Shooting consultants in a barrel

Published: August 21st, 2008

Everybody makes lawyer jokes, but I don’t know of anyone who makes consulting jokes.

More common is the approach taken by this month’s issue of GQ magazine, which features a story (unavailable online) about outside experts graced with a photo of large-domed, bug-eyed monsters out of a 1940s horror movie. It is a story about “the most terrifying corporate plague imaginable,” featuring evildoers who “will suck the lifeblood out of your organization and leave nothing but corpes in their wake.”

The author, a former consultant himself, is careful to distinguish between the good consultants and the bad. “I’m not talking about the various genuinely useful outsiders we’d come in and help us do, like, actual work – creating specific new products hat might wind up being used by real live consumers,” he writes, referring to them as vendors. He means the real strategic pointy-heads. “Management spends the equivalent of an entire department’s paycheque to fund outside experts who replicate information that’s readily available from internal sources . . . know that they are not there to make your job better. They aren’t there to make anything better.”

There was something at once familiar and vaguely weary about the entire piece, as though it could have been written 10 years ago, and offered little more than the rub that those who find themselves forced out of a gig could also take up consulting. Such jobs are the business equivalent of movie criticism – something everyone thinks they could do, and perhaps even enjoy.

Consultants have become so easy to hate that it’s getting more difficult to recognize the value they bring to the table. This includes a fresh, outsider’s perspective on what are sometimes long-standing problems in an entrenched culture; a knowledge of industry best practices, technologies or techniques that can propel a range of stalled corporate objectives; and, an ability to focus squarely on strategic thinking without overly disrupting those charged with day-to-day operations. At their best, engaging a consultant should be like a CEO or department head turning to an experienced colleague or friend and asking, “How do other people do this? How did you do it?”

IT departments are increasingly being looked at much like consulting organizations, which means they are saddled with all the negative connotations associated with them. They are brought in to projects or to help align processes late in the game, with insufficient knowledge of the players and their histories. They are not always acting like the “vendors” of the GQ article, providing a quick-fix custom application but often fine-tuning or making better use of existing equipment or software to deal with problems. They possess specialist knowledge available to no one else in the organization, yet compared with real consultants they are limited in their ability to make recommendations beyond what happens to the corporate network. And unlike real consultants, they are still dealing with all those day-to-day operations.

I think GQ is right in that consultants often spend their days on safari, unearthing the tribal knowledge that shouldn’t be hard to find in the average company. But all enterprises could improve the way they can communicate. There are a lot of tools to do this, and even a few that the IT department could set up and manage for the organization’s benefit. But there has to be a commitment across the employee base to use those tools and really share what they know. That’s the real challenge. Which means it may be time to call in the consultants.



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