When we summarize the role of the information or knowledge strategist, we generally say something like this: In every company, knowledge is developed, to be used for the benefit of the company and, when developed, shared wherever that knowledge brings benefit to the company. Managing that knowledge development/knowledge sharing (KD/KS) process is the work of the knowledge strategist.
Actionable knowledge is the basis of success in every company, organization, or enterprise. One of my colleagues even uses that “actionable-ness” to define knowledge: “Knowledge,” he says, “is information that is used.”
Well said. But then the critical question becomes: How is the knowledge used? What action is taken, using this knowledge that has been developed? How is the knowledge shared? And how does the larger enterprise benefit?
These questions come to mind as I read the provocative essay by Louis Menand in the March 19 issue of The New Yorker. While it could have been just another diatribe bouncing around the already over-crowded media coverage of the 2012 U.S. election, Menand’s essay – titled “Money Pol: Does Mitt Romney Really Love You?” – offers more. It is, in fact, an eye-opening description of important changes (if consultants aren’t careful) in the management consulting industry. If it was Menand’s intention to provide a look at how management consulting has been compromised in some consultancies while, at the same time, offering a look at what consulting is assumed (by most people) to be about, Menand has succeeded.
It helps to provide a little context, to think about Menand’s points as they might relate to what went on in the early days of consulting. When we think about Peter Drucker (often referred to as “the father of management” or “the father of modern management”), or McKinsey’s Marvin Bower (“the father of management consulting”), or the Boston Consulting Group’s Bruce Henderson (“the father of strategy”), we have a picture of people who moved into consulting with very high ideals about the role of the consultant. Growing into something of a combination teacher-leader-knowledge sharer and a straight-from-the-shoulder adviser, the people who pushed forward in the discipline’s early days prided themselves on the highest levels of ethics and excellence in service delivery.
Hopefully these standards continue (full disclosure: most readers know, I assume, that SMR is a management consulting practice), and, yes, there have been some changes, some modernization, you might say.
One quote from Menand provides a succinct (and, I would state, fair) general understanding about consulting these days:
The standard practice at places like B.C.G. and McKinsey is to parachute a team of consultants into the client firm. The team gathers and analyzes data, tons of it, and, after about six weeks, it presents its conclusions and recommendations to senior management. The team is then airlifted back to the mother ship and the relationship effectively ceases.
Note that among the firms Menand cites are Boston Consulting Group (B.C.G.) and McKinsey. In doing so, it seems to me, Menand is making the point that – even with modern or, I suppose we could say, with 21st-century practices – there is still a connection or a link to the expectation of high levels of performance and customer satisfaction from the industry’s early days. In my mind, this is the point at which management consulting and knowledge strategy come together. A good case could be made that the two disciplines have enough in common to benefit customers and clients of both management consultants and knowledge strategists:
- performance excellence (as just mentioned)
- customer/client satisfaction (ditto)
- experience, education, expertise (and prior expertise development)
- unique position in the industry or profession
- clear problem description/needs assessment/objective development from the customer/client point-of-view
- high ethical standards
With these six attributes, we establish an over-arching framework for knowledge development and knowledge sharing (KD/KS), resulting in – for the management consultant’s clients and the knowledge strategist’s clients – a knowledge culture. The framework opens the way to transparency, openness, and actionable opinion, supporting organizational effectiveness. When all is said and done, it’s a natural connection – this link between management consulting and knowledge strategy – and it makes sense.
As for the rest of Menand’s story, it is a fascinating narrative and well describes presidential aspirant Romney’s experiences and those of his employer (Bain & Company), and how their “take” on management consulting as a profession diverges in a number of different ways from accepted practice. Provocative reading all around, and particularly enlightening for those of us who work as or advise knowledge strategists.