The Charges Against Consultancy

ACCUSE – To affirm another’s guilt or unworth; most commonly as a justification of ourselves for having wronged him.
Ambrose Bierce – Writer and editor

Consultants are a fashionable target for complaints in the popular press rather like estate agents, lawyers and merchant bankers. Yet it is not just the press where consultants are criticised.

The UK Government’s National Audit Office have been critical of departments use of consultants in some high profile projects where costs have spiralled or projects have over-run, or failed. However, in reality, the government departments that have employed them are often equally culpable.

Interestingly, studies have found that while senior management may be satisfied with their use of consultants, the further down an organisation one looks, the more negative the perception. Senior decision makers have a vested interest in a successful story, perhaps because they commissioned the project; inevitably those “on the ground” are more likely to have their routines and procedures disturbed, hence an often hackneyed view of consultants and their ideas.

When high profile failures are focussed on, often reports are laden with sensational details about alleged overspending and waste. The consultants are often blamed, but usually there will have been some significant mismanagement on behalf of the client. Such cases are not especially helpful when objectively analysing legitimate criticisms of consulting.

These main criticisms are

  • Advice given by consultants doesn’t work – often it is also over budget – In the main, statistics tell a different tale. Both Price Waterhouse Coopers, Ernst & Young and the MCA have carried out surveys showing clients are generally reasonably happy with the consultants they employ.
  • Consultants repackage old advice – “old wine in new bottles” – Consultants are frequently told they simply create fads and fashions that insecure managers find very attractive, and it is true that many of the basic management products don’t really change, even when the labels alter. However, there are also many genuine innovations where consultancies have used new technologies or methods to meet new challenges.
  • Consultants pray on the insecurities and ignorance of managers – There is some evidence that commissioning managers are sometimes out of their depth when dealing with consultants and are easily ‘conned’ by good salesman. However, the introduction of procurement teams, and the growing eperience of clients in dealing with consultants has lessened this – and client / consultant engagements have become more routine and processed.
  • Consultants can’t be trusted – Whilst some surveys show clients don’t all trust their consultants, the profession is usually rated above journalists, politicians, lawyers and bankers. Additionally, the 10,000% increase in spending on consulting work between 1980 and 2007 does not indicate a lack of trust.
  • Consultants can’t do anything existing employees can’t do themselves – It is true that consultants often perform a mundane function for business managers, filling short term holes and saving long term headcount. However, in surveys, the biggest reason clients employ consultants is to ‘do things our employees can’t’.

These criticisms and charges can be described in more detail here:

The Charges Against Consultancy from Joe O'Mahoney on Vimeo.

Perhaps the biggest criticism faced by contemporary consultancies is that there are some conflicts of interest – a discussion of which can be found here.

A consultant is someone who saves his client almost enough to pay his fee.
Arnold H. Glasgow – American Humourist

NHS IT special report