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letting off steam

questioning the value of business consultancy

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Consultants - do they belong in the workplace?

I like to keep these polemical, non-academic rants short but that could be a massive understatement in this case. Consultants are there for when top management fails in an organisation, usually to perform tasks that Senior Management has not the courage to perform itself. Well briefed consultants will remove people, Departments and the livelihood of whole towns without batting an eyelid. Consultants are the enforcers weak management use to implement poor ideas. They are a means to an end that never includes a close examination of the Senior Management function itself - usually the only significant problem.

Would anybody other than a 'consultant' disagree with the above? N'uff said. But wait, surely they provide a level of expertise or a non-biased viewpoint? Surely they can introduce new ideas and concepts and there's that huge list of other organisations they have 'helped'. Well, unless you are talking about those that specialise in creative accounting advice, I doubt it. All that consultants are asked to do, or can think of, can be done within the existing structure of any organisation if only so many of them didn't suffer from weak, often unnecessary, Senior Management structures, whose sole objective is always to retain their own positions and empires.

A favourite area of consultation is in the boom industry of standards acquisition. What a marketing coup they have pulled off, which in itself is a boom consultation cash cow. Standards are expensive to acquire and if they have one, we've got to have one; EU procurement rules say we have to have one; the competition have got one (or several); our customers expect one and so on until the very people who sell us the idea that they are 'necessary' sell us the process of acquiring one. Most standards merely enumerate the obvious, easily derived and extrapolated from the common sense and expertise of an experienced workforce. Why would you ignore them, other than to protect your own interests?

Good management practice should already be applying standards methodology by default. The secret is to think of every possible system that could be used to prevent problems and/or mitigate for them, while applying the requirements of any laws and regulations applicable to your organisation. Doing this, especially if you can bring yourself to think like one of your most 'difficult' customers/clients, will ensure success or will expose the frailties of your business model.

Following the above, you will save yourself significant industrial relations problems, customer complaints and undue regulator attention and if you decide to acquire a relevant standard, everything will already be in place - no major upheaval required and no consultants necessary. Resourcing is always the key. If you can't afford to implement a standard (with or without a consultant) you probably have your head buried in the sand and have forgotten how to listen. If you can't implement the essence of one without a consultant your priorities are wrong. Change the Senior Management structure first (tip - shrink it); change your HR policies; change your attitude then invest where it is actually needed and as if by magic, having consulted with the whole workforce and listened, you will find yourself running a much healthier organisation. You won't have any unnecessary standards or poorly implemented ones and you won't have paid outsiders to do your job for you.

Customers don't care about badges and certificates, they care about the quality of service or product and price. If you are not selling enough, it is because the quality has to be improved, of product, service and after-care. If you can't afford to provide those things, your business model is flawed or your senior management is not working. Looking for an edge, blind your customers with quality and leave the competition standing and do it without paying for a certificate on the wall.

If you are an MBA touting senior manager, director or CEO of any organisation in the process of considering employing any kind of consultant/guru/motivational expert, stop. It is not too late to stop your founders turning in their graves. Be honest, and think back to the point where things started to go wrong/need fixing and recognize the real cause. If it is not yourself, it will be someone senior you appointed. Fix that!

For every cherry-picked example of 'good practice' found in a consultant's sales literature, you will find an example of a worrying history with a just a careful bit of sleuthing on the web. For over a century we have all been trained to tune in to the marketing pitch in all walks of life. Falling for it hook, line and sinker is deadly in business when you give somebody else the power to interfere without doing your research. Consultancy is a parasitical entity feeding off the weaknesses in any organisation if can get its claws into. They will never ensnare strong organisms. It is better to build up your strength and resistance than trying to cure a disease with ineffective medication, which amounts to nothing more than opinion anyway.

Of course, very large organisations often can't decipher and unravel the history of all the whys, hows and whos. They are at the greatest risk of succumbing to vampires. I said it above - consult within first. There is no doubt at all that those in the workforce that haven't had every last vestige of morale drained from them by poor management, will know the most efficient and cost-effective way to solve your problems. The long-term prognosis will be far happier, less litigious and more successful than allowing an external agency to 'fix' things from the top down.

In conclusion, it's not rocket science and even if it is, don't throw the baby out with the bath water; instead, deal with the elephant in the room. Clich├ęs apart, no organisation got where it is because the people there now and everybody who went before them didn't know what they were doing. Why do you think you know better then them and why would an external consultant? If it wasn't broke why did you try and fix it at that point I asked you to think back to above. Tread carefully and respectfully on the graves of the builders, organisers and fixers of the past. Nothing they did is irrelevant and you owe them your job. There is nothing more embarrassing or suicidal in career terms than re-inventing the wheel whatever you choose to call it now. Avoid consultants unless you are dealing with a wholly new area of specialism where lives depend on it.

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