Sitting pretty selling thin air

 I met a man recently who had worked for a big charity for 10 years before deciding to do something worthwhile and become a management consultant. Before that he was a frustrated functionary whose ideas were overlooked. Now, his consultancy does work in the not-for-profit sector and when he rings up charities, chief executives take his calls. He feels he can change things.

It would be easy to paint him as nave and keen to justify himself. People sometimes go to great lengths to disguise a simple desire to earn more. But I didn’t think that – and not only because of the air of quiet outrage with which he spoke about charitable inefficiency and mismanagement. He was saying something about the power of specialist labour in the ‘ideas-and-empathy’ economy.

Internal reform is often propelled by external agents in any organisation. Inside, you can make trifling, limited, incremental changes – but everyone secretly thinks the big picture has been too socialised out of you to produce anything more radical. From the outside, you have the liberty to suggest fantastic, thundering great transformations – and because of your outsider status your knowledge sparkles that bit more brightly. It is for good reason that employees live in fear of ‘the consultant’s report’.

My new friend’s consultancy intends to extricate itself from all kinds of ‘doing work’ – it only wants ‘the thinking stuff’. The problem it faces, like many consultancies, is how to describe this work to the general public.

It is wrestling with various permutations of ‘people’, ‘strategy’, ‘value’, ‘dynamic’, ‘infrastructure’, ‘vision’, ‘journey’, ‘change’ and ‘leverage’, looking for a form of words for its website (I defy anyone to come up with something that would repay the effort of reading). Life was easier when we were all butchers, bakers and bootleggers.

With all the peerless mirth of a knock-knock joke, consultants have often been sneered at by journalists (guilty) and ‘proper’ business people. They are seen as ‘witchdoctors who borrow your watch to tell you the time’.

Just look at their cuff-links, and their war paint, and their jargon, and their schmooze, and their 10bn fee income. Such jibes are as facile as the equally widespread view that consultants can only survive by being excellent.

Yet the most interesting point about the consultancy phenomenon is easily overlooked: the extraordinary power of thin air. What is the consultant’s product? Advice? Specialised knowledge? Themselves as people?

Do they produce anything? Consultants have no product that is separable from the tools of their trade – ideas and knowledge. The work of the consultant is indistinguishable from the person providing it. Consultants are capital, labour and commodity all rolled into one. Frequently, their work is consumed at the instant it is produced.

The immaterial, intangible economy is full of occupations to which similar points apply: lobbyists, think-tank members, creative industry professionals, PR executives, many service industry workers and, to a lesser extent, some of the more established professions, too, such as lawyers, accountants and journalists. Organisations that make or do things are increasingly dependent on people who whisper in their ears. Few, however, have quite the power and reach of those sharp-suited angels of thin air – the consultants. It is surprising how regularly people rail against the cult of celebrity without noticing how a fascination with fame for its own sake is a manifestation of this same thin air.

By swapping privacy for money, and turning themselves into a public spectacle, celebrities become their ‘work’. Their economic life is impossible to detach from their personal life – celebrities literally sell themselves.

The same applies to consultants. To manufacture demand, they must sell themselves in the form of their consultancy. Their ideas, their compassion, their intuition, their interests, their personality, their emotions – the whole person becomes the work. The craft skills of making things have made way for the interpersonal skills of managing relationships.

There is another feature of the working life of the consultant that I find intriguing: their great freedom to generate income, and to decide how to carry out their tasks – usually, consultants have immense autonomy in how they do their work. Again this is something shared by many other occupations engaged in flogging niche knowledge. These are clever, achievement-orientated people, after all – the acme of the sophisticated and emancipated modern worker.

Yet consultancy firms also put heavy constraints on this liberty by insisting that their staff identify with ‘the culture’, ‘the family’, ‘the heritage’. Traditionally, workers do not belong to their employers. Contracts of employment and written lists of duties, times, dates and so on acknowledge the idea that workers are only on loan in a system of exchange limited by the state. Consultants, though, must belong. The rights they have as employees dwindle into insignificance next to the allegiance they must feel to the consultancy.

The price of autonomy is the return of pre-capitalist levels of vassalage and obedience. The consultant must make the ends and values of their employer their own.

Power is shifting. The way to affect the tangible world that we all inhabit is no longer to make or to do, it is to advise the makers and doers – maybe even to advise the advisers of the makers and doers. With distance comes impact.

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