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 produc