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Re-thinking the role of management consultants as disseminators of business knowledge – knowledge flows, directions and conditions in consulting projects. Andrew Sturdy* Karen Handley, Timothy Clark and Robin Fincham *Warwick Business School, University of Warwick Coventry CV4 7AL, UK

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Re-thinking the role of management consultants as disseminators of business knowledge – knowledge flows, directions and conditions in consulting projects

Andrew Sturdy*

Karen Handley, Timothy Clark and Robin Fincham

*Warwick Business School, University of Warwick

Coventry CV4 7AL, UK

[email protected]

Summary disseminators of business knowledge – knowledge flows, directions and conditions in consulting projects

  • Consultants seen as core agents in the dissemination of business knowledge (relative expertise; rhetoric; knowledge management)

  • few studies focus on their role in projects with client organisations

  • paper examines knowledge flow in consultancy projects from longitudinal observation and interview research & survey of clients and consultants

  • conventional view of consultants as disseminators of new management ideas to clients is, at best, exaggerated and certainly misrepresents their role in project work.

  • knowledge flow tends to occur by default; concerned with project processes/management; multiple, sometimes unexpected, directions

  • enabling and constraining conditions for knowledge flow are identified - not in a deterministic sense, but as a loose or partial structuring of knowledge in practice.

  • acknowledge support of the ESRC/EBK (RES-334-25-0004)

Introduction and context
Introduction and context disseminators of business knowledge – knowledge flows, directions and conditions in consulting projects

  • economic importance of knowledge - emphasis on role of those bringing new knowledge into organisations from the outside (assumes that all new knowledge is good… for whom?)

  • external management consultants seen at the forefront - ‘pre-eminent knowledge brokers’ - expert outsiders (McKenna, 2006).

  • few studies - assumed that because consultants actively promote new management ideas and widely used, they do perform this role.

  • knowledge studies of consultancy reproduce conventional and common sense view of consultants - ‘marginality’ as key in bringing distinctive and unfamiliar knowledge (eg management and change methods and tools v ‘operational’ knowledge of clients) but knowledge clash presents‘burden of otherness’ for consultants

  • this conventional view of consultants as outsiders bringing alien knowledge to clients is highly problematic, as a generalisation, in consultancy projects and a conceptual framing of knowledge flow.

Complexity and variety from wider consultancy ps relationship literature
Complexity and Variety (from wider consultancy/PS/relationship literature)

  • process consultancy (but process experts)

  • legitimate senior client knowledge

  • client familiarity with mcy kn/tools (media, MBAs)

  • learn from (eg innovative) clients; co-produce as ‘partial employees’ in product development etc

  • So…need to specify the actors and dynamics or stages of consultancy - once the project has begun, selling ideas lessens in significance, especially for the project team members (a liminal space) – key boundary, like project work, is with team and other organisations

Knowledge flow over transfer
Knowledge Flow over Transfer consultancy/PS/relationship literature)

  • conventional view implicitly assumes a view of knowledge as a pseudo object (cf translation or ‘re-invention’). We are concerned with

    • the mobilisation of a range of knowledges in business contexts rather than specific and separate knowledge forms

    • with practices, processes and conditions and how they relate to identity and power

    • communication as well as meaning or understanding and the politics of knowledge and its transformation associated both with actors’ senses of interests or motivations (cf Carlile, 2004).

  • But modest aims - ‘one particularly important topic which has as yet to be explored empirically is knowledge flow between the heterogeneous communities and networks that cut across an organisation’ (Tagliaventi and Mattarelli 2006: 292).

Empirical study
Empirical study consultancy/PS/relationship literature)

  • Four project cases selected to maximise the degree of difference

  • 'observer as participant' (35 formal project meetings), semi-structured interviews (81) and documentary research

  • survey of participants in the 2003/4 and 2004/5 Management Consultancies Association (MCA) Awards for Best Management Practice (ie ideals).

  • Re data collection and analysis, developed a framework informed where learning is viewed as the devt of practices and identity through different forms of participation within communities and networks of practice

  • Analysis of Knowledge Flow in Case Study Projects - Specific content; media/practices/channels; capacity issues; orientations (see appendix in paper)

Summary of Case Study Projects consultancy/PS/relationship literature)

Mca s annual awards survey and interviews
MCA's Annual Awards Survey and Interviews consultancy/PS/relationship literature)

Findings i knowledge domains
Findings I - consultancy/PS/relationship literature)Knowledge Domains

  • some evidence of conventional view but by default as design - even when explicit, learning was not always pursued or achieved, especially beyond the project group context - focus on project objectives in time (cf IT project - practices designed into the system)

    • more amorphous notions of consultants’ ‘external’ view & client sector kn. & from reflection from commissioning consultants

    • the low priority formally attributed to conventional knowledge transfer has not been evident in prior research.

    • survey open question - ‘what have you personally learned through your involvement in this project?’, only 10 (from 110 entries) referred to learning about the specific content of the project (eg culture/BPR etc).

    • where learning was far more evident from the accounts of actors at least, was in the domain of project practices and processes more generally (the remaining 100 of the 110 entries were concerned with project (32) and change management (29) either generally or in terms of the importance of clear and shared goals etc

Findings ii directions and actors
Findings II - consultancy/PS/relationship literature)Directions and actors

  • From consultants to clients – in strategy case: internal organisational knowledge in the form of client procedures, personnel and strategic data -an organisational library or memory.

  • Among consultants and clients – general and consultancy project management knowledge and responsibility.

  • From clients to consultants – consultants gained or appropriated client organisation and sector (contextual) knowledge from project participation in contextualising their analyses and prescriptions & identifying future business opportunities.

  • Among clients – commissioning consultants itself prompted reflection among clients and seeking out other sources of information such as elsewhere in their particular sector.

  • Among consultants –internal KM was largely beyond the scope of this research, but: incidental observation and coaching with respect to client, process and project domain knowledge and testing and using tools and frameworks.

Findings iii enabling and constraining channels practices and orientations
Findings III - consultancy/PS/relationship literature)Enabling (and constraining) Channels, Practices and Orientations

  • range of (pre-)conditions, practices, orientations, actors and channels which seem to enable knowledge flows (eg transfer, translation, application).

  • Some relate to checklists but more contextualised.

    • Time, space, motiv’n and planning for activity, observation & reflection

    • Interactional styles of challenge appropriate to individuals, phase and context (eg combined humour/politeness for communication).

    • Development relationships such as an emerging commitment to project goals and individual credibility / likeability.

    • Consultant able/allowed to acquire/use contextual knowledge early

    • Legitimation; formal & informal learning networks, meetings and processes (including documentation) in and beyond project team

    • hindering knowledge flow: absence of the enablers; consultants’ lack of contextualised (eg organisational/sector) knowledge; parties’: ‘tiredness’ or low investment in relationship and/or project; failure to anticipate knowledge transfer; clients’: negative prior/early perceptions of consultant/firm (eg credibility) leading to lack of engagement (cf push back) and failure to create space for communication etc etc

Conclusions i
Conclusions I consultancy/PS/relationship literature)

  • The traditional concern with persuasive consulting rhetoric and clients responses to it and the more or less explicit adoption of a diffusion perspective becomes less salient.

  • set out an overview of some of the findings with respect to the domains, directions and conditions of knowledge flows

  • emphasis was placed by actors on gaining knowledge of project processes such as project, consultancy and change management.

  • knowledge flow not a formal or primary objective in the case study projects

  • at the level of the project, clients are more likely than their peers already to have a sense of expertise in the project domain – lit. overestimates the degree of ‘otherness’ and weakness of ties

  • caution is required here at the methodological level - reluctant to admit, or perceive themselves as, ‘sub-expert’ in relation to consultants

Conclusions ii
Conclusions II consultancy/PS/relationship literature)

  • If learning is wholly or at least partly, based in practices, especially those shared through participation in joint activity, then it is hardly surprising that those involved in project practices report this domain as significant – it is what they were doing.

  • (cf (pre) sales presentations or implementation of a new management approach)

  • some unexpected directions of knowledge flow - from consultants to clients as organisational memory or ‘database’

  • also clear that more classically cognitive processes were important - reflection & ‘writing things down’!

  • detailing contexts revealed complexity rarely evident in generalised checklists and conditions eg space for joint working, can be experienced differently - need to allow for situational specificity, (embedded?) human agency and relationship dynamics.

  • conditions might be seen as a loose or partial structuring for knowledge flow, but sometimes structures are tighter – eg implementing the new IT system at Imperial - little choice but to adopt new practices – power and structures are important!

Re-thinking the role of management consultants as disseminators of business knowledge – knowledge flows, directions and conditions in consulting projects

Questions, comments?

Enquiries to:

Andrew Sturdy*

*Warwick Business School, University of Warwick

Coventry CV4 7AL, UK

[email protected]