Consulting Complexities: How Growth Undermines Service

This post on how growth undermines service is the third in our series that looks at what interferes with our capacity to serve, even in the face of our best intentions. It speaks to the industry as a whole, though both internal and external consultants will recognize the tensions between doing what is popular out of the words of top management and providing genuine service to a client. Future posts will get into other complexities that undermine our best efforts. Winding up the series will be some thoughts on what to do.

The growing marketplace for consulting services intensifies the complexities around the commercialization of our profession. For example, in the large accounting firms, consulting services used to be a second cousin—something done because the client demanded it or the consultants themselves got restless doing the more routine financial work they had been doing too long. The large consulting companies were primarily experts in a particular aspect of business, such as marketing, regulatory requirements, or technical innovation. Services aimed at and changing organization culture were not really on their radar screen.

Much of the growth of consulting has been riding the wave of the technology explosion combined with the trend toward downsizing. Most large organizations have found it more profitable to shrink and merge and outsource jobs. This creates the challenge of having fewer people doing more work, and the consulting industry has been the beneficiary of this movement.

The demand for consulting services has also grown because of the interest in quality improvement, better customer service, and changing cultures toward more engaged workplaces. All of these goals are worthy, but what I want to explore is how the commercialization of our services ended up subverting their intent.

Reengineering is a good example of an area of practice that had power and relevance. Its intent was inarguable but something shifted when the idea became commercialized and popular. Reengineering became the rage and consulting firms began to make promises that were unsustainable. After a good run, the work fell of its own weight.

The reengineering craze reached a point where whatever change we had in mind was called reengineering. Every department thought it was reengineering itself. The energy was more about becoming modern than becoming better. Reengineering became synonymous with restructuring and was sold by the large accounting and consulting firms with promises of a 30 to 50 percent return on the investment.

The dark side of reengineering, which threatened the whole profession, is that the promises made to sell the work either were never fulfilled or could finally be achieved only by eliminating jobs on a wide scale. The goal of restructuring the work process for the sake of the customer was more often than not unrealized. In fact, many of the users of reengineering began to reverse their efforts because they found the concept unworkable.

Reengineering,  like the more current desire to be lean and agile,  is a good example of two larger consulting complexities: how consultants take advantage of what is in vogue and how we pursue covert purposes.

When an idea is fashionable it becomes, almost by definition, a cosmetic solution. When we offer a service primarily because clients want it, we have chosen commerce over care. If we were strictly a business you might say, What’s the problem? The customer is always right. We only gave them what they asked for. Being also a service function, though, means that something more is due to the client.

When we offer a service primarily because clients want it, we have chosen commerce over care.

The other consulting complexity exemplified by reengineering is a form of double-dealing––for example when force reductions are packaged as organization improvement. Who could argue with restructuring for the sake of the customer? Organizations went through a long process of interviews, redesign teams, and extensive selling and training for the new system when the real net result of the effort was the elimination of jobs with little real change in function or culture.

Clients have a right to expect us to decide whether what the client is willing to buy will deliver what the client really needs. If the client asks for a service that will not help, or may even be harmful, then when do we say no and turn away the work? It is a tough thing to do, especially for internal consultants. Clients also have a right to expect us to speak and act authentically. If our work is packaged and sold as something it is not, we betray trust and set the client on a path to harmful results.