Consultants as butterflies, not doctors …..

July 1, 2007

Patrick Lambe is much taxed with the state of this throat. It’s not as easy read: I am not sure I want to know about his stomach acid lapping up and down this throat during sleep. However if you skip to the end of the medical records then you find a two by two matrix looking at different models of medical practitioner which are then applied by analogy to knowledge management practice. Now I don’t often disagree with Patrick, but this time I think I do, or at lease I want to express the odd concern. I think he anticipated this as I got an email saying that he had blogged on the role of consultants in KM & would welcome a diatribe-oops dialogue.

Well here goes, but I warn you I am going to play dirty; I will quote Drucker ….

Firstly to summarise the model (although I recommend reading the original blog). Patrick has four medical models:

  1. The Pharmacist who needs little depth of involvement or expertise, he can just dispense pills
  2. The Brain Surgeon who has little depth of involvement much much depth of expertise
  3. The Nurse who is shallow expertise and deep involvement
  4. The Psychiatrist with deep expertise and deep involvement

Now I can see that there are differences here, but for the record I do not buy it as a model of medical practice. All four have deep expertise in their fields, and are equally shallow in respect of each others. I have meet nurses who while professional had little depth of involvement. I am not sure if Patrick means psychologist rather than psychiatrist by the way (Luke Naismith makes the same point in a comment). The former tend to dispense chemicals, the latter terapy. However they also have capability to separate themselves, in a sense they, like most professionals are capable of detachement.

Now Patrick is not really focused on the medical profession, he takes as his starting point a suggestion that the organisational condition that knowledge management treats, organisational knowledgeitis can be considered through the model. To quote: Knowledgeitis is a disease of bad organisational habits and misaligned behaviours. It can only be cured through lifestyle changes, deep into the organisation’s structure. From this he concludes:

This is why you can’t hire a consultant to come and examine you and prescribe a simple course of treatment and go away again, and expect that all will be well. This is why, you have to engage every level of management from the top down, hunt down and undermine each critical bad habit that contributes to the condition, and insert new, constructive habits – well no, you can’t insert habits, you have to grow them. Many of your attempts will fail.

So why am I unhappy about this?

(Just for the record, I am pretty sure that Patrick is going to agree with most of what follows, but he did ask me to pick an argument)

Firstly as stated above I don’t like it as a medical model for the reasons stated above (and a whole lot more, but that will do for the moment)

Secondly I am concerned about the use of medical metaphors in respect of organisational consultancy. It implies that the organisation is in some way sick, and that the purpose of bringing in a consultant is to cure it. Now I am prepared to believe that this is sometimes the case, but more often than not the organisation as a whole is at most suffering from a mild cold. It is in the interests of any incoming consultant to diagnose this as pneumonia, that way lies further work, and remember consultants are rewarded on high margin utilisation, not the impact of their work. It may also be in the interests of management. I remember one FD who I worked with, when challenged over the costs of employing McKinsey’s when the company could hardly page the wages, said something along the lines of: Look Dave, we know they won’t find out anything we don’t already know, but if they produce a report saying it (i) the Venture Capitalists will accept it and the cost of making the changes and (ii) while they are here we get six months breathing space to sort out the company. When I said That sounds like a mixture of Al Capone and Danegelt he said Pleased to see you are starting to understand how things work.

Even when the organisation is sick, the cure is probably already known with the organisation or its immediate network. Executives would be a lot better finding new and novel ways to get access to that network, rather bringing in what I called in the Water Engineer’s story (I will record and pod cast that shortly) a bunch of semi-house trained polecats otherwise known as recently graduated MBAs on $5K a day. A simple rule of thumb in these circumstances is to seek out the cynics and the trouble makers. They are the ones who care, not those around you who feed back your language and beliefs rather than challenging what you think. Other methods include the sort of mass narrative enquiry and techniques such as SNS which will be familiar to Cognitive Edge practitioners. SNS in particular is designed for this sort of circumstance.

Thirdly, I think its about time we had consultants who consulted, rather than doing. Many years ago I had the immense privilege or running an Executive Retreat for a group of Executives with late, great Peter Drucker and one other. I asked him over dinner what he thought was the legitimate role of the consultant. He had a wicked grin and displayed it on this occasion. I can’t remember the exact words but it was along the lines of: They should be butterflies or bees, cross pollinating ideas between organisations and industries. They should never be in there doing the work itself; people in the organisation know how to do that, they just have to be listened to.

So I am sorry Patrick, I’m with Drucker ……

Recent Posts

About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


< Prev

An encounter with Michael Jobsworth

Every now and then you come across one of those petty minded bureaucrats who regard ...

More posts

Next >

Never trust a biologist on the make, or a former Trotskyist who aligns himself with the neocons ….

Armando Iannucci had a delightful back page piece for the Observer this sunday. He picks ...

More posts

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram