What is consultancy and is there a value in it?
The truth is that only a comparatively small number of consulting projects seem to be successful. Either consultant recommendations fail at implementation phase, or don’t even survive reality checks. In the worst of cases, these have disastrous consequences for the organization. As Ferdinand Piëch, the CEO of Volkswagen, famously said: “If you want to ruin a company, you only have to try fixing it with the help of external consultants.”
Story of Bag, Borrow or Steal, one of the first online sites allowing rental of expensive items (from several days to months) comes to mind. In securing venture capital, a consulting firm was brought in to take the company to next level. It recommended that, in order to attract a more high profile customer, the company change its name – the very name that, in addition to being instantly recognizable and very descriptive of the nature of the business, was also forever immortalized in the movie Sex and the City. The new (proposed) name was Avelle, thought by the consultants to sound more luxurious.
Following the consulting firm’s advice, the end result was lost sales as loyal customers became confused by the name change and the brand equity built into the original name was lost as people wondered who the heck was Avelle. Top executives of BBS were fired and the company returned back to its original name.
BBS is far from being an exception, nor are consultancies only amateurs. Take McKinsey, one of the best of the breed. Its advice led GE to loose $1 billion in 2007 and Swissair to its bankruptcy. The list of McKinsey screw-ups is long. And if that is the best of the best, it is easy to imagine what other consultancy firms are up to.
Some estimate that about 80% of all consulting projects fail.
Usually, the traditional consultancy firms are called upon for the following reasons:
- Political leverage: CEOs that want or need to make an unpopular decision often bring in a consulting firm to help.
- Pool knowledge across functions: In large companies, cross-functional problem-solving rarely happens. Just getting different functions in a room typically unlocks creative problem solving.
- Pool knowledge across levels: Consultants interview, watch, and tag along with people down the organizational structure, often starting with customers and moving through sales and up. Top management of a company rarely does this. There are tremendous insights to be had by doing this.
- Deep focus on one problem.
- Consulting firms have access to way more data.
- The ability to structure a problem and to approach the task of identifying a solution in a methodical manner.
- A totally unbiased opinion on the topic.
The few studies that one can find identify several reasons for failure, which fall into four groups: personal characteristics of consultants, technical shortcomings of proposed solutions, problematic client–consultant relationships, and socio-political aspects of the client organization.
The underlying reasoning of how consultancy works, is valorized and perceived in what Heinz von Foerster called “trivial machine model.“
A trivial machine model logic of traditional consultancy is that it happens between two parties, consultant and client brought together for working on a certain project, and that consultant possesses more experience/knowledge/expertise and can more or less clearly identify a problem and propose a solution. The focus is on analyzing and bridging the gap between the consultant’s body of knowledge and skills and the requirements of the client. Assumptions here are that client information (especially related to weaknesses, problems or any issue that requires an external consultant intervention) is readily available, comprehensive and understandable. It is also assumed that the consultant can freely and efficiently access this information, understand it and process it.
In reality, however, it’s impossible for the client or even the consultancy to arrive at an “authentic” problem description.
The traditional consulting model is not only linear and simplistic but also not realistic, as social factors (social interconnection, interaction and environment in which the consultancy and the client operate) are largely ignored. These factors are essential – decisive in make-or-break of a project – to consider in what von Foerster described as “non-trivial machine model.“ A significant factor that must also be considered – this has to do with the “no one wants to rock the boat” psychology – is that consultants usually don’t feel comfortable telling (and thus don’t tell) to the top management of the client that some processes/structures are not optimized/performing; nor does the client’s top management feel good to have consultants come and tell that they are not doing well (in some cases consultants are dismissed/fired after having implied, in their recommendations, any wrongdoing or suboptimal performance/intention on part of the client’s top management).
Niklas Luhmann, German sociologist famous for his social systems theory, picked up and applied von Foerster’s theory (of trivial and non-trivial machines) to social systems. According to Luhmann, communication is the most important part of any society. All social relations are conceptualized as processes of communication – communications that connect to earlier communications and that call forth further communications. The crucial point is that this communication process takes place relatively independently of individual human beings involved. According to his theory, although communication cannot be effected without the involvement of human beings, the particular development of the communication process is beyond their control.
For example, the same word “yes” might be understood as signaling a confirmation, a doubt or even a rejection (if interpreted as irony). Thus, the meaning of a message, i.e. the concrete communication, is not produced by the speaker but by the listener.
Applying Luhmann’s theory to the social context of consultant-client, we need to differentiate three systems: consultant, client and communication media. The theory suggests that any intended consulting intervention becomes impossible right from its beginning. Following Luhmann, the only reason for the employment of external consultants is the possibility that the client’s systems (internal/external processes, operations, information flows, etc.) get perturbed/“irritated”. However, not all (consultancy) interventions cause such a perturbation, as this is only decided by the client system itself.
This model is more comprehensive, as it includes all considerations of the linear/traditional consultancy logic but also social factors. When determining whether to employ or not a consultancy, the only possibility for clients is to observe and decide which consulting firm has the most potential to perturb its systems. Finally, the stage of evaluation becomes redundant as there is no content or objective to evaluate, and nobody is able to evaluate the degree of perturbation.
All of the above is not to imply that consultancy practice is futile and needs to be discarded with. Even traditional consulting projects can and do sometimes have positive effects for clients, but usually in a different way than intended or planned. Rather than transfer some kind of knowledge, consultant firm should cause (via the communication system) perturbations in client systems that trigger positive changes in its processes and structures, which otherwise might not have been achieved.
The prevalent trend and common thinking (by clients and consultants) is to attribute any success of a consultancy intervention to a consulting firm. This, as it should be noted from above, is misleading and factually wrong. All change, as also for humans, needs to come from within, whether triggered from without (consultancy intervention) or within.
There already exist “systemic consultants,” unsurprisingly mostly in German-speaking world, including Königswieser & Network and OSB international. As can be seen from client testimonies of the former and project descriptions of the latter, the following activities are commonly practiced by systemic consultancy firms:
- organizational development and transformation
- restructuring and change management
- strategic assessment and revision
- systems diagnosis and analysis
Services above are not very different from what traditional consultancies offer. But, they shouldn’t be as an organization has a strategy and an objective, etc – nothing new under sun.
Three points that are different between traditional and systemic consultancy practices are:
- Mutual ownership of the client’s project: traditional consultancies position themselves as experts in terms of knowledge/experience and usually have a more “dictatorial” and outsider approach of “what needs to be done,” whereas systemic consultants come in as an unbiased party that co-owns the client project, trying to add value with their tools/methodologies.
- Social and psychological factors fully weighed: psychology of clients, their top management, framework of social interaction and cultural factors are all heavily considered; also subtleties related to message creation (by consultancy), communication and perception (by clients) are of paramount role as well as analysis of (a perceived) problem and suggestion of possible solutions/improvements.
- Education, assistance and support: in most cases, systemic consultants act as educators – this is usually in the face of traditional consultants who think that educating a client might diminish a future chance of being employed by that client; as apparent from many client testimonies, systemic consultants offer assistance and support in vital issues such as drafting organizational strategies or HR incentive systems, etc; systemic consultants also educate their own teams in the client context.