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Management Consultants - What Do They Do?

Research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) challenges the notion that management consultants play a vital role as expert outsiders in disseminating new approaches within organizations.

Led by Andrew Sturdy, professor of organizational studies at Warwick Business School, together with professor Robin Fincham of the University of Stirling, professor Timothy Clark of Durham, and associate Dr Karen Handley of Oxford Brookes University, the innovative three-year project found such assumptions to be exaggerated and misleading.

Researchers spent 30 months working alongside consultants and their clients in four distinct settings:

  • a multinational company (strategy analysis);
  • a financial services retailer (IT development);
  • a prison (project management and quality), and
  • a local authority (e-procurement).

Using surveys, observation and interviews, they analyzed what happens when clients and consultants work together and how relationships impact on the flow of knowledge. They also surveyed paired clients and consultants in association with the Management Consultancies Association's 2004-05 Best Management Practice Awards.

Researchers concluded that management consultants could often be seen as insiders, similar to their clients in a variety of ways, concerned with project management and completion and more "knowledge brokers than innovators".

Andrew Sturdy said:

"The image of consultants as experts - the shock troops of the latest approach to management - doesn't match their day-to-day work with clients in projects. Typically, they are seen as outsiders, bringing ideas and organizational techniques which are new to their clients. But in reality, we found that prospective clients were unlikely to welcome consultants if their knowledge was 'too new'."

The study found that commissioning clients were often knowledgeable and experienced. They welcomed a challenge provided the consultant demonstrated a realistic understanding of the organization and was not perceived to be interfering or suggesting a non-specific solution. Gaining trust and confidence at all levels in the organization was essential, "best achieved by demonstrating intelligence, commitment and willingness to engage with its problems, and respecting the knowledge of its employees".

Andrew Sturdy commented:

"The real outsiders then, are those people not directly involved in the project team, often including the most senior management and the rest of the client organization. This is important, as it means that consultants are not as innovative or different as is often thought. But this can help in their role as knowledge-brokers. The main barriers then become the initial selling process, and later the implementation; typically still the preserve of managers more than consultants."

The ESRC Business Placement Fellows Scheme offers an alternative to consultants and aims to improve knowledge transfer between academics, partner organizations and their employees. Jointly funded by the ESRC and the host organization, social science researchers spend one to 12 months carrying out an agreed project and assisting with staff development. Employees in the business sector can also undertake a placement in a research environment.



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