Consultants as outsiders, insiders or both?
by: Andrew Sturdy
A ‘fly on the wall’ study of consultants and clients in action
Management consultants are valued for their outside perspective, but what does an outsider view of consultancy look like? A new book by leading consultancy researchers reveals multiple shifting boundaries which have a key role to play in knowledge flow between consultants and their clients.
From the outside, management consultants are often seen as key mediators in the flow of management ideas. And yet to researchers and the public at large, little is known about exactly what happens, behind closed doors in consulting projects. Do they really innovate or simply legitimate existing knowledge? This new book presents research from a three year long ‘fly-on-the-wall study’ of consulting projects and challenges many taken for granted views of consultancy. It also offers new insights on knowledge transfer.
Management consultancy – Boundaries and knowledge in action might not have a snappy title, but it does provide a unique outsider view on external consultants and their clients working together. Drawing on observations of projects in real time as well as the latest theories of knowledge flow and some more traditional ones on boundaries, it reveals a picture of complex and shifting insider-outsider relationships. Different individuals, roles and types of knowledge are involved in an interactive and dynamic process where various boundaries are constructed, reinforced, negotiated, contested and transformed.
The study was in depth but also covered a wide range of consultancy contexts including: a US-based strategy firm and a multinational client; the public and private sectors; a sole practitioner consultant, and; IT implementation in financial services. The authors – myself, Andrew Sturdy along with Karen Handley, Timothy Clark and Robin Fincham – have considerable experience of researching management consultancy, but it is not a wholly outsider view as Karen is also a former management consultant.
The chapters, summarised below, selectively explore boundary dynamics, revealing some of their complexity; the role of humour and challenge in often in tense relationships; and the importance of shared knowledge domains such as sector knowledge.
Summaries of the key chapters
CONSULTANCY, KNOWLEDGE AND BOUNDARIES - The rationale for the book is introduced and located in the wide literature on management consultancy and related topics. Emphasis is given to a critique of accounts of knowledge transfer or flow in consultancy which tends to see consultants in the familiar way, as outsiders who bring outside knowledge to clients. More recent studies are then explored which point to greater variety, complexity and dynamism in client-consultant relations although retain a largely traditional view of knowledge transfer. Keywords: knowledge, boundaries, relationships.
BOUNDARIES AND KNOWLEDGE FLOW – The notion of boundaries is introduced and we explore the idea of simultaneous and multiple insider-outsider statuses. By drawing on some of the latest research on organizations and learning, outline three related boundaries - physical, cultural and political boundaries. These are seen as key for knowledge flow. Also, the importance of cultural/cognitive distance between parties is outlined along with the idea of liminality or ‘betwixt and between’ – neither inside nor outside. The chapter concludes by bringing all this together in a framework of boundary dynamics which are drawn on in subsequent chapters. Keywords: boundaries, cognitive distance, liminality, insider knowledge, project based learning.
RE-THINKING POTENTIALS FOR KNOWLEDGE FLOW – The idea of boundary multiplicity, complexity and dynamism (i.e. multiple insider-outsider relations) is revealed in our different case studies of consultancy projects. Different physical (e.g. spatial) and cultural (e.g. knowledge) boundary relations are outlined before focusing on the different individuals and roles involved. Overall, it is argued that the dominant assumption in accounts of learning from management consultants - new knowledge from outsiders - both over- and under-estimates the potential for knowledge flow. Keywords: boundaries, projects, knowledge, cognitive distance, insiders.
OUTSIDE EXPERTISE AND SECTOR KNOWLEDGE - Developing the theme of how shared knowledge domains can enable knowledge flow, knowledge of the client’s industrial sector is explored. First the process of sector knowledge reveals how consultants use expertise in decision making and supporting claims of legitimacy. Secondly, ‘the sector’ itself can be seen as a knowledge formation in its own right where client-firm dynamics are negotiated with external networks, giving rise to the sector as a separate space. Finally, it is argued that the value of sector knowledge to both parties means that it can serve as a bridge to transcend other boundaries while also denying opportunities for the inclusion of those who lack this form of contextual knowledge. Keywords: knowledge, industrial sector, inclusion.
BOUNDARIES IN ACTION – CHALLENGE - Management consultants are conventionally portrayed as 'agents-of-change', challenging the client who may initially resist, but will eventually learn and change. Two key assumptions here are that challenge is necessary for instigating change; and that consultants are the primary challengers. This chapter questions those assumptions by examining in detail the nature and outcome of challenge interventions. Rather than manifesting as aggressive acts of confrontation and conflict, challenge interventions are often tentative, sometimes persistent, and often enacted over many occasions because of the fear from all parties of a devastating rupture in their relationship. Furthermore, clients may be the primary challengers, urging their consultants to produce a continual stream of insights and recommendations throughout the project. Keywords: challenge, relationship.
THE MICRO MANAGEMENT OF BOUNDARIES THROUGH HUMOUR AND LAUGHTER – Here the focus shifts to a largely unexplored dimension of consultancy, but an important boundary maker and breaker - the occurrence of laughter in meetings with clients. Three types of laughter are identified: jokes about third parties, jokes about consultants and jokes about clients. The analysis shows that patterns of laughter, can reveal whether clients and consultants constitute themselves as insiders or outsiders and how this can change over time. Vivid illustrations show how, as each humorous episode was negotiated, it enabled the clients and consultants to explore and test in a non-threatening way the shifting cultural boundaries in which their relationship was located. Humorous episodes often built on previous ones to establish a base of friendliness and common understanding that could be drawn upon when more was at stake; when understandings themselves needed to be challenged and changed. Keywords: humour, laughter, group cohesion, like-mindedness.
Management consultancy - Boundaries and knowledge in action by Sturdy, Handley, Clark and Fincham is published by Oxford University Press (ISBN 978-0-19-921264-4). It is unashamedly not a light read – there are few bullet points or diagrams – and is not a ‘how to do it’ book either. The authors are not best placed for that. But it is a serious attempt to explore knowledge flow and client-consultant project relations and to reveal some of what makes up consultancy, from the outside.