Ezra Klein referred me to a 2006 article, “The Management Myth,” by Matthew Stewart, which has just led to a new book by the same name. Stewart has a Ph.D. in nineteenth-century German philosophy and was a founding partner of a management consulting firm; I have a Ph.D. in twentieth-century intellectual history and spent three years as a management consultant (at McKinsey) before co-founding a software company, so I thought I might find a kindred soul. Also, I’ve been thinking for years that I should write a book about my strange journey through the business world, but will probably never get around to it, so I was wondering what that book might have looked like.
Well, we’re not so kindred after all, although my criticisms of the management consulting industry certainly overlap with his. One difference: I have never, ever found myself thinking, “I’d rather be reading Heidegger!,” although (or perhaps because) I read my share of Heidegger back in the day – Being and Time was on my orals list. (That said, I have also never read books about management, which is what Stewart was doing when he was wishing for Heidegger.)
Stewart is full of scorn for the “management literature” – meaning books with big fonts, bullet points, and truisms disguised as buzzwords – and I’m sure that scorn is well-deserved. But he blurs that scorn into scorn for the management consulting industry itself. And while the latter may deserve scorn for its own reasons, I think the two – the books and the consulting firms – are quite different.
As a management consultant, on an actual project, I can’t recall anyone ever discussing, let alone taking seriously, anything he or she had read in a business book or learned in a corporate strategy class. Our main job was digging up information, doing analysis that was trivially lightweight by academic standards but more than most companies do on their own, and packaging the whole thing into a coherent storyline that made a point. What McKinsey brought to the exercise was smart people who were willing to work extremely hard and obsess about trivial details until late at night – for example, after photocopying presentations for a client, someone had to flip through them to make sure that none of the pages got rotated or pushed off-center by the copier – along with some core skills in turning relatively little data into a convincing-sounding story.
As for getting an MBA, I would say that 90% of the consultants I knew already acknowledged what Stewart argues – it’s not what you learn at business school that matters, it’s the screening function. Top business schools screen for the attributes that certain types of companies, including consulting firms and investment banks, value – above-average intelligence, ambition, presentability, ability to get along with others, willingness to follow orders, and a strong streak of conformism. McKinsey recruits people with Ph.D.s (and certain other advanced degrees) as well because the Ph.D. is an indicator of intelligence and (to some extent) ambition, but it is considerably harder to get a consulting job as a Ph.D. from a top school than as an MBA from a top school because of the other things that an MBA signals. But the point is that everyone knows this already, and many people still choose to go to business school, because it’s the rational choice given the job market.
I think the biggest problem with management consulting is that most of the work on a project is done by junior people who know absolutely nothing about the industry they are serving, and don’t even realize how little they know. (And generally the partners don’t know that much, either, since many of them have never worked anywhere except in consulting or maybe banking.) Having worked as a consultant to the software industry and then as an employee of the software industry, I have seen this from both sides, and I’m embarrassed for the naive consultant I used to be. But it’s also true that many of our clients could not have assembled teams of people to do the kind of work that we were doing – not because they didn’t have the right people, but because those people are invariably too important to be freed up from their day jobs.
I hear that in the legal industry more and more clients are refusing to let law firms bill them for first-year associates. I think that the consulting industry will probably move that way. But even so I think there is some place for management consulting firms.
By James Kwak