Consulting is More Than Giving Advice

By Arthur N. Turner | Harvard Business Review September 1982 Issue

Management consulting includes a broad range of activities, and the many firms and their members often define these practices quite differently. One way to categorize the activities is in terms of the professional’s area of expertise (such as competitive analysis, corporate strategy, operations management, or human resources). But in practice, as many differences exist within these categories as between them.

Another approach is to view the process as a sequence of phases—entry, contracting, diagnosis, data collection, feedback, implementation, and so on. However, these phases are usually less discrete than most consultants admit.

Perhaps a more useful way of analyzing the process is to consider its purposes; clarity about goals certainly influences an engagement’s success. Here are consulting’s eight fundamental objectives, arranged hierarchically:

  1. Providing Information

Perhaps the most common reason for seeking assistance is to obtain information. Compiling it may involve attitude surveys, cost studies, feasibility studies, market surveys, or analyses of the competitive structure of an industry or business. The company may want a consultant’s special expertise or the more accurate, up-to-date information the firm can provide. Or the company may be unable to spare the time and resources to develop the data internally.

  1. Solving Problems

Managers often give consultants difficult problems to solve. For example, a client might wish to know whether to make or buy a component, acquire or divest a line of business, or change a marketing strategy. Or management may ask how to restructure the organization to be able to adapt more readily to change; which financial policies to adopt; or what the most practical solution is for a problem in compensation, morale, efficiency, internal communication, control, management succession, or whatever.

  1. Effective Diagnosis

Much of management consultants’ value lies in their expertise as diagnosticians. Nevertheless, the process by which an accurate diagnosis is formed sometimes strains the consultant-client relationship, since managers are often fearful of uncovering difficult situations for which they might be blamed. Competent diagnosis requires more than an examination of the external environment, the technology and economics of the business, and the behavior of nonmanagerial members of the organization. The consultant must also ask why executives made certain choices that now appear to be mistakes or ignored certain factors that now seem important.

  1. Recommending Actions

The engagement characteristically concludes with a written report or oral presentation that summarizes what the consultant has learned and that recommends in some detail what the client should do. Firms devote a great deal of effort to designing their reports so that the information and analysis are clearly presented and the recommendations are convincingly related to the diagnosis on which they are based. Many people would probably say that the purpose of the engagement is fulfilled when the professional presents a consistent, logical action plan of steps designed to improve the diagnosed problem. The consultant recommends, and the client decides whether and how to implement.

  1. Implementing Changes

The consultant’s proper role in implementation is a matter of considerable debate in the profession. Some argue that one who helps put recommendations into effect takes on the role of manager and thus exceeds consulting’s legitimate bounds. Others believe that those who regard implementation solely as the client’s responsibility lack a professional attitude, since recommendations that are not implemented (or are implemented badly) are a waste of money and time. And just as the client may participate in diagnosis without diminishing the value of the consultant’s role, so there are many ways in which the consultant may assist in implementation without usurping the manager’s job.

  1. Building Consensus & Commitment

Any engagement’s usefulness to an organization depends on the degree to which members reach accord on the nature of problems and opportunities and on appropriate corrective actions. Otherwise, the diagnosis won’t be accepted, recommendations won’t be implemented, and valid data may be withheld. To provide sound and convincing recommendations, a consultant must be persuasive and have finely tuned analytic skills. But more important is the ability to design and conduct a process for (1) building an agreement about what steps are necessary and (2) establishing the momentum to see these steps through. An observation by one consultant summarizes this well.

  1. Facilitating Client Learning

Management consultants like to leave behind something of lasting value. This means not only enhancing clients’ ability to deal with immediate issues but also helping them learn methods needed to cope with future challenges. This does not imply that effective professionals work themselves out of a job. Satisfied clients will recommend them to others and will invite them back the next time there is a need.

  1. Organizational Effectiveness

Sometimes successful implementation requires not only new management concepts and techniques but also different attitudes regarding management functions and prerogatives or even changes in how the basic purpose of the organization is defined and carried out. The term organizational effectiveness is used to imply the ability to adapt future strategy and behavior to environmental change and to optimize the contribution of the organization’s human resources.

 

Read more at HBR.org

By Hayden Duplechain
Hayden Duplechain Career Development Specialist Hayden Duplechain