Does consultancy ape the oldest profession?

August 5, 2006

An interesting thread just appeared on one of the list serves that triggered the pain in several of my old war wounds. The cause was a consultant arguing that theory and making distinctions between systems types were academic tribalism. They said that a consultant should ignore all of this and just do whatever worked.

Now I think this sort of intellectual laziness and asscoaited material opportunism represents much of what has gone wrong with consultancy as a profession. It has reached the point where consultancy frequently apes the oldest profession in it’s exploitation of the young and innocent in in the interests of the old, rich and powerful. The thread is posted in the extended entry.

To set the context. In an earlier post I had said that there is a difference between systems thinking and complexity. Verna Allee had posted a very sensible response about models and the use of methods, referencing a workshop we had both run in Brisbane last year. A consultant who shall remain nameless responded and also revealed a degree of ignorance by bundling together SNA, VNA, CNA and CAS in one list. What follows is my reaction.


I would like to agree to a degree, but also to strongly disagree with this. Not Verna’s post which I generally agree with but the response from XXXX which I am afraid has triggered a white blood cell reaction to consultants adopting methods without worrying about the theory. The strong disagreement is outlined at the end by the way!

Firstly, most intelligent people, whether consultants or academics would agree that most things are systems, and elements of those systems influence each other and can produce non-linear behaviour.

Secondly SNA (Social network Analysis), ONA (Organisational Network Analysis) & VNA (Value Network Analysis) are all methods by which a complex system can be represented or modeled. CAS stands for “Complex Adaptive System” and is a reference to a science not a method or a model.

Thirdly, SNA, ONA & VNA make a basic assumption that you can model or represent the system – systems thinking

Fourthly, one of the basic CAS statements is that the only valid model of a system is the system itself. In a CAS simple rules govern agent behaviour which includes the formation of network links. Boid’s algorithm, feeding behaviour of ants etc. etc.

Fifthly, the nature of a CAS can not be determined in advance, although I can predict some aspects. For example I can tell you a snow crystal will have six axes and the pattern on each axis will be identical. However I cannot tell you what the pattern will be until it is formed.

Sixthly, just as in “scientific management” we see the confusion of correlation with causation, so increasingly in CAS and Systems Thinking we see the confusion of simulation with prediction.

Seventhly, many of us working on Human CAS are now arguing that we have two additional problems. The first (from Cognitive Science) is that human beings do not make rule based decisions, but they make them based on multiple past patterns stored in their long term memory, based on partial data recognition. What data will be seen and which patterns will be used are not knowable in advance to any degree. The second (from Cognitive Science and anthropology) is that humans have multiple overlapping and shifting identities. Accordingly in a human CAS there are neither discrete agents not are their rules. So we have a extra level of complexity.

Now what are the implications here?

I have argued elsewhere that there is little or no validity in the common applications of SNA and ONA where it is based on individuals, but that there is applicability when looking at more coherent communities or identities. I also argued that those tools are useful in showing different perspectives of networks, but cannot represent the network itself.

As Verna says the map is not the territory. However one could go further and say that in human system the map is not of a land mass but of the sand banks in harbour, the the territory is changing even as it is mapped.

In the case of VNA, Rich Pictures and the “better end” of systems thinking we can see a lot of value in the tools as a process that human beings go through to understand the nature of transactions and to give a different perspective. However those tools can not be used as predictive models, nor can they be held to show causal relationships in other than the more stable situations. Additionally the products of these methods make things visible to people as a result of which their decision making will change. All such tools provide retrospective coherence but little or no predictive capability. Now make no mistake, this makes them very useful tools, provided the person using them understands and explains their limitations. Unfortunately explaining limitations does not often feature as a behavioral characteristic of consultants.

In any CAS but in particular a Human CAS, every diagnostic is in fact an intervention which changes the system. Accordingly complexity based techniques (such as social network stimulation, participative research) recognise this fact and focus on bottom up interventions from which patterns of meaning can emerge and consciously seek to avoid premature convergence and diagnosis. Again our own work on pre-hypothesis research represents a first (and so far increasingly successful) attempt to create research methods appropriate for complex systems.

The Disagreement

Now to my real disagreement with your email. You say “So we can leave all those fightings about delimitations, distinctions, superiority to the tribal rivalry within the academic field… ….and can enjoy as consultants the scientific freedom to pick the model/method which fits best to our clients needs…”

This is a dangerous statement. I agree that claims for superiority can be ignored. However delimitation and distinctions between theories (unless those are petty) cannot be ignored by any intelligent or responsible consultant. The nature of implied causality, or lack thereof underpins the distinction between systems thinking and complexity science. A consultant using one technique, without understanding the basis of that technique could apply it in appropriate circumstances. Fire is very useful for cooking food, but not in a gasoline station.

To take an example a lot of social practice and education theory is based on social constructivism and relativism without any of the challenges to those philosophical positions being taken into account. There are massive and deadly consequences that arise from an implied but ill understood theoretical position.

Consultants have created orthodoxy and tyrannies by uncritically adopting things such a process engineering, SNA etc without understanding the theory, based on “what would fit their client needs” without and regard for the often negative consequences that arise from their lack of understanding.

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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.

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