Thursday, November 27, 2008

Hello, I'm a management consultant !

By Laurie Taylor

Is a gig talking to blue-chip companies about the "challenge of change", strategic objectives and empowering workers a licence to print money?
Whenever I parked my beaten-up mini van in the staff car park at the University of York I used to glance enviously across at the very much grander gleaming car which occupied the opposite space. How could anyone on academic pay possibly afford such a luxurious monster?
A colleague explained that it belonged to a member of the economics department who earned a great deal of extra money from consultancy work for major blue-chip companies. And why had no-one ever asked me to provide similar services?
"Frankly," said my colleague, "No respectable businessman would be seen dead asking for advice from a sociologist.
"But," he added helpfully, "You could always write to a few companies and mention your availability."
I did just that. And then sat back and waited. No-one replied.
I tried again. And this time there was a bite. A major computer company asked me to go and talk to them about what I could offer. Would £500 a day for such an initial meeting be satisfactory?
When I turned up for my first day's work I was introduced to the CEO, who explained over coffee in the boardroom that he was anxious for his senior team "to be up to speed" with the latest developments in management theory.
"Does that fall into your area of expertise?""Oh yes," I said, praying he didn't ask me any questions at all about an area of knowledge which was about as familiar to me as quantum mechanics or medieval history.

There was more. My new power-suited friend told me that once I'd briefed his top team I could then go on to address several hundred other employees at the High Achievers conference to be held in two months time in the Prince Rainier auditorium in Monte Carlo.
As I left his office I could almost see a cartoon bubble stuffed with five pound notes sprouting from my forehead. All that could be mine if only I could master management theory in the following few weeks.
At least £200 of my first day's consultancy fee went on management textbooks. One or two made some sense but most were full of flatulent jargon about targets, goals and strategic objectives.
Management theorists seemed particularly fond of interlocking boxes connected by two and three way arrows. Nearly all subscribed to the idea that companies could be made more profitable, provided they had rational well-organised management which could motivate and empower the workforce.
Somehow or other I wove these dubious insights together and drew up an outline for my Monte Carlo speech. It was an uneasy mixture of jargon, platitude and downright nonsense, but I was encouraged by the way in which the senior executives I'd tried it on in advance seemed to feel it hit the spot. They had, at least, nodded encouragingly.
When the great day came, I was rather flattered by the reception I received from the packed auditorium. My two jokes went down well and my rousing final paragraph about the challenge of change had one man in the second row rising to his feet with what I presumed to be enthusiasm.
Bonding moment
Afterwards in the conference bar I allowed myself to bask in the after-glow. But only one delegate came over to talk; a rather slovenly man who'd clearly overlooked the conference instruction to dress smart/casual.
"Very good," he said with an evident lack of enthusiasm. "You enjoyed it?""It served its function." "How do you mean - its function?" "Well," said my untidy new friend, "We always like to have a really dud speaker like you early on in the conference. It raises our solidarity. After the talk we can all roll out to the bar, put our arms around people we don't really like from departments we can't stand, and all jump up and down together shouting 'Wasn't he bloody awful'. There's nothing like a disaster for bringing people together."
I slunk away from Monte Carlo and abandoned my consultancy work for ever. My fraudulent attempts to promote a rational account of how organisations might improve and prosper had been effectively blown apart by one solid blast of realism. What brought people together in this organisation was clearly not a recognition of its strategic goals, but a mass subversion of the person who'd been employed to articulate them.
Michael Thompson, the author of Organising and Disorganising, demonstrates the absurdity of organisations entertaining single management goals, and positively celebrates the value of subversion. If only I had read him much earlier.



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