A sheep in wolf's clothing

Con Tricks
November 20, 1998

No longer are consultants simply saints or shysters, Winston Fletcher finds

Con Tricks, appropriately enough, is a bit of a con trick. It appears to be one thing but turns out to be another. At face value it promises to be a kiss-and-tell expose of management consultancy at its most venal. The jacket shows a consultant with an ace up his sleeve, like a second-rate conjuror, and refers to "the shadowy world of management consultancy". But you should never judge a book by its cover - nor by a catchpenny title, for that matter.

Contrary to appearances, Con Tricks is an honest, balanced and down-to-earth analysis of management consultancy's strengths and weaknesses. It is closer to being a sensible textbook than a sensationalist pot-boiler. It highlights the things consultants can do well, and fingers their inadequacies. It is a much sounder book, and a much better book, than its packaging suggests.

In recent years, as Martin Ashford shows, management consultancy has been a booming business. The industry - if that word does not offend you - was in effect born in the 1980s, and by 1996 the world's top 30 consultancies were estimated to have a turnover of $29 billion (£19 billion). In the same year, 97% of The Times 200 largest companies were using consultants, and in the previous five years the British government had spent a mighty £2.29 billion on their services. Their burgeoning reflects the ever increasing complexity of business and of government. Many senior managers in both public and private sectors now recognise that without outside advice, they cannot hope to cope.

Maybe this explosive growth prompted Ashford to feel, when he set out, that even to suggest management consultancies have lacunae would be controversial. Maybe he believed that saying management consultancies are not infallible was pretty provocative in itself. Maybe that is why he constantly reaches for denigratory descriptions of consultants - he dubs them "the prostitutes of the business world" and brands them as wily deceivers by calling them "cons" rather than consultants throughout, which is both irritating and childish. (He also has a silly habit of feminising clients and consultants, calling them all "she". He offers no explanation for this quirk, which is sometimes quite confusing.) Yet Ashford had no reason to aim for the bestseller lists with cheap flourishes. Even before the book was written he had carried out a survey among both consultants and their clients that revealed a good deal of disillusionment, on both sides. This study, which forms the backbone the book, reveals that image of management consultancy in Britain is far from Olympian.

To list just a few of his survey's findings: * Only 28 per cent of their clients think "consultants are good value for money"

* More than 50 per cent think "consultants' first loyalty is to their firm, not to their clients"

* Only 24 per cent think "consultants are good at coming up with original ideas for their clients" while a whacking 75 per cent agreed with its opposite: "consultants are better at fleshing out clients' ideas than at suggesting new ones".

From all of which you might deduce that things are far from well in consultancy's "shadowy world".

But the survey came up with many positive findings, too. More than half of the clients surveyed agreed with each of the following relatively laudatory statements: * "Consultancy projects make a valuable contribution to most of their clients"

* "Consultants achieve results faster than clients could on their own"

* "Consultants are good at catalysing change in their clients".

And more than 70 per cent of the clients said the results of consultancy projects undertaken for them had been at least acceptable, and usually successful.

Management consultants, in other words, are neither saints nor shysters. Only the most naive will find that a surprise. Like the rest of humanity, consultants are curates' eggs: good in parts. And the strength of Ashford's book is that he spotlights which parts are good, which not -and shows clients how to get the most out of what they do well while avoiding the things they do poorly.

Having been a consultant himself, and being able to write with admirable clarity (despite his stylistic quirks), Ashford offers consultancy clients a good deal of straightforward and unpretentious advice. Much of it is common sense: brief consultants clearly and in detail, make sure the consultancy team does not change as soon as they have won the business, ensure they stick to the original specification (or have very, very good reasons for changing it) and so on. Such advice is well worth setting down, especially for those novice users of consultants who may be slightly in awe of them.

But as Ashford's data shows, few experienced managers see consultants through rose-tinted spectacles. Equally, they know consultants are not cons or card-sharps. So there can be little reason for dressing a sensible sheep in such crassly inappropriate wolf's clothing.

Winston Fletcher is chairman, Bozell UK Group.

Con Tricks: The Shadowy World of Management Consultancy and How to Make it Work for You

Author - Martin Ashford
ISBN - 0 684 82141 9
Publisher - Simon & Schuster
Price - £17.99
Pages - 298

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