to adopt it. And I do believe that a central point in the way we see this is how to adapt to adversity. As we alluded earlier, there are challenges and opportunities. Perhaps, the key thing here can be a bit of a sacred thing preserving who you are, your culture. Technology will be available to everyone, but how you preserve who you are is what matters. And with virtualisation, you do not distort your value proposition, purpose, or what you are supposed to bring to your clients and your teams and society in general. And I think the virtual environment can also be an acid test for your culture. It’s not necessarily a matter for the smaller consulting companies or independent consultants; they may or may not suffer from something like this But the key thing to us that you need to preserve is who you are and how you come across in that environment. I think there is an advantage in BCG because our purpose and what we state is unlocking the potential of those who advance the world. This potential is all about people, teams and clients to ensure we are in this together. And we can cope with this together as teams, you know. With that sort of alignment, finding a solution can combine some of the elements described above and then the personal and social connectivity with our teams and clients to ensure we understand their specific personal situation. We flexibly find hybrid ways of adapting. Virtualisation will stay with us, but not everything will be virtual. I think there will be hybrid models, but the hybrid models will not be the same. And your ability to adapt to client needs (and our business is about client centricity) is key.


Marcos Aguiar

Social connectivity will always be relevant. The numbers where we see key employees satisfied with social connectivity are more likely to maintain or improve productivity on collaborative tasks. Our research has spoken about the numbers about social connectivity: teams are two to three times more satisfied, which has driven higher productivity than those not satisfied, so there is a key difference here. In terms of the level of engagement. In our research, again, the majority of the people want some flexibility in where and when they will get the work done. And that is the thing that will drive virtualisation. Being more flexible is present in over 60% of the people we interacted with, thus essential for us. Finally, most of the projects we are doing with our clients, and most of what the clients say, in terms of the degree of remote, is somewhere between 25% to 95% remote with lots of archetypes in between.


Luca Collina

Fantastic, thank you for sharing it. What would you like to advise the independent and niche /small companies of consultants about this critical disruption? And how to be aligned with the customer? What are the suggestions which you can transmit to them?


Marcos Aguiar

There may be an umbrella thing. We can talk about some specifics on the umbrella thing. As you mentioned, virtualisation is here to stay. And it is a legacy of COVID the way I view this. However, it’s essential to recognize that the consulting business (it doesn’t matter whether it’s BCG or smaller consulting companies) requires that we be true to what we are supposed to do, as we are in the business of serving clients. Thus, the actual levels of virtualisation may have to be negotiated on a client-by-client basis, and they may vary over time. It could start in a fashion and move to another, depending on the client’s needs or your own needs. And that is the reason why I use the word negotiate because it’s not a matter of only ‘Oh, the client wants this – I’ll do this. It may not be appropriate for your team. So, there is a negotiation there, and it may vary over time. So, the main advice I would give to anyone is not to be stuck with a particular archetype or an idea of how work should be done. And then, with that in mind, and once you commit to a sort of target level of virtualisation, I think there are some best practices to get this thing done. Four things I would highlight: one is having more rigid prioritization, creating backlogs, and constantly refining them in what makes this thing work and where to focus work and what can be done remotely or not. There must be some guidance and prioritization, so the teams know what to do, especially if you are dealing with larger teams of consultants. In contrast, for a single consultant, it is a bit easier but requires self-discipline. Anyway, there must be a view on working in small cross-functionally autonomous teams because they tend to build resilience, especially if you need to adapt along the way.

There has to be something to track. There is one example in BCG, which we call case team meetings. It is like an event in a squad where we share learning and decide the direction. Where we are going to do the work is even more critical with virtualisation. You have frequent interactions and the rhythm of meetings that must be compatible and conducive to the output you want to achieve. And then, there is an element of Agile leadership, focusing on concrete output, and people can do the work when and where they want. But I mean, there is the anchor point where we want to get and make sure that this output orientation is cultivated and percolates to find the best way to lead your teams. So those will be perhaps the top ones in terms of advice.


Marcos Aguiar

First, thank you very much for the opportunity. It was a great conversation that I really appreciated. And it would be great if we can keep the contact and perhaps share some of the content when some of the stuff you are researching comes up. Please do not forget to send me a paper or a note about it. I would love to read it through.


Luca Collina

Thank you, Marcos!




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