Professionals or politicians? A client’s guide to management consultants
The general image of management consultants in contemporary society is somewhat ambiguous. To take two rather extreme views: high achievers in universities may see management consulting as a challenging (and well paying!) profession that offers opportunities to make a positive difference to organisations, whereas those on the receiving end of a consultant-inspired restructure may see the profession as an embodiment of much that is wrong with the present-day corporate world.
The truth, as always, is not quite so black and white. In this post I explore this question by taking a look at the different types of consultants one may encounter in the wilds of the corporate jungle. My discussion is based on a typology of management consultants proposed by Mats Alvesson and Anders Johansson in a paper published in this book (see citation at the end of this post for the full reference).
There is a considerable body of research on management consulting, most of which is tucked away in the pages of management journals and academic texts that are rarely read by professionals. It would take me too far afield to do even a cursory review of this literature so I’ll not go there, except to point out that much of the work can be classified as either strongly pro- or anti-consultant. This in itself is revealing: academics are just as divided in their opinions about consultants as professionals are. Indeed, to see just how strong the opinions are, here’s a small list of paper / book titles from the pro and anti-consultant camps
“Management Consulting as a Developer of SMEs”
“Process Consultation, Vol 1: Its Role in Organization Development”
“The Management Guru as an Organizational Witch Doctor”
“The Violent Rhetoric of Re-engineering: Management Consultancy on the Offensive”
These titles have been taken from the reference list in Alvesson and Johansson’s paper. A quick search on Amazon will reveal many more.
The pro camp depicts consultants as rational, selfless experts who solve complex problems for their clients, sometimes at considerable personal cost. The anti camp portrays them as politically-motivated, self-interested individuals whose main aim is to build relationships that ensure future work. The classification proposed by Alvesson and Johansson puts these extreme views in perspective.
A classification of management consultants
Alvesson and Johansson classify consultants into the following categories based on consultants’ claims to professionalism and their preferred approaches to dealing with political issues:
These consultants typically offer high expertise in some specialized area. Some examples of these include IT consultants specializing in complex products (such as ERP systems) and tax experts who have specialized knowledge typically not possessed by those who work within business organisations. As one might expect, esoteric experts have strong claims to professionalism.
One might think that such consultants have little need to play political games as their skill/knowledge does not threaten anyone within organizations. However, this is not always so because esoteric experts may portray themselves as being experts when they actually aren’t. In such cases they would have to use their social and political skills to cover up for their shortcomings. Perhaps more important, esoteric experts may also play politics to secure future gigs.
Typical clients of esoteric experts are purchasers of large IT systems, small organisations in occasional need of specialized skills (lawyers, accountants etc.) and so on.
Brokers of meaning
Brokers of meaning are sense makers: they help clients make sense of difficult or ambiguous situations. Typically brokers of meaning act as facilitators, teachers or idea-generators, who work together with clients to produce meaning. They often do not have deep technical knowledge like esoteric experts, but instead have a good understanding of human nature and the socio-political forces within organizations.
Brokers of meaning typically do not indulge in overt politics as the success of their engagements depends largely on their ability to gain the trust of a wide spectrum of stakeholders within the organization. That said, such consultants, once they have gained trust of a large number of people within an organization, are often able to influence key stakeholders in particular directions. Another way in which brokers of meaning influence decisions is through the skillful use of language – for example, depending on how one wants to portray it, an employee taking the initiative can be called gung-ho (negative) or proactive (positive).
Typical clients of brokers of meaning are managers who are faced with complex decisions.
Traders in trouble
The archetypal trader in trouble is the hatchet-man who is employed by a senior executive who wants to reduce costs. Since the work of these consultants typically involves a great deal of organizational suffering, they are careful to cast their aims in neutral or objective language. Indeed, much of the corporate doublespeak around layoffs (e.g. rightsizing) and cost reduction initiatives (e.g. productivity improvements) originated from traders in trouble. Typical outcomes of such consulting engagements involve massive restructuring on an organization-wide scale, often resulting in a lot of pain for minimal gain.
The work of such consultants is necessarily political – they must support senior management at all costs. Indeed this is another reason that they go to great lengths to portray their proposed solutions as being rational. On the other hand, their claim to professional knowledge is ambiguous as they often have to (knowingly) forgo actions that may be more logical and (more important!) ethical.
Alvesson and Johansson summarise this by quoting from Robert Jackall’s brilliant ethnographical study of managers, Moral Mazes:
The further the consultant moves away from strictly technical issues – that is from being an expert in the ideal sense, a virtuoso of some institutionalized and valued skill – the more anomalous his status becomes. He becomes an expert who trades in others’ troubles. In managerial hierarchies, of course, troubles, like everything else, are socially defined. Consultants have to depend on some authority ‘s definition of what is troublesome in an organization and, in most cases, have to work on the problem as defined. As it happens, it is extremely rare that an executive declares himself or his own circle to be the problem; rather, other groups in the corporation are targeted to be ‘worked on.
A terrific summary of the typical trader in trouble!
Clients of such consultants tend to be senior managers who have been tasked with increasing “efficiency” or “productivity.”
Agents of anxiety (suppliers of security)
The agent of anxiety is a messiah who sells a “best practice” solution to his clients’ problems. This type of consultant can therefore also be described as a supplier of security who assures his clients that their troubles will vanish if they just follow his prescribed process. Common examples of agents of anxiety are purveyors of project management methodologies and frameworks (such as PRINCE2 or IPMA) or process improvement techniques (such as Six Sigma).
Although such consultants may seem to have a high claim to professional expertise, they actually aren’t experts. A good number of them are blind followers of the methods they sell; rarely, if ever, do they develop a critical perspective on those practices. Also, agents of anxiety do not have to be overtly political: once they are hired by senior managers in an organization, employees have no choice but to follow the “best practice” techniques that are promoted.
Clients of such consultants tend to be senior managers in organisations that are having trouble with specific aspects of their work – projects, for example. What such managers do not realize is that they would be better served by creating and fostering the right work environment rather than attempting to impose silver bullet solutions sold by suppliers of security.
Now that we are done with the classification, I should mention that most of the consultants I have come across cannot be boxed into a single category. This is no surprise: consultants, like the rest of humanity, display behaviours that vary from situation to situation. Many consultants will display characteristics from all four categories within a single engagement or, at the very least, exhibit both professional and political behaviours. As Alvesson and Johansson state:
Management consultancy work probably typically means some blending of these four types. Sometimes one or two of the types dominates in the same assignment. But few management consultants presumably operate without appealing to the management fashions signalling the needs for consultancy services; few altogether avoid trouble-shooting tasks; few can solely rely on a technocratic approach, and few can simply work with cooperative meaning making processes. The complexity and diversity of consultancy assignments requires that the consultant move back and forth between a professional area and a non-professional area, i.e. areas viewed as coherent with claims of professionalism, recognizing the highly floating boundaries between these areas and the constructed character also of technical and professional work. Professional work is mingled with, but can’t be reduced to, political or symbolic work.
Finally, I should also add that consultants sometimes hide their real objectives because they are required to: their duplicity simply reflects the duplicity of those who hire them. Whether consultants should choose to do such work is another matter altogether. As I have argued elsewhere, the hardest questions we have to deal with in our professional lives are ethical ones.
In this post I have described a typology of consultants. For sure, the four categories of consultants described are stereotypes. That said, although consultants may slip on different personas within a single engagement, most would fit into a single category based on the nature of their work and their overall approach. A knowledge of this classification is therefore helpful, not just for clients, but also for front-line employees who have to deal with consultants and those who hire them.
Alvesson, M. & Johansson, A.W. (2002). Professionalism and politics in management consultancy work. In R. Fincham & T. Clark (Eds), Critical consulting: New perspectives on the management advice industry. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 228–246.