Are Management Consultants Magicians?

Paper within Counselling and Business Development
Author:         Anda Cedere
                     Annie Dao
                     Peggy Rapko
                     Irma Yxhage
Tutor:           Anders Johansson
                     Sven-Erik Johansson
Jönköping     November 1999

1         Introduction

In this report we are going to answer the question whether management consultants are magicians. We will primarily refer to the article by Clark and Salaman (1996) “The Management Guru as Organisational Witchdoctor”. Prior to discussion some terms will be defined, especially pointing out the different focus of the article and hence its relevance to our topic. Then the article will be briefly summarised and discussed. Afterwards we will seek to extend the discussion to cover the topic of management consultants.

1.1       Definitions

Our focus of this paper is management consultants, while Clark and Salaman (1996) essentially focus on management gurus as consultants. They intentionally draw a strict line between them and other management consultants with the purpose to present their point clearly and evidently. We however face a more complex task in having to comment on all management consultants. In order to do that we will occasionally refer to various types of consultants, but inevitably much of the discussion will turn about management gurus as the metaphor most clearly applies to them.
Magician, according to WWWebster dictionary (see Appendix 1), is someone skilled in magic or producing tricks and illusions. Looking up the word appearing in explanations we found the following recurring motives ascribed to magicians: (1) having extraordinary powers, influence, attraction, charm, (2) producing of illusions, tricks, (3) seeming to have access to or use supernatural forces, (4) wisdom, knowledge, skills. All these descriptions do not form a solid picture of a magician, rather, it gives four distinct (not necessarily compatible) characteristics. In our analysis, we will therefore approach these characteristics separately rather than trying to judge whether management consultants (by profession) are or are not magicians.
Witchdoctor (resp., witch doctor), on the other hand, had only one entry in this dictionary (see Appendix 1). It is a narrow term describing “a professional worker of magic usually in a primitive society who often works to cure sickness”(WWWebster Dictionary). As to other metaphors mentioned in the text by Clark and Salaman (1996), they mostly refer to religious leaders (often simultaneously “doctors” in primitive societies. Their concept fits within the characteristics of magicians, yet it is more specific, narrow.
In order to find out the real effect of management consultants and draw parallels, it is necessary to look at their activities, relationships and interaction with their clients, and their mutual attitudes, expectations and beliefs.

2         Gurus as Witchdoctors of Modern Age

In their article, Clark and Salaman find striking similarities between the way management gurus and witchdoctors operate. They have found that spectacular performance aimed at the consciousness of audience (while keeping certain secrets and mystique) is a central feature of the activities of both. They basically argue that management gurus are the witchdoctors of the modern world through similarities in their role, focus, technique, even nature of knowledge, background and effect of their work.
According to Clark and Salaman (1996), focus of their activities is the audience (managers) and their cognition, not the subject matter itself (organisations, their structures and processes). They do not aim that much to change activities and structures as their hearts and feelings (Huczynsky 1993, cited in Clark and Salaman 1996), with the claim to improve organisational skills and processes. Common characteristics of their performances are surprise, emotion, tension, high energy levels, audience involvement and mutual risk, mysteriousness (riddles and paradoxes), and non-rationality of the conveyed messages. Content of their work is to achieve transformations in consciousness and impress (thus building own social power that rests in reputation), and the method of their work is short, face-to-face, verbal one-way communication, events that are characterised by emotion, mystery, paradox, tension and risk.

2.1       Discussion

While generally the article was very persuasive, interesting and appealing, there are some aspects upon which we would like to comment. We believe that sometimes, in order to present their point with conviction, the authors (much like the witch-hunters of medieval ages) have overemphasised some characteristics of management gurus – so presenting them more similar to witchdoctors.
First of all, the article overly focuses on performance as the key explanation to guru success, but we want to argue that the method of guru work is not just surprising and impressing by a brilliant performances, since modern educated management audience expect more than just a form. They expect and demand content – innovative ideas, which are relevant for solving their problems. The very existence of gurudom does not explain why there are so many “believers” who recognise gurus, their ideas and work, among those who have never seen (been part of and been affected by) their performance. They are instead astonished by their ideas and knowledge.
Similarly, while emphasising the irrational aspects of the performances, the authors fail to acknowledge the rational content in their rhetoric. At the very least, some of their arguments and ideas appeal to rationality (seem rational), quite contrary to witchdoctors of primitive societies.
Their rhetoric (or performance) is still highly persuasive, but it of course differs from that of witchdoctors, as they live and operate in other circumstances. The media used by gurus are both personal presentation (performance) and writing. Books produced by management gurus probably form very major part of their popularity and influence. It is also a kind of performance, using specific rhetoric of persuasion and creating own “magical” image.
Also the focus of guru’s work is not purely the audience (managers). It could be in the front- stage of their performance, but not in the back-stage preparation process, in development and eventually in the content of their ideas they do focus on the object – management problems. They surely address management as the audience of their work, but the object of the conveyed messages is organisations, systems, market, environment, etc. So we can conclude that in fact they focus both on the audience and the subject matter.
The authors also have claimed that the content of guru work resembles that of witchdoctors in that they claim to achieve transformations in consciousness, and pass on the skills of decision making, diagnosis, etc. Yes, these are characteristics of process consultants’ job, but witchdoctors would never do that. Their skills are secret and the only thing passed to the audience is the emotional and cultural effect. Their work is even less tangible than that of management consultants, let alone management gurus.
We believe that while emphasising the performance and enchanting aspects of management guru performances, the authors have overlooked the deep general knowledge of gurus. They argue that the knowledge they possess “lacks the status and authority of other professional knowledge” and that “rigorous and long training [...] is irrelevant”, because their success “lies more in the management of the guru-client relationship as an event”. Without questioning the emphasis of the article, we would rather suggest that the training and expertise is relevant and necessary for arriving at the ideas, for building the relationship, the image and reputation in the first place. Management gurus must be more than merely brilliant actors (performers) – not every witchdoctor can easily be a guru. There is undoubtedly also a content (not just process) in their performance, developed on the basis of some good knowledge of the field, own experience and creativity.
The clients of management gurus are buying a promise. This is presented in the article as another indicator of parallels with witchcraft. In fact, most services (e.g., hairdressing, house repairs, legal services, marketing, etc.) involve buying a hope (or promise).
The examples of reverse logic presented in the article are not very evident. For example, smiling shop assistants may (and do) have a real positive effect on customer satisfaction: customers are not pure rational beings, and a smile has value per se. Similarly HRM is not just performing actions similar to the desired outcome – rather it has (when implemented) a real effect on employee attitudes, motivation and behaviour, because employees are not rational beings needing rational treatment. In addition, the “reverse logic” may also be in fact rational if the “optimal” action and the desired effect are interdependent (e.g. medical doctors know that optimism is instrumental to healing, although it may seem as the desired state resulting from healing).
Clark and Salaman (1996) mention that symbols and parables are often used to convey their messages. But in fact symbols, parables and metaphors are usually the most effective way the “high” cutting-edge ideas can be conveyed to managers with certainty (persuasion) without having to teach them for several decades the managerial knowledge that guru has learned. Yes, those symbols and maxims are usually intangible exaggerations, but they do perform their job – attract attention of the people in the organisation, mobilise, give confidence and hope, which later may lead to a tangible success (i.e., attainment of organisation’s goals). Nonaka (1991) has argued that for a knowledge creating organisation, it is necessary to release the creativity of the managers and employees through vague definitions, constraints and symbolic guidelines. He shows how symbols and slogans have been used in managing change and creativity to achieve tremendous success in some Japanese companies.

3         Extending the Metaphor

We have discussed the magic of management guru performances and their similarities to witchdoctors. Now we are going to discuss the possibilities to extend the parable to all management consultants and the four distinct characteristics of magicians mentioned above. Even if some of the characteristics of management gurus are common for other groups of consultants, most of the ones that have initiated drawing parallels with witchdoctors though do not apply to consultants as a group.
Clark and Salaman (1996) have deliberately distinguished gurus from other management consultants because their intention was not to include all management consultants in their discussion. There are differences between guru’s work and performance and that of other management consultants. However there might be occasions where their performance is similar. When a consultant gets a new assignment he might be met with biased attitudes from the client, ranging from suspicion to exaggeration of their helping role (Schein 1969), depending on earlier experiences from consultants or word of mouth. Then he/she must deal with the client’s feelings and attitudes.  It is not enough to have rational arguments to change the feelings and attitudes of the client. Because of these aspects of consulting, management consultants may need to use the methods of magicians, for example charm, attraction, influence, tricks and specific social skills.
There are different models of client-consultant relationship. Tilles (1961) and Schein (1969) mention for example the role of “business doctors” dispensing cures for the organisation (usually in fact dealing with the worries of senior managers) and Nees & Greiner (1985) distinguish management consultant roles like mental adventurer, strategy navigator, management physicians, system architect and friendly co-pilot. These roles suggest that management consultants really do possess a kind of unusual power, embodied in their knowledge and systems. Sometimes (especially in the doctor-patient model) the managers may subconsciously rely on management consultants as “magicians” who can influence luck, or other factors behind the managers’ control. Actually those names are just flattering the consultant. But at the same time these highlights the professional status of management consultants and enhance the expectations of what they can perform.
If a company hires management consultants, the effects can sometimes be “magical”. Since the value of consulting assignments and of consultant job in general is difficult to measure, (Delany 1995)), it is not really possible to assess the extent of “magic” added to the company value. Moreover, the consultant firms themselves are generally not interested in measuring the value of their work (ibid.). As shown by the hardly representative study done by Solomon (1997), consultants do have an effect on the stock price. However, the value of the company stocks may get higher due to psychological factors (Solomon 1997), and this can be described as “magic”.
The method of guru work and that of management consultants is very different. Consultants usually work in teams while management gurus are always solo artists, performers, stars – just like magicians, witchdoctors. The guru work is relatively short and mostly conveyed through verbal communication, however other types of consultants usually produce tangible reports, are engaged for a lengthier time period with an assignment. Especially this is true for process consultants (Delany 1995). A management guru can justify a higher fee for their appearance and they are also met with more reverential treatment than other consultants, but in fact most consultants charge premium fees, greatly explained by some “magic” or “mystique” in their work (Clark and Salaman 1996, Delany 1995). In fact, the process consultants described by Schein (1969) and (Delany 1995) can be more considered “magicians” in that they influence the processes (including cognitive processes) of the organisation. Their service is more intangible and their expertise is not always rational.

4         Conclusions

Briefly our answer to the topic question is negative. Management consultants in general cannot be considered magicians, although management gurus (as part of management consultants) are operating greatly like witchdoctors. However one should note the definitions behind this statement. We would like to suspend the normative content often associated with the words “magician” (one who makes magic, miraculous things happen) and “witchdoctor”(a fraud pretending to control forces he/she doesn’t). Our definitions are free of normative content and do not say anything about value consultants create for organisations.
1.      M. Kubr (1996) Management Consulting. A Guide to the Profession. International Labour Office, Geneva.
2.      Edgar H. Schein (1969) What is Process Consultation? Process Consultation. (1988) Addison-Vesley
3.      Ed Delany (1995) Strategy Consultants – Do They Add Value? Elsevier Science Ltd.
4.      Andrew L. Solomon (1997) Do Consultants Really Add Value to Client Firms? Business Horizons May/June 1997 Vol.40 Issue 3
5.      Timothy Clark and Graeme Salaman (1996) The Management Guru as Organizational Witchdoctor Organization Studies 1996 Vol.3
6.      Ikurijo Nonaka. (1991) The Knowledge-Creating Company. Harvard Business Review November-December 1991
7.      WWWebster Dictionary. Merriam-Webster Online.

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