Consultant bashing

You can see when a business journalist is having a slow news week – they whip out one of their ‘hardy annuals’ and use their column to bang on about a mildly controversial subject. Today’s Financial Times ‘Business Life’ page included such a piece from Andrew Hill in his ‘On Management’ column.

In “A doctor’s note for virulent consultants” (read it online here – free registration required – or a brief extract below), he made the point that an increasing number of senior executives are choosing not to make use of consultants (he actually compared them to viruses). Obviously, he has a point – some companies have too many consultant types wandering the halls. But his point was not about too many consultants – it was a blanket statement that all consultants are like viruses.

His piece is an easy read, makes some good points, but is obviously wrong. In fact, in a fantastic act of editorship, the story that dominates the rest of the ‘Business Life’ page (page 14) of the FT is “Lessons in political correctness” (read it online here – registration required) is about how chief executives who are facing tough questions from politicians (and journalists) – the picture is of Bob Diamond, CEO of Barclays – are bringing in (wait for it) consultants to do media training.

So come on, Mr Hill, you can do better than that…

I agree that consultants are their own worst enemies, and there are too many of them not adding enough value to the world. But to label them all ‘viruses’ and suggest that the corporate world doesn’t need them seems lazy to me. It does appear as if Andrew Hill has the large, multi-purpose, long-term embedded consultant in mind – but he should then come out and say so. Consultants are never going to go away – especially not now as the economy ticks back into life.

In an increasingly complex world, consultants with specialist skills and an ability to bring experience and insights from outside of your company’s scope may be exceptionally useful. In an increasingly fast moving world, it may be necessary to import key skills at short notice, and then consultants may be the only option. Not a long term option – but that’s the whole point of consultants, isn’t it? In an increasingly adaptive world, it may be necessary to bring in an outsider to analyse where and how you need to adapt yourself for maximum advantage. To think that you have all the skills you need internally to do this would be both brave and foolish.

I could go on, but I think the point is made.

I do agree with the conclusion of the piece, that consultants need to adapt to new demands and the new world of work. But that is so blindingly obvious it seems a waste of column inches to make the point.

There is also an additional cheeky reposte that might be made: everything Andrew Hill said about consultants being like viruses (see below) seems to me to apply to journalists as well…

A doctor’s note for virulent consultants

By Andrew Hill
Published by FT: February 14 2011 21:13

Consultants are “a virus”: let one in and you infect the whole organisation. So says a respected captain of industry. It sounds extreme. Yet the more you examine consultancies, the more virulent they appear.

Viruses cannot exist alone. They need a living host. …

Viruses can mutate into different strains. …

Viruses multiply. …

All living things are susceptible to viruses. Private sector and public sector, profits and non-profits …. in China, India and other fast-growing economies.

Viruses endure. Consultancies outlive scandal and even the failure of clients. …

… there are plenty of reasons why [consultants] should worry about [this attitude].

First, the critical chief executive is not alone. Similar views are now embedding themselves in other boardrooms. …

Second, the downturn is prompting companies to cut outside advice, including the extended engagements that consultancies relied on. …

Big clients, if they want outside advice at all, want advisers with global reach. That stretches more focused consultancies’ promises of bespoke service or personal attention from top advisers. These consultants disparage the efforts of accountants to expand into their territory. They point out the unflattering ratio of partners to non-partners on assignments carried out by the Big Four. They describe their larger rivals’ offers as glorified systems help or outsourcing.

But if this is what companies are asking for, established consultancies have to respond. …

Finally, the earlier success of consultants in helping companies formulate strategy and cut costs has bred corporate familiarity with their methods. Familiarity breeds contempt. The executive committee is now home to consultancy alumni and MBAs. It is harder for consultants to convince one of their own that he or she can’t manage without outside advice. Strategic and operational know-how has entered the bloodstream of big business. Unless they adapt, consultants will find themselves selling services that one group of potential clients shuns and to which the rest are immune.

0 thoughts on “Consultant bashing”

  1. Graeme says:

    I see on Andrew’s Twitter feed that I am the ninth blog response he has been alerted to. And that he has three invitations to go to lunch with consultants. I wonder what type of consultant that is? Maybe the type that proves his point.

    So, maybe he achieved a slow news week journalist’s goal after all – to spark debate 🙂

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