Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Management consultants – pin-striped pigeons

Now, having said all that, they [management consultants] are a bit like rats. Or, to put it more kindly, pigeons (also referred to by London mayor Ken Livingstone as “rats with wings”). They spread diseases – allow me to explain.

I have been working on a large research project which analyses the spread of harmful management practices (a dodgy type of control system, faulty financial instrument, counterproductive management technique, etc.). One could conjecture that harmful management practices never see the light of day (wrong) or that if they accidentally do, they will always quickly die out and disappear (wrong again). Perhaps I will bore you with the findings of this project some other time but for now let me dwell on how these harmful practices actually spread across firms.

Yep, that’s where the pin-striped pigeons come in – ok, some of them rats. Harmful management practices spread much like a virus. Actually, the patterns of how they spread among firms can be modelled successfully using techniques from social anthropology on the diffusion of harmful cultural practices (such as footbinding in China, female circumcision, etc.), which not coincidentally have been adopted from epidemiology.

A virus survives – like the flu – by spreading to a new host, preferably before the old one dies. Often, there are some creatures (e.g. rats) that facilitate the spread amongst the creatures of another species (e.g. humans). That’s much of what management consultants do, even knowingly: picking up practices in one industry or country and recommending and applying them in others. Just like viruses or bacteria, some of these practices are not very helpful to say the least (although harmful effects may only manifest themselves in the long run), others may have been useful in the original setting (e.g. industry) but completely inappropriate in the new one.

Unintentionally – again, just like the poor pigeons in Trafalgar Square – management consultants promote the spread and persistence of the harmful practice. According to Mayor Livingstone, they’re best banned and starved to death.

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