On the contradictions of consulting (and management) rhetoric
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.”
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.
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.