Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

On the contradictions of consulting (and management) rhetoric

with 6 comments

Introduction

Successful management consultants are often seen as experts and trendsetters in the business world. The best among them are able to  construct convincing narratives about their expertise and experience, thereby gaining the  trust of senior managers in large organisations.

Have you ever wondered how they manage to pull this off?

In a paper entitled, The Invincible Character of Management Consulting Rhetoric: How One Blends Incommensurates While Keeping Them Apart, Jonas Berglund and Andreas Werr discuss how consultants, unbeknownst to their clients, often draw from two mutually contradictory forms of rhetoric to construct their arguments: rational (scientific or fact-based) and practical (action-based). This renders them immune to potential challenges from skeptics.  This post, which is based on the work of Berglund and Werr, is an elaboration of this claim.

Background and case study

Typically management consultants are hired to help organisations formulate and implement strategic initiatives aimed at improving organisational performance.  On the ground, such initiatives usually result in large-scale change initiatives such as organisation-wide restructuring or the implementation of enterprise systems.  Whatever the specific situation, however, consultants are generally brought in because clients perceive them as being experts who have the necessary knowledge and practical experience to plan and execute such transformations.

A typical consulting engagement consists of many interactions between consultants and diverse client-side stakeholders.  Berglund and Werr begin their paper with a description of an example of such an interaction drawn from their fieldwork in a large organisation. In brief: the  example describes a workshop that was aimed at redesigning business processes in an organisation. The two-day event was facilitated by the consultants and involved many stakeholders from the business.  I reproduce their description of the event below so that you can read it in its original form:

The event begins with a plenary session. The 25 participants—a selection of key persons on different levels in the organization—sit around a u-shaped table in a large room. Three consultants sit at one end of the table. One (a bit older than the others) is Ben, the project manager.

At 9 am sharp he rises and enters the stage. A nervousness is reflected in his somewhat impatient movements and way of talking. This is an important presentation. It is the first time since the ‘kick off’ of the project, that it is being delivered to a larger audience. Ben welcomes the participants and briefly introduces himself: ‘I am a consultant at Consulting Ltd. My specialty is BPR [Business Process Reengineering]. I have worked extensively with this method in the telecom industry.’ He also briefly introduces the two colleagues sitting at the end of the table. But the consulting team is not complete: ‘We are waiting for Alan, a portal figure and innovator concerning BPR.’

Ben suggests beginning the seminar with a brief introduction of the participants. After this has been completed, he remarks: ‘we clearly have a massive competence here today’. Thereafter, he leaves the floor to Ken, the CEO of the company, who says the following:

‘There are many reasons why we are sitting here today. The triggering factor has been the rapid growth rate of the market. But why should we start working with BPR? I have worked a lot with process improvement, and I have failed many times, but then I heard a presentation by Alan and everything fell in place. I saw the mistakes we had made—we focused on the current situation instead of being creative.’ Following this introduction, the importance of the project is further stressed. ‘The high growth rate of the market demands a new way of working . . . The competitive situation for the company is getting harder; the years when the customers just came to us are over. Now we have to start working for our money . . . The reason for this project is that we want to become the best from our owners’, customers’ and employees’ perspective.’

After this presentation, Ben takes over the floor again: ‘I have something to tell you. I want to report what we have done in the project so far . . . We have worked in four steps, which is a quite typical approach in reengineering’, he says, showing a slide headed ‘Method for Implementation’, which depicts four project phases arranged in the form of steps from the lower left to the upper right. The more detailed exploration of these phases, and the related activities occupy the group for some minutes.

Thereafter, a sequence of transparencies is shown. They describe the overall situation of the company using well-known business concepts. The titles of the slides read ‘Strategic Positioning’ (the model presented under this title has strong similarities with the BCG [Boston Consulting Group] matrix), ‘SWOT Analysis’, ‘Core Competencies’, and ‘Critical Success Factors’.

I expect many readers who work in organisational settings will be able to relate elements from the above extract to their own experiences with management consultants.

Although the case-study is dated,  the rhetoric used by the consultant is timeless. Indeed, in such plenary sessions, the main aim of  consultants (and client-side senior management) is to justify the proposed changes and convince client-side staff to get involved in implementing them.  This is as true now as it was a decade ago, the rhetoric used has hardly changed at all. What’s more interesting, though, is that their arguments taken as a whole are often inconsistent. To see why, let’s take a closer look at two kinds of rhetoric employed by consultants.

The rhetoric of reason

Consultants often legitimize their proposed actions by claiming to use “established” or “proven” methods. At the time of the case study (remember this was in the 90s), BPR was all the rage and, as a consequence, there were a number of contemporary books and articles (both in research and trade journals) that consultants could draw upon to legitimize their claims.  Indeed, many of the articles about BPR from that era delved into things such as critical success factors and core competencies – the very terms used by Ben, the consultant in the case study.  By doing so, Ben emphasised that BPR was a logically justifiable undertaking for the client  organisation.

However, that’s not all:  by referring to a stepwise “method for implementation,” Ben makes the process seem like a rational one with an “if we do X then Y will follow” logic. Of course, real life is never that simple, as evidenced by the statistics on failed BPR projects. Consultants often confuse their clients by presenting the map which is the idealised process as being equivalent to the territory that is organisational reality.

The rhetoric of action

To be sure, those who run organisations care more about results than models or methodologies. As a result,  consultants have to portray  themselves as being practical rather than theoretical. This is where the rhetoric of action comes in.

Ben’s reference to his “extensive experience in the telecom industry” and his invocation of   “Alan, the portal figure and innovator” are clearly intended to emphasise the consulting organisation’s experience and “innovative approaches” to  implementing BPR initiatives. Notice there are no references to reason here; there is only the implicit, “trust me, I’ve done this before”, and (if not that, then), “trust Alan, the portal figure and innovator.”

Ben’s spiel is backed up by the CEO;  consider the CEO’s line, ” …I have worked a lot with process improvement, and I have failed many times, but then I heard a presentation by Alan and everything fell in place. I saw the mistakes we had made…

The boss heard the BPR Gospel According To Alan and had an epiphany; everything just “fell in place.”

Discussion

The short case study illustrates how consultants shift back and forth between two essentially incompatible modes of rhetoric when speaking to clients: a rational one which assumes the existence of objective management models and a normative one which appeals to human behaviours and emotions. This enables them to construct narratives that, on the surface, seem plausible and convincing, and more important, are hard to refute.

Although the rhetoric of reason refers to an idealised world of management models, its power and appeal  cannot be overstated. As the authors state:

The belief in experts and their techniques is firmly anchored in the modern belief in rationality. In our culture ‘the notions of ‘‘science’’, ‘‘rationality’’, ‘‘objectivity’’, and ‘‘truth’’ are bound up with one another’. Knowledge is power, and formalized knowledge is praised as the only legitimate form of knowledge, offering hard and objective truth in correspondence to reality.

Indeed, consultants play a huge role in the diffusion of new knowledge and models in the wider business world, thus perpetuating the myth that management models work.

On the other hand, consultants must show results. They have to portray themselves action-oriented and hence Ben’s attempt to establish his (and his organisation’s) credibility via credentials. This mode of rhetoric downplays scientific-rational thinking and highlights  wisdom gained by experience instead. As the authors state:

The chain of argument usually goes like this: merit always prevails over privilege; management knowledge is often contrasted with scientific, theoretically informed knowledge, which is regarded with suspicion by managers; and a persons’ track record and ‘hands-on’ experience is regarded as more important than expertise in general management skills acquired through extensive education.

Another facet of the rhetoric of action is that it emphasises the uniqueness of each situation. This is based on the idea that things in organisations are subject to continual change and that the lack of a stable configuration and environment makes it impossible to employ management models. The implication being that the only way to deal with the mess is to create a sense of collectivism – a “we’re in this together” attitude. The  concept of  organisational culture plays on this by portraying an organisation as this unique, wonderful place in which everyone shares the same values and deep sense of meaning. As the authors state:

The management literature discussing corporate culture is filled with religious and magical metaphors of the leader stressing the less rational sides of the organization, emphasizing the role of ceremonies, rituals, sagas, and legends (to mention only a few), in creating a system of shared values in the organization.

Seen in this light, the CEO’s references to Alan’s epiphany-inducing presentation, the “competitive situation,” and the need to “start working for our money” are attempts to generate this sense of collectivism.

The foregoing discussion highlights how consultants and their allies draw upon incompatible modes of rhetoric to justify their plans and actions. This essentially makes it difficult to refute their claims: if one tries to pin them down on logical grounds, they can argue based on their track record and deep experience; if one questions their experience, they can point to the logic of their models and processes.

…but we are all guilty

Finally, I should emphasise that management consultants are not the only ones guilty of using both forms of rhetoric,  we all are: the business cases we write, the presentations we deliver, the justifications we give our bosses and staff are all rife with examples of this. Out of curiosity, I re-read a business case I wrote recently and was amused to find a couple of contradictions of the kind discussed in this post.

Conclusion

In this post I have discussed how consulting rhetoric frequently draws upon two incompatible kinds of arguments –rational/fact-based and practical/action-based. This enables consultants to present arguments that are hard to refute on logical grounds.  However, it isn’t fair to single out consultants: most people who work in organisation-land are just as guilty of mixing incompatible rhetorics when attempting to convince others of the rightness of their views.

Written by K

August 1, 2013 at 10:55 pm

6 Responses

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  1. This is great! I love the way you framed rhetorical schema. I’ve been working on rendering rhetorical devices using argument schemes presented in “Argument Schemes” by Walton, Reed, and Macagno (http://www.amazon.com/Argumentation-Schemes-Douglas-Walton/dp/0521723744). I wonder if there is a way I can visually render the links between action and reason rhetorics. That way, we could see if the “rhetoric of reason” matches or translates to “rhetoric of action.” I want to use Compendium for this; however, I want to adhere more closely to a simplified Toulmin model for the purpose of showing components of argument and analyzing their relative strength and soundness. Do you have any examples, other than the one you provided, to work from? I’ll try a few options for rendering and let you know how that goes.

    One of the many important things I learned from “Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices” was to beware of platitudes. Do you think identifying platitudes might be a good starting point for noticing the gap between reason and action rhetorics? I was recently discussing with one of my colleagues the failures of consulting practice in design management. We agreed that consultants are in a peculiar (demiurgic, perhaps) role wherein they teach and implement processes and solutions, then (almost) abruptly leave the organization to its devices. Ezio Manzini speaks to this, as well, in this post: http://www.desis-network.org/forums/against-post-it-design-make-things-happen. We’ve been analyzing the concept and respective theory of Communities of Practice (http://www.amazon.com/Communities-Practice-Cognitive-Computational-Perspectives/dp/0521663636) to see if there’s a way to encourage and perpetuate the ‘thinking’ conducive to reproducing the outcomes of such consultation… Does that make sense?

    Like

    Nicholas Schroeder

    August 1, 2013 at 11:42 pm

  2. Hi Nicholas,

    Thanks for reading and for posting a very interesting comment. I think you’re on to something here – it would be a nice to have a schema that would help clients examine the internal consistency of a consultant’s arguments.

    Regarding example arguments, I could probably dig up a few from papers I’ve read, but I reckon a better place to start would be the white paper / case study sections on the web sites of any of the “Big Q” Consultancies …to borrow a phrase from the Heretic’s Guide🙂

    As you mention, looking for and “busting” platitudes would be an excellent first step. Paul’s recent post on platitude buster questions might be of help here.

    The problem of getting practices to take root in an organisation is a difficult one. Having seen many consultants come and go…with little effect…it seems to me that the only way this can happen is if a practice is adopted internally by a committed individual (or a small group). Such commitment has to come from within and cannot (IMO) be enforced from the top. The key, I think, lies in creating the right conditions that encourage exploration that might lead to the “discovery” of practices that individuals and small groups feel are worth pursuing. This is akin to the “holding environment” concept we discuss in the Heretic’s Guide. The Community of Practice concept, with its focus on shared experiences/learning of a craft complements (but is not equivalent to) the notion of a holding environment.

    You’re working on a very intriguing set of ideas and I would be very interested in knowing how they develop. Thanks again for commenting and for the references. Do stay in touch!

    Regards,

    Kailash.

    Like

    K

    August 2, 2013 at 9:09 am

  3. After reading a previous article (or three) I eventually bought your book. It stands on a pile of excellent but nonetheless largely unread books. After reading this great article I must push your book up the pile!🙂

    Like

    Andrew Howe

    September 13, 2013 at 8:51 am

    • Hi Andrew,

      Thank you very much – I’m honoured by your very kind words! Thanks too for supporting The Heretic’s Guide; I do hope you enjoy reading it. Any feedback (positive or negative) would be hugely appreciated.

      Regards,

      Kailash.

      Like

      K

      September 13, 2013 at 9:25 am

  4. Great article! But aren’t we forgetting rights based approach mentioned by David Maister in his book “The Trusted Advisor”, where in order to earn the right to speak one must listen ?🙂

    Like

    Eugen

    January 5, 2014 at 4:51 pm


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