Whats the Difference Between a Consulting Firm and a Think Tank


Definition of Consulting Firm

A consulting firm is an organization that provides advice, services, and guidance to businesses, organizations, and individuals. Consulting firms offer a wide range of services, such as customer analysis, strategic planning, business development, market research, and data analysis. In addition, consulting firms can provide advice in areas such as finance, law, marketing, and accounting. They can also provide expertise in areas such as human resources, operations management, product development, and technology.

Consulting firms are typically paid for their services, and their fees depend on the complexity and scope of the project.

Types of Consulting Firms

Consulting firms offer guidance from experienced professionals to help clients accomplish their goals. They often provide hands-on help implementing their recommendations, as well as post-consulting follow up.

Consulting firms typically work with private companies, corporations or governments, using techniques such as data analysis, research and development and market analysis to identify areas for organizational improvement and maximize efficiencies.

Consulting firms generally fall into three categories:

  • Management consulting, specializing in evaluating business processes and assisting clients with areas of operation that are not functioning well.
  • Technology (and IT) consulting, assessing an organization’s use of current technologies and making recommendations on systems that may improve productivity or help reduce costs.
  • Financial/accounting consulting, assisting companies with reorganization of their finances or implementation of new technologies related to accounting or payroll functions.

Typical Services Offered by Consulting Firms

A consulting firm, also known as a management consultancy, provides professional advice to a diversity of private and public sector organizations. Consulting firms specialize in certain industries or offering certain services, such as financial advisory services, management consulting, technology consulting and human resources consulting.

Typical Services Offered by Consulting Firms:

  • Strategy Consulting – This is the core service offering of most consulting firms and involves helping organizations develop their corporate strategies for the future. It involves identifying current strengths and weaknesses, setting objectives for improvement in terms of performance efficiency, effectiveness and overall profitability.
  • Operations Management – These services focus on helping organizations examine their operations to improve efficiency. Consultants use different methods like analyzing organizational structure, customer segmentation or cost optimization techniques to help improve processes or modify product designs that do not meet customer requirements.
  • Marketing Strategy – Marketing strategy focuses on helping companies develop marketing plans that enable them to achieve their set goals. Consultants review the existing market positioning or suggest new product introductions that could potentially increase revenues and profits over time.
  • Organizational Change Management – This service involves providing professional consultation on how an organization can change internally in order to better cope with the external environment. This typically includes topics such as improving cross-functional communications within the organization or restructuring roles for specific departments.

Definition of Think Tank

Think tanks are organizations established by scholars, professionals, and businessmen to provide expert opinion and advice to the public. They are usually nonpartisan and independent, meaning they are not affiliated with any political party or ideology. They aim to provide policy advice and research to inform decision makers and the public on a variety of issues.

In this article, we will explore the definition of a think tank and how it differs from a consulting firm.

Types of Think Tanks

Think tanks are organizations that research, analyze, and provide expertise to influence public policy decisions. They typically consist of a staff of researchers, academics, and policy analysts who specialize in a particular issue or set of issues. Think tanks offer information and analysis on current trends through reports, publications, press briefings, workshops, conferences, and other direct contacts with decision makers in public and private sectors. Often think tanks will serve as independent sources of information for policy makers to consider in addition to their own staff.

Think tanks generally fall into two overarching categories: “operational” and “strategic.” Operational think tanks focus on specific issues like economics or foreign affairs. They research possible solutions to help solve problems related to those topics and make recommendations about the best way forward. Strategic think tanks look at a broader range of topics from social justice to technology innovation.

Within these two broad categories there are distinct types of think tank activities:

  • Policy analysis
  • Education/outreach
  • Operations research
  • Program evaluation
  • Strategic research
  • Public diplomacy
  • Media/communications outreach
  • Public opinion polling/surveys
  • Legislative drafting/capacity building
  • Advocacy campaigns
  • …and more.

Depending on the focus area and activity being conducted by the various divisions within a think tank organization, different roles may have different titles (e.g., Senior Policy Analyst vs Research Scientist).

Typical Services Offered by Think Tanks

Think tanks – also known as policy institutes – are non-governmental, non-profit organizations that specialize in public policy research and analysis. The purpose of these organizations is to provide research-based advice to government officials, industry leaders, and the general public. Think tanks may focus on a particular issue, or have a broad base of support; their size varies widely.

Typical services offered by think tanks include:

  • Analyses of proposed legislation or industry regulations
  • Policy recommendations on specific issues
  • Technical assistance on difficult projects
  • Media outreach and educational campaigns
  • Public opinion polling and survey analysis
  • Research presentations to key stakeholders
  • Analysis of current economic events affecting policy or industry issues

Key Differences between Consulting Firms and Think Tanks

Consulting firms and think tanks have several key differences that make them distinctive organisations. Consulting firms take on a problem or an issue and provide advice or solutions to their clients. Think tanks, on the other hand, provide research and analysis on non-specific topics that can be used to provide insights and inform public policy decisions.

In this article, we will look at the key differences between a consulting firm and a think tank:

Focus of Services

The primary difference between consulting firms and think tanks is their focus of services. Consulting firms specialize in providing advice to their clients based on the clients’ specific needs and objectives. This type of consultancy is considered highly specialized and may require employees to have deep expertise in certain areas such as finance, accounting, marketing, or communications.

Think tanks, on the other hand, generally offer research for non-profit organizations, academic institutions, and government agencies. This type of research often covers a wide range of topics such as politics, economics, international relations, social issues and more.

Consulting firms typically provide their services on an hourly basis while think tanks may conduct research projects that run over long periods of time with teams of researchers at work simultaneously. The focus of consulting firms is typically short term in nature (to assist a business or organization with a specific project or problem-solving need) while the focus of think tank research is usually long term (to track multiple changes over time).

In addition to this focus difference in services provided by each type of entity, there can also be a difference in pricing models; consulting firms are more likely to charge their clients by hour while think tanks often charge contracts for large research projects.


The primary difference between consulting firms and think tanks is the types of clients they serve. Consulting firms typically consult for organizations with specific needs and objectives, such as for-profit businesses seeking to increase profit margins or nonprofit organizations striving to reach new goals. They provide tailor-made services such as strategy development, market research, etc.

On the other hand, think tanks mostly consult for government representatives and policymakers that need help with making decisions on public policies and regulations. Think tanks do not provide services tailored to their clients’ needs but instead provide independent research which often focuses on areas like advocacy, economics and politics. Through this research, the think tank could then give insights on general economic trends or offer strategies for improving a regulation.

Both consulting firms and think tanks may also specialize in certain areas such as healthcare or marketing.

Structure and Organization

The structure and organization of consulting firms and think tanks is a key distinction between the two types of organizations. Consulting firms typically have a hierarchical organizational structure with employees who specialize in one particular area, such as human resources or strategic planning. Employees do their best to provide solutions tailored to each client’s needs, within the parameters given to them by the firm.

Meanwhile, think tanks have more of a non-hierarchical structure that promotes collaboration among different departments and exchange of ideas and opinions. Think tanks bring together researchers with diverse backgrounds and expertise who can contribute their unique insights to creative solutions for complex issues. Think tanks also do not offer direct services or solutions but often provide policy recommendations that can inform policymakers for decision-making purposes.


The methodology used by consulting firms and think tanks differs significantly in order to achieve their respective purposes.

Consulting firms use a systematic, structured approach to analyze data to provide clients with actionable advice, usually with the overarching goal of improving business operations or helping businesses reach their target goals.

On the other hand, think tanks employ more research-based and hypothesis-driven methods when studying issues within their areas of expertise. As such, think tanks focus more on public policy research which can involve surveys, qualitative data analysis methods and open interviews among others.

In general, consulting firms look for short-term solutions while think tanks strive to tackle existing or potential long-term problems that involve studying current social and political trends in an effort to devise policy solutions.

Summary and Conclusion

In summary, the main difference between a consulting firm and a think tank is their scope of work. Consulting firms offer tailored advice and expertise that enables businesses to solve problems or seize an opportunity. On the other hand, think tanks provide insights and research that generally informs policy on a broader level. Though related, these two organizations are distinct in their role in advancing knowledge on specific topics or areas.

  • Consulting firms are typically focused on one particular field of study and offer services accordingly, while think tanks typically have a more comprehensive outlook where experts from various fields can come together to analyze large-scale issues affecting many fields.
  • Additionally, consulting firms focus primarily on public policy or private-sector solutions while think tanks focus almost exclusively on public policy solutions.

Overall, both consulting firms and think tanks can be used together to drive knowledge in relevant areas. While each organization has its own role to play in the advancement of knowledge, they do share similar goals: finding solutions that create a better world for everyone.