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					                          The self-description of a management consultant

                                Paper for LOK Research Conference
                                          December 2002

                                    Marianne Thejls Fischer
                       Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy
                                 Copenhagen Business School


The aim of this paper is to outline specific features of management consulting focussing on specific
requirements of legitimisation. Secondly I will present an example of a consultant’s construction of
identity relative to these specific features. The paper has 4 sections. In the first section specific
features of consulting are identified with reference to examples from two well-known writers on
consulting literature. In this section I argue that the very existence of the kind of prescriptive
normative literature I present illustrate the specific requirements management consultants are
exposed to. Part 2 outlines aspects of the discussion on the professional status of management
consulting. Concluding section 1 and 2, I argue that consultants legitimise themselves by appealing
to incompatible moral principles, which giving consultants a multiple identity. Part 3 introduces
actor-network theory as a tool for understanding this multiple identity and part 4 presents an
example of an analysis of a consultant’s self-description using analytical tools of ANT.

                                       The body of knowledge

Compared to established professions like for example the professions of engineering and medicine,
management consulting appears to lack a well-defined body of knowledge. The business lacks an
agreed, accepted, authoritative and relevant body of knowledge in which the consultants is
accomplished and expert (Clark 1995). This can be explained partly with reference to the constant
need for development and partly with reference to the wide function of management requiring an
equally wide span of capabilities from management consultants. The lack of a well-defined body of
knowledge makes connection between the consultant’s professional self-description and the
practical effect of her work in the client organisation less transparent. It makes the use of
management consultants less predictable.

The definition of management consultants as a service providers assisting managers and
organisations in achieving organisational purposes by solving management and business problems
(Kubr 2000) emphasises the feature of management consultants as assisting the client in performing
their own tasks. Providing solutions to problems therefore also contains an element of instruction.
The consultant instructs the client in how to change and improve his performance, the client being
either a specific client person or group of persons or the client organisation. The additional role as
counsellor, coach and educator (Mulligan and Barer 1998) necessitates a focus on the personal
relation between consultant and client especially when taking into consideration that the relation is a
service relation. The latter combines two dimensions in the exchange of service for a fee. The
consultant provides a service in return for a fee. The receiver is the sponsor though the task
concerns the client organisation. The point I want to emphasise is that the task is supposed to be
performed accordance with the interests that the sponsor might have in relation to this task. When
the consultant enters into the service relation with the client, he takes upon himself an obligation to
act in accordance with the interests of the client. Management consultants must satisfy two
requirements and the two requirements contain two latent points of criticism.

1) The consultant must be able to solve the organisational problem, s/he is hired to solve
2) The solution must cohere with the interest of the client people and of the sponsor in particular

This feature gives the consultant client relation two dimensions. The dimension of expertise or
knowledge tied to the practical task of the client organisation. The second dimension is the personal
relation - which also has two dimensions. Does the consultant have the social skills and
psychological understanding necessary for understanding and meeting the requirements of the client
people? Will s/he do so?

One specific problem of management consulting is therefore that the consultant has no explicit
point of reference when s/he argues that s/he is capable of fulfilling the two requirements mentioned
above. It can even be argued that the nature of the service they provide makes such a point of
reference impossible. This feature increases the focus on the performance as a personal
performance. The abilities required for solving problems of client organisations become a question
of personally imbedded competence and integrity.

                                                   Part 1
                                      Examples from consulting literature

The feature of consulting described above is reflected in the wide span within consulting literature.
The present paragraph will present examples from two very different writers of consulting
literature. The aim is to illustrate the difference within the literature as such but also to identify
similarities. In so far as the two writers offer very different recommendations for consultants, they
can be seen as representing two opposite poles within the spectrum of consulting literature. I will
refer to these poles as practical and psychological literature respectively and describe differences
and similarities in more detail. Finally I will argue, that the two examples in spite of their difference
can be read as a suggestion to what would be essential to a body of knowledge of management

Literature on consulting provides statistical information and descriptions of the industry. It gives
recommendations and prescriptions on how to be a successful consultant and how to use consultants
(normative literature) and we find in depth analysis of psychological features of consultant client
interaction. There are also examples of critical analysis of the business such as Micklethwait and
Wooldridge’s book “The witch doctors”. I will focus on two examples of prescriptive literature, i.e.
literature that provides recommendations to consultants. The come from opposite ends of a
spectrum covering everything from practical advice on concrete issues of the client organisation,
such as marketing, organisational development etc. to theories on learning and implementation of
theoretical paradigms in the consultant client relation. Consulting literature mainly focuses on the
aspects of consulting that are relevant for the consulting process and not on the practical task of the
client organisation – the content of the consulting process. The expertise of the consultant required
for specific tasks in the client organisation often comes from somewhere else, a master degree in
economics, experience from other organisations and so forth, depending on the content. The
practical literature describes practical methods applicable in the specific organisational relation of
external consultant and client. The literature emphasising the psychological aspect of consulting
describes psychological theories and their application in and significance for consulting. Practical
literature tends to provide the reader with information as opposed to the psychological literature,
which educated the reader theoretically.

Milan Kubr’s book “Management consulting, a guide to the profession”1 is 800 pages and presents
definitions, descriptions of different possible consulting roles, consulting in various areas of
management, public sector, ethics, fees and so forth. The other famous writer I have chosen
examples from is Edgar H. Schein and his book “Process Consulting Revisited”. He focuses on the
role of the consultant as a helper of members of client organisations and on the psychological
challenges of this particular relation. A central concept of Schein is the significance of so-called
face-work. I will refer to the two books as exemplifying practical and psychological literature

Kubr provides the reader with general information on every thinkable area of consulting in the form
of overviews, description of the historical development of the business and brief descriptions on
companies. It provides practical information and suggestions to tactics of the consultant’s
intervention and is thereby one of the most comprehensive introduction to different areas of
consulting. The purpose of the book is “to contribute to the upgrading of professional standards and
 Milan Kubr is editor and he is mentioned amongst the contributing writers. As the chapters are not named by their
author I will refer to Kubr as the author.

practices in management consulting.” (p.XIX) It does not provide the consultant with required
expertise: “it is not intended to replace handbooks and manuals which deal in depth with various
management functions and techniques.” (Ibid) As an example the book devotes two pages to
mergers and acquisitions – one of the most complex areas in the financial industry. An example can
illustrate the style. The chapter on implementation describes the consultants role arguing that the
consultant should be involved in order to assist the client in avoiding mistakes, planning and
monitoring, training of client staff etc. On pace and lead-time of implementation, Kubr writes:

             Obviously, various technical and resource factors will have a bearing on the pace and
             lead-time of the implementation. As a matter of principle the consultant will aim to
             schedule implementation in the client’s best interest (e.g. to make new production
             capacity operational as early as possible, or to avoid situations in which the client has
             to deal with several difficult projects or use old and new information systems
             simultaneously). (P. 224)

The passage above provides practical but unspecific information on what aspects are influencing the
pace of implementation and suggests specific areas the consultant can help coordinating. The
information Kubr provides is only useful to consultants with prior knowledge of the production
capacity, s/he is supposed to make available and the information systems the consultants are

Kubr also mentions psychological aspect of the relationship, emphasising the importance of
developing a relationship of trust of understanding (p.428). However as opposed to Schein there is
no focus on the psychological explanation of why establishing trust and understanding may pose a
challenge to the consultant. A list of features of “What it feels like to be a buyer” presents negative
feelings such as insecurity, impatience and worry (p.52). The advice to the consultant is twofold.
The question of how to handle psychological challenges of consultant client interaction is answered
by first of all advising the consultant to be aware of them. The consultant must be aware, that
putting “affairs in the hands of others” (p.52) can cause the client to feel threatened. Secondly the
advice focuses on arranging the practical task in a manner that counteracts these potential problems.
The psychological challenges are solved via the practical level of intervention, such as subscription
to the client’s definition of the problem, clarification of assignment and evaluation of result and so
forth (p.53).

At the other end of the spectrum, Edgar H. Schein insists the necessity of a consultant’s insight into
psychological dynamics:

             The competent helper/consultant must have some understanding of the psychological,
             interpersonal, group, organizational, and interorganisational dynamics that influence
             human affairs. (p.84)

The claim of this necessity is based on a his model of intra-psychic processes, the ORJI cycle,
illustrate a causal connection between observations and emotional reactions:

             The complexity of intra-psychic processes derives from the fact that our nervous
             system is simultaneously a data-gathering system, a processing system, and a
             proactive managing system. That is, we observe (O), we react emotionally to what we
             have observed (R), we analyse, process, and make judgements based on observations

              and feelings (J), and we behave overtly in order to make something happen – we
              intervene (I). (p.86)

The presumption, “the fact”, of the connection between emotional reactions and observations
necessitates consultants’ insight into the intra-psychic processes. The reality of members of the
client organisation is influenced by their emotions. He applies a terminology describing human
exchange as a drama, helping as a drama and emphasises the importance of face work. The danger
of Schein’s drama is humiliation:

              Humiliation in sociological terms can be defined as being showed that one has much
              less value in a given situation than one had claimed for oneself. If we humiliate
              someone, we destroy his sense of his own value, so we should not be surprised at the
              strong emotional response humiliation generates. (p.109)

The advice to the consultant is therefore to avoid humiliating the client. Schein refers to this as face
work. He thereby provides the reader with insight into the underlying psychological mechanisms
that are causing irrational behaviour of organisations. The explanation for dramatic character of
organisational interaction is, according to Schein, the danger of humiliation. I.e. protecting the
perceived value of one self – the perceived value of ones ego - is a driving force in organisational

              If consultants are to be helpful, they must intervene in situations […]. If those
              interventions are to be appropriate and helpful, they must be based on accurate
              observation, appropriate emotional responses, and a reasoning process that mirrors (or
              at least takes into account to some degree) what the client observes and how the client
              reasons. All this requires some self-insight, and such self-insight is best acquired by
              maintaining a genuine spirit of enquiry towards oneself and others. Self-insight does
              not come about automatically. It requires conceptual tools such as the ORJI model, a
              spirit of inquiry and reflection and analysis time by oneself and with helpful others.

Schein presents three requirements and conditions of the consultant. The first requirement is that the
consultant must intervene. This requirement is an essential feature of consulting. The consultant
must have an effect on the client organisation and the consultant must cause a change in the client
organisation. Secondly the interventions must be helpful requiring accurate observation, appropriate
emotional response and so forth of the consultant himself. Schein therefore identifies a specific
intellectual and emotional constitution of the consultant as a crucial condition for a successful
intervention. The consultant must not only understand the psychological, interpersonal, group,
organizational, and interorganisational dynamics that influence human affairs, he must also
understand himself in this context. The connection between “observation” and “emotional reaction”
necessitates an understanding of this feature and the self-insight preventing the consultant’s own
observations from being obscured. Understanding the client organisation requires understanding of
the ORJI circle. Appropriate and helpful interventions require insight into the complexity of intra-
psychic processes. The text provides insight into a connection between observations and emotional
reaction, where the need for face maintenance has a decisive influence on the emotional reaction.

Both Kubr and Schein prescribe ways in which to become a better consultant. Compared to the
requirements defined in the introduction: 1) The consultant must be able to solve the organisational

problem, s/he is hired to solve and 2) The solution must cohere with the interest of the client people
and of the sponsor in particular, Kubr and Schein answer the requirements in very different
manners. By identifying to dimensions of each of the two requirements, the difference between the
approach of Kubr and Schein respectively can be made clearer.

1) The consultant must be able to solve the organisational problem, s/he is hired to solve
             1a) The practical dimension: for example the need for reducing costs, new IT system
             1b) The dimension of internal organisational interaction of the client

2) The solution must cohere with the interest of the client people and of the sponsor in particular
              2a) The dimension consultant client interaction
              2b) The ethical dimension

Kubr focuses on 1a and refers to 2a, but only in general terms. For example: “A negative and
unduly critical attitude to public sector managers is counterproductive and inhibits effective
problem solutions.” Schein focussed on both 1b and 2a. His theoretical approach sketched above
indicates that the understanding of the ORJI cycle is a necessary condition for understanding the
observations client people are making and that the consultant must subject his own understanding to
the same. Schein advocates process consulting thereby giving the practical dimension a low
priority. He does provide the reader with a thorough theoretical framework. But this theoretical
framework has no direct connection to the practical challenge the client organisation might be faced
with. The ethical dimension is present in service relation as obliging the consultant. In so far as they
recommend ways of personally relating to the client that are coherent with the clients interests.
They both recommend the consultant to fulfil the obligations inherent in the service relation. Both
writers take 2b, the ethical dimension, into account in so far as their recommendations aim at
increasing the quality of the consultants’ contribution. In connection with the identification of two
requirements and two latent points of criticism (p.2) I hinted at a different challenge of using
consultants connected to the ethical dimension, asking “will s/he do so?” I.e. is the consultant going
to provide the client with a top performance? I will return to this question in the next paragraph.

Kubr and Schein share the characteristic of recommending consultants preferable working methods
relative to a certain aim. Though foci, method and theoretical presumptions vary, the different
examples from consulting literature presented above share the feature of identifying preferable
working methods against an implicit background of what is not preferable. The different aims of
their recommendations are described as “the client’s best interest” (Kubr p.224) and the function of
being “helpful” (Schein p.98). Both writers describe how the aim is obtained, how one should work
in order to serve “the client’s best interest” and what insights enable consultants to be “helpful.”
The combination of the shared feature, i.e. recommendations on how to be helpful, or how to act in
the best interest of the client and the different foci on practical issues and psychological issues
respectively, can be interpreted as two different attempts to enable the consultant to fulfil the
requirements identified in the introduction. With reference to the examples I provided above, I will
argue, that though they both provide comprehensive information and important theoretical
understanding, they are still unable to provide the consultant with an “agreed, accepted,
authoritative and relevant body of knowledge in which the consultant is accomplished and expert.”
(See page 2. Clark 1995).

It confirms the feature, on the performance as a personal performance (Introduction p.2). The
abilities required for solving problems of client organisations become a question of personally

imbedded competence and integrity. The respective success and failure in providing service are
therefore to a higher extent tied to the personal identity of the consultant. The talent of management
consulting thereby share features of the un-definable artistic talent. The pressure on the consultant’s
personal performance increases with the effect that both success and failure are seen as indicators of
skills imbedded in the personality of the consultant, a tendency that is reinforced by the initial self-
promotion of the management consultant as management consultant, i.e. as capable of assisting the
management of an organisation. The lack of a well-defined body of knowledge places the burden of
convincing the (potential) client on the consultant himself. In other words, he cannot legitimise
himself with reference to for example a PhD in chemistry. Even the reference to a professional
history or employment in a prestigious consulting firm will not guarantee the quality of the service
he delivers. The consultant is selling features of her personality. The self-description as
“management consultant” insists on an intangible competence of wide general insight and/or a high
level of psychological understanding. The self-description insists on a capability the answers the
latent criticism. And all the client can do is take her word whereby the expectations of the client are
based on personal trust. This particular feature increases the risk of a substantial loss of face. The
failure of a project is reflected in the consultant’s personal prestige. But it also contains the
possibility for a high personal gain, namely the status as management guru.2

                                                      Part 2
                                         The diversity of professionalism

Concluding part 1, I argued that management consultants are subjected two requirements specified
as: The consultant must be able to solve the organisational problem, s/he is hired to solve and the
solution must cohere with the interest of the client people and of the sponsor in particular. I referred
to the intangibility of their product and the lack of a well-defined body of knowledge. The
requirements are in line with principles of so-called professional codes of conduct. There is a
general disagreement as to whether management consulting is a profession or an industry. (Clive
Rassam 1999). Referring to Patricia Tisdall, a parallel distinction made between profession and
business. In this context, the definition of profession is decisive varying with respect to procedures
for admittance and the extent to which working area is institutionalised. Professions can either refer
to any working area or it can refer to working areas that are institutionalised to the degree that the
name of the profession is legally protected. The distinction indicates two definitions of profession
distinguished by the question of legal protection. I will refer to each of them as institutionalised
profession or non-institutionalised profession where the distinction is relevant. Currently
management consultancy is a non-institutionalised profession.

The British Institute of Management Consultants (IMC) is a professional and regulatory body for
individual management consultants. (Paul Lynch 1998) It was formed in the mid 1950’s and the
immediate objectives were to establish management consulting as a profession with defined training
and qualifications. To this end there was to be a code of conduct, a body of knowledge, a procedure
for admitting new members and a campaign to persuade clients that members were trustworthy and
professional consultants ( They have formulated a code of professional conduct for
their members based on three main principles: 1) Meeting the clients requirements, 2) integrity,
independence and objectivity, and 3) responsibility to the profession and to the Institute. A few
examples: “A member will only accept work that the member is qualified to perform and in which
 Very few consultants gain the status of a guru. However, consultants often refer to a strong sense of personal
achievement and satisfaction connected to high quality performances visible in the client organisation.

the client can be served effectively” and later: “A member shall not serve a client under
circumstances that are inconsistent with member’s professional obligation.” The pivotal concept in
these descriptions is professionalism. IMC has a professional code of conduct, i.e. a description of
what rules apply to professional performance. Kubr’s comprehensive handbook aims at contributing
to the upgrading of professional standards and practices in management consulting. Belonging to a
profession requires fulfilment of fixed standards, a code of conduct, a body of knowledge, and a
procedure for admitting new members. Belonging to a profession indicates that one has fulfilled the
requirements of academic degrees, certifications and so forth. Professionalisation aims at
monopolizing a working area preventing un-professionals from attempting to perform the same
work by either repudiating non-members or by being able to legally prevent them from performing
their work.

The examples of principles from the professional code of conduct indirectly describe what is seen
as unprofessional conduct. They indicate what criticism management consultants have been
exposed to: A member will only accept work that the member is qualified to perform and a member
will hold all information concerning the affairs of the clients in the strictest confidence and a
member will not invite any employee of a client for whom the consultant is working to consider
alternative employment, unless it is the purpose of the assignment. The consultants confessing to
this code of conduct delimitate them selves from consultants who have accepted work, they were
not qualified to perform. The attempt to established management consulting as a profession
therefore implies an attempt to monopolise the business. It is an attempt to either disrepute non-
members or, if the title is legally protected, to prevent them from working for the purpose of
purifying the reputation of the business. A degree of institutionalisation of entry requirements and
standardisation of qualification is the first feature that distinguishes the profession from the industry
or business.

The second feature concerns the ethical connotation of the concept of profession. Profession implies
the idea of a vocation or calling involving some branch of advanced learning or science. The
definition covers both a vocation and a calling. However, these are distinguished with respect to the
degree of personal identification, which provides a second distinction within the concept, namely
the distinction between “professional as skilled” and “professional as called.” The relationship
between the performance and the payment is decisive to this distinction. The professional as called
works for the primary purpose of the social dimension and receives payment as a necessary but
secondary condition. The concept of professional as skilled is compatible with work performed for
the sake of earning a high salary. The priorities are only mutually exclusive in their respective
extremity, which on a practical level leaves a substantial grey zone. Empirically the distinction
overlaps the former in so far as working areas performed by professionals as called tend to belong
to professions the names of which are legally protected, for example clerical ministers and medical

Etymologically the Latin profeteri means to speak out or to make a statement. (Mahoney 1989)
Profession as a call therefore involves a personal and outspoken commitment. Accepting a
professional role is unavoidably a promising act. (Lynch quoting Gaylord Noyce 1998). The task is
thereby linked to the person performing it. Professionalism as called is not only a claim to required
capabilities. It implies a personal identification with the value of the professions purpose. The
professional takes ownership of the values the performance represents. Profession is even linked to
a personal service. “Brian O’Rorke (1997), former Executive Director of the Management
Consultancies Association, for example, claimed that consultancy is an industry ‘because the

services it needs to provide to a client are much broader than a personal service can offer’.”
(Rassam 1999) The examples of clerical ministers and medical doctors confirms the association
between profession and personal service.

The conceptions of being called and of being skilled are overlapping in so far as the former refers to
a special relation between the performer and the task and the latter described a feature of the task,
namely that it has a high quality. Being called and being skilled are therefore not mutually
exclusive, but they can contain mutually exclusive manifestations. A. The performance of the
person who is called may be un-professional in the sense of unskilled, which is not incompatible
with a high degree of commitment or with having passed the entry barriers to the profession. B. The
skilled person may perform a task incompatible his own values and still deliver a high quality

To summarise, the question of whether management consultancy is a profession or a business
depends on the definition of profession. The definition determines the degree to which the claim to
professionalism is compatible with prioritising the salary. The task is the primary aim of the calling.
The skilled person is not subjected to this requirement and can perform independently of personal
moral values. If profit is a primary aim of a business, the professional as skilled has a higher
compatibility with management consulting as a business. A senior partner of a big5 company can
earn a salary up to a million euro per year (ref. interview) – which as such appears to be
incompatible with management consulting as a calling. Secondly, and the potential personal
satisfaction with the personal status obtained in client organisation (the guru status) also appears to
be incompatible with the unselfish nature of the calling.

I will argue that the distinctions discussed above have a parallel in the distinction between
deontological and teleological moral principles. The principles of work as a calling shares a focus
on duty with deontological moral theory insofar as the call implies a promise and thereby an
obligation. Business as work for the purpose of profit shares structural features with deontological
moral principles, especially utilitarianism, by focussing on profit as a desired consequence. The
deontological structure of the calling implies a devaluation of the consequences (the salary) thereby
increasing the moral integrity of the consultant. The claim to professionalism is therefore also a
claim to integrity. “[I]n reflecting on business as a profession is not so much the introduction of
professional structures into the business as the identification and promotion of the spirit of
professionalism in business.” (Mahoney 1989) I will therefore argue that a consultant’s reference to
professionalism as a skill borrows legitimacy from professionalism as a calling, though consulting
is incompatible with the latter. Professionalism as skill has manifestations that are incompatible
with profession as a call. That, however, does not prevent professionalism as a skill to allude to
moral principles of the calling by a self-description as professionals professional. The claim to
professionalism is a perlocutionary act, that is, an utterance made for a specific purpose, in this case
for the purpose of increasing the level of trust in the business. The claim to professionalism answers
the question illustrating the ethical dimension of the personal relation: Will s/he do so? (p.2)
Consultants are thereby legitimising their work with reference to two different incompatible sets of
moral principles.

General features of management consultants’ legitimacy have thereby been approached from two
different directions. The first departed in a presentation of two examples from consulting literature.
The purpose was to identify features of consulting with respect to the profession’s kind of
knowledge. The second direction presented examples from a professional code of conduct and

analysed the distinction between profession and business plus the span within the concept of
professionalism. Both sections has lead to a result indicating first multiple roles and functions of the
consultant and secondly legitimising with reference to incompatible moral principles. This tendency
does not necessarily imply that consultants are contradicting themselves. Instead I will interpret the
tendency as indicating multiple functions and multiple identities of management consultants.

                                                        Part 3


The third part paper will present a theoretical point of departure for analysis of interviews with
consultants and clients. I will use a set of analytical tools from actor-network theory presented by
Bruno Latour and Michel Gallon.3 They are introduced for exploring the mechanisms by which
heterogeneous activities of consultant client interaction are brought into relationship with one
another. I have chosen to apply these analytical tools in the exploration of an example of a
consultants identity construction in his description of his interaction with the client I and will start
with a brief presentation of the theory and its background assumptions.

Latour’s book We Have Never Been Modern (NBM) describes a historical background of modernity
demonstrating the impossibility of the modernity as a project. He provides a description of what
modernity has attempted to do and why is has not succeeded. The central presumption of the
moderns is a sharp distinction between subject and object, human and non-human combined with
the sharp separation between knowledge, interests, justice and power. Latour argues, that in spite of
this attempt, knowledge, interests, justice and power are in fact mixed up in “imbroglios” weaving
the world together connecting chemical reactions and political reactions, the most esoteric science
with the most sordid politics, the most distant sky and some factory in the Lyon suburbs thereby
creating, networks, hybrids, quasi-objects and quasi subjects. The concepts of quasi-objects and
quasi-subjects construct an alternative to the traditional dichotomy of subjects and objects, humans
and nonhumans as incommensurable extremes of a polarity. Latour describes a double movement
that separates subject and object, nature and society into two separate ontological realms while
insisting on their reconciliation, the result of which is a multiplication of so-called hybrids and
networks, quasi-objects and quasi subjects. “The word ‘modern’ designates two sets of entirely
different practises which must remain distinct if they are to remain effective. The two practices are
    1) Translation, i.e. a mixture of new types of beings, hybrids of nature and culture
    2) Purification in two distinct ontological zones, human and non humans.
The two practises are co-dependant. Without the hybrids or the quasi-objects created by translations
there would be no need for purification. Without purification there would be no need for translation
reconciliating the separated subject and object. We practise translations thereby creating hybrids
and quasi-objects while insisting that they do not exist. What we are actually doing, creating
networks by means of translations, is not coherent with what we say we do, keeping subject and
object apart, purifying. “Quasi-objects are in between and below the two poles [of nature and
culture], at the very place around which dualism and dialectics had turned endlessly without being
able to come to terms with them.” (p.55) “As soon as we are on the trail of some quasi-object, it
appears to us sometimes as a thing, sometimes as a narrative, sometimes as a social bond, without
ever being reduced to a mere being.” (p.89)

    Michel Callon: Techno economic networks and irreversibility. John Law: A Sociology of Monsters. 1991

Quasi-objects “are in between and below the two poles, at the very place around which dualism and
dialectics had turned endlessly without being able to come to terms with them. Quasi-objects are
much more social, much more fabricated, much more collective than the hard parts of nature, but
they are in no way the arbitrary receptacles of a full-fledged society.” (55) The problem with the
quasi-objects of the moderns is, that they are only conceived as hybrids of two forms: nature and
culture. Instead Latour is pointing out the limitation of this: “As soon as we are on the trail of a
quasi-object, it appears to us sometimes as a thing, sometimes as a narrative, sometimes as a social
bond without ever being reduced to a mere being. (p.89).

The paradox of the moderns is that hybrids are mixtures of nature and culture. If we consider the
work of purification we confront total separation between nature and culture. (p.30). However, in
spite of the polarisation between nature and culture, hybrids are proliferated because they are
invisible, unthinkable and unrepresentable to the moderns. The conclusion is therefore that we have
never been modern is so far as we have never applied the complete separation between nature and

The opposition and separation of subject and object is constituted for the purpose of establishing an
absolute objectivity, with the side effect of emptying the subject of content. “Yet human, as we now
understand, cannot be grasped and saved unless that other part of itself, the share of things, is
restored to it. So long as humanism is constructed through the contrast with the object that has been
abandoned to epistemology, neither the human not the nonhuman can be understood.” (p.136) The
passage links the concepts of translations and hybrids to human interaction in its processing of
functions and materials, that is, organisational interaction and therefore also consultant client

A conception of the social space and the event of consultant client interaction based on Latour’s
concepts of hybrids and quasi-objects enables a description of the event an instant quasi-object, a
mediator creating what it translates as well as the entities between which it plays the mediating role
(p.78). It allows the incorporation of elements in the same phenomenon without granting any of
them primary status. Results of research are at the same time real like nature, narrated like discourse
and collective like society, though the modern approach is either on of naturalisation, socialisation
or deconstruction.

The concepts of quasi-objects and quasi-subjects provide a foundation for understanding the event
of organisational interaction as a hybrid of nature and culture. The reason for applying the
theoretical framework to the consultant client interaction is that it conveys an understanding of the
interaction of consultant, client – and the practical challenge of the client organisation. The
constitutive function of objects as constructing their subjects. ANT is thereby in line with the
multiple function of the consultant and it is in line with the simultaneous reference to incompatible
sets of moral principles, I identified in connection with the analysis of the concept of

After having sketched a background for the actor network theory, I will continue with a
specification of conceptual tools applied in the analysis below. For this purpose I have selected an
article of Michel Callon, a close associate of Latour, on the basis of its clear presentation of central

The central concepts are: Intermediaries, actors and translations. They are interrelated in so far as
intermediaries relate actors. An “intermediary is anything passing between actors which defined the
relationship between them.” By defining the relationship (the network) they also describe the actors.
Four main types of intermediaries are identified: Literary inscriptions, technical artefacts, human
beings and money. As an example, money constitute a buyer and a seller, the relate buyer and seller
to each other as buyer and seller. Money describes buyer and seller as buyer and seller. An entity (a
person or a thing) can be both an intermediary and an actor. The difference is a question of
authorship. Therefore “an actor is an intermediary that put other intermediaries into circulation.”
(p.141) The methodological consequence is that the social can be red in the inscriptions that mark
the intermediaries.

The characteristics of the intermediaries that the actors are putting into circulation therefore
describe these actors. The actor is described by the intermediary, he/she/it puts into action.
Ascribing the role of actor and intermediary respectively therefor depends on the specific situation
and the specific perspective. The example mentioned is a scientific text trying to mobilise certain
skills in the reader, however from a different perspective, the text is the intermediary of the writer
who becomes an actor via his authorship. The question of whether to identify a unit as an
intermediary or as an actor is thereby empirical.

Translations serve the function of definition. A translates B means A defines B. The elementary
translation is triangular: it involves a translator, something that is translated and a medium into
which that translation is inscribed. (p.143) An example would be a shoe monger translating his
skills into a pair of handmade boots, which are then translated by the buyer into prestige objects.

                                               Part 4
                                   A consultant’s self-description

The interviewee was a highly qualified change management consultant working for an international
consulting firm. I asked him: “What is a typical day like for you?” And he answered:

             The day normally starts with a meeting on the client sight, look at work plans from an
             overall point of view, ‘what is needed to add value to the project? Schedule meetings,
             talk to key stake holders to make sure they have bought the idea, that there is no
             resistance, that there is no noise… for example, any kind of change interrupts the
             natural inertia of people, if they experience that they are not informed or involved in
             the process. They may think this is a bunch of smart consultants with all their ideas,
             none of which will work with us. They may have some best practises, and in that case
             it is extremely important that one will secure clear roles and responsibilities,
             unambiguous channels of communication and some strategy of how to involve people,
             making sure, they leave a kind of fingerprint. Then there is a lot of planning. Normally
             there will be a lot of noise, especially if there is a change project involving a cut over
             day, and after this day we have a new system, then the level of panic will increase as
             that day approaches, ‘is everything in control? Can our people handle this process?’
             Our people have to control this process.”

In this passage the consultant describes “a typical day.” Applying the analytical tools defined above,
the following will explore the mechanisms by which heterogeneous activities are brought into
relationship with one another in these descriptions. The description is the intermediary of the
consultant in so far as he is the author. The text therefore describes the consultant, with respect to
how he describes “a typical day”. I will refer to the consultant as “our man.”

The answer starts out in a plain practical description: ”… start with a meeting, … we look at work
plans, talk to stakeholders” and then changes into a description of what he tries to obtain in relation
to the client people: making sure they have bought the idea, that there is no resistance, that there is
no noise. The idea is the idea of the consultant, i.e. the changes he is trying to implement. The client
people are here described as they who may not buy the idea and as they who might offer resistance
and noise. They are translated into resistance and noise. This is followed by a description of client
people: for example, any kind of change interrupts the natural inertia of people, if they experience
that they are not informed or involved in the process. They may think this is a bunch of smart
consultants with all their ideas, none of which will work with us. The description explains why it is
necessary to prevent resistance and noise, and it also contains a legitimisation, namely the reference
to the smart consultants – i.e. the kind of consultants that our man does not resemble. Our man also
ascribes suspicion to the client people whereby the purpose of involving client people is to prevent
this suspicion from arising. If they experience they are not informed… They may think…He then
returns the description of what is important. It is extremely important that one will secure clear
roles and responsibilities, unambiguous channels of communication and some strategy of how to
involve people, making sure, they leave a kind of fingerprint. This answers the description of client
people as characterised by inertia and resistance, explaining how to overcome this obstacle. The
“typical day” is described in terms of a working process overcoming mental resistance in the client

How does the consultant describe himself in the passage? It is remarkable that our man hardly refers
to himself. He refers to the necessity of securing the idea against resistance from the client people
and he refers to other consultants, but not to himself. The most direct self-reference is made at the
end of the passage: Our people have to control this process. His description of the necessity
securing that key stakeholders buy the idea is a description of a trade relation. Key stakeholders are
constructed as buyers whereby he constructs himself as a seller. The trade relation of seller and
buyer has a competitive dimension. Within this relation the seller is legitimised in applying

The description of the typical day is given in terms of general reflections on what challenges or
tasks a consultant faces in his work with the client organisation. Our man performs change
management. He manages the change processes in the organisation and the strategy for these
processes are made with reference to the communication challenge. He organises communication,
but the communication is that of selling the already conceived idea, making sure key stakeholders
have bought the idea. The agent in focus of this quotation is a consultant
. He is only present in terms of general prescriptions of how a consultant ought to work – presuming
that the consultant would not advocate skills that he him self did not possess. The prescriptive
aspect is present most obviously in sentences like the following “… it is extremely important that
one will secure clear roles and responsibilities.”

Presuming the passage is a direct answer to my question, the ideal approach our presents is an
indirect description of his working method. In the passage, the consultant is de-personalised into

“one” and later and later into our people. Parallel to this the “typical day” is described in
prescriptive terms of what is necessary in a process: it is extremely important that one will secure …
‘is everything in control? Can our people handle this process?’ Our people have to control this
process.” The passage develops from a practical description of what he does to a depersonalised
description in terms of prescriptions. Using our analytical tools, the consultant is the actor putting
the passage (the intermediary) into circulation. In this intermediary, in this media, he translates
himself into a de-personalised but ideal consultant. This happens by means of a normative
description of what is important. Since the intermediary describes the actors, the consultant
translates himself into his ideal consultant in the description of a typical day. In this movement he
creates a space for describing his ideal self.

The idea also has the status as actor in the passage. The idea is an actor in so far as it defines the
client people as either buying the idea or as resistance and noise in relation to the idea. The idea is
the intermediary between MP and the members of the client organisation, but as an actor it is a
translation of the consultant. The consultant translates himself into the idea.

This means, that we can make the experiment of reinserting the consultant into his description:
By replacing one and our people with the “I” of the interviewee. Without the dissociation the
sentences would approximately sound like the following: I make sure they have bought the idea, …
I secure clear roles and responsibilities, unambiguous channels of communication and I make a
strategy of how to involve people, making sure, they leave a kind of fingerprint.


Returning to the first part of this paper, I will insert the analysis into the background identified
above. The first part of this paper argued that management consultants in particular are met with
special requirements of legitimisation because their professional competence is tied to intangible
personal qualities. As background information, it is useful to know, that the sponsor of the project is
not amongst the client people he refers to. The translation where the one was replaced with an “I”
would, according to the requirements identified in the introduction, make our man vulnerable to
questions regarding legitimacy. It is important to add, that the requirements are identified as cultural

If we read the passage as answering this requirement, it provides an explanation for the movement
of the passage. The process of de-personification allows our man to describe his perception of an
ideal consulting process without making himself vulnerable to the latent points of criticism. The
validity and the legitimacy of what is important are not questioned in the passage. Nor is the
validity of the idea. Our man translates himself into the idea. By focussing on the idea, as that
which the clients have to accept, he can avoid taking questions into consideration concerning his
personal competence. And this is exactly one of the implicit requirements identified above. The “I”
of the consultant is due to inherent structures and features of the business exposed, which could
explain why our man translates himself into an anonymous actor into an idea.

The idea is impersonal as well and therefore not subjected criticism of human fallibility. The idea in
its infallibility becomes the criterion for right and wrong. It becomes the manifestation of
professionalism as skill. It defines the actors in the following manner: The consultant refers to the

idea, not to my idea. However, his authorship is inscribed into the idea. And as the quality of the
idea is not put into question, nor is the quality of the consultant. The double movement of
dissociating and re-connecting means that he can present a description, which is not about himself,
and yet it is about himself. The infallibility of the idea installs our man as infallible in relation to the
client organisation, whereby it embodies pure professionalism, pure skill, pure and impersonal


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Clark, T.                    Managing Consultants. 1995

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Latour, B.                   We have never been modern. 1993

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Edgar H. Schein              Process Consulting Revisited 1999


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