Monday, September 12, 2011

Three books on consulting

The three books are:
  1. Consulting Demons by Lewis Pinault
  2. Dangerous Company by James O’Shea and Charles Madigan
  3. The Witch Doctors by John Micklewait and Adrian Wooldridge
Pinault’s book is a personal look at the consulting industry and was the most enjoyable read. Not surprisingly it is apparently the only one out of the three that are still in print. While the subtitle of the book is “Inside the Unscrupulous World of Global Corporate Consulting”, to me it was no more unscrupulous than say the current subprime crisis. Ah yes, they are only all rationally responding to incentives. There was a surprising reference to Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur in the book while Pinault was in Singapore. He referred to going to a trip as ‘going out-station’. Yes, that was and probably still is the phrase we used when growing up. Surprisingly, management guru CK Prahalad did not come out well in this book. He was caricatured as a “self-help tear-them-down-then-build-them-up’ personality that bordered on messianic and maniacal.

In contrast to the up close and personal look of Pinault, O’Shea and Madigan, whose book is subtitled ‘Management Consultants and the Businesses they Save and Ruin’, take a look at a series of consulting ‘projects’ (if you will) or rather what happened to various companies who retained the the ‘expertise’ of management consultants. Some of the cases such as Bain and Company’s relationship with Guiness and the role they played in the Distiller takeover are recounted. This was interesting for me since it was the first time reading it. Likewise an account of how Figgie International went into bankruptcy as a result of too many consultants trying to do too much was also entertaining. Everything else was rather so-so. The authors tried to cover each large consulting firm through the lens of a company it advised and this approach can be interesting or not and mostly it was not. Many of the cases such as Gemini Consulting’s work with Cigna was at the time, too much in its infancy to draw any strong conclusions.

The last book (by which time I think I already had my fill) was subtitled ‘Making Sense of the Management Gurus’. This was written in a historical context beginning with Frederick Taylor but focusing on and Peter Drucker and Tom Peters. In many ways, it is a journalist’s attempt at synthesizing the fads that seem to come and go in management theory. They do an admirable job - and what they say is for the most part sensible. For instance, they don’t condemn all the reorganization fad that consultants sold and companies fell for. They note when it worked and when it didn’t as well as why it worked at this time but not at another time and so forth. However, they also fall into what I consider a journalistic trap of something that is quirky and unexpected must therefore be good. One example is the a company that sends its managers to Disney to be imagineers for a week (or something similar). They don’t say this good or bad, yet their citing it seems to indicate that they think that this novel approach is something to be celebrated. Their attempt is mainly a synthesis by anecdotes or rather management theory by anecdotes which perhaps is all management consulting is.

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