Although research and theory building in the management consulting realm have continued to grow and evolve over the past several years, the field is still characterized by mystique and ambiguity. Consultants and consultancies – from sole proprietorships and small boutiques to globally renowned professional services firms – are increasingly visible not only in providing clients with advice and new ideas but in implementing those ideas and solutions as well. Yet, despite this growth, influence and attention, management consulting is still shrouded in mystery. Compared to the “learned” professions, there is no official or legally-based indication of professional competence or a true common body of knowledge. Myriad questions abound with respect to why similar interventions seem to work in one setting and fall well short of expectations in another. Success itself is typically tinged with hazy depictions of engagement-related outcomes and possibilities. In fact, it has been suggested that truly professional consultants rarely stick to their assigned role, constantly reach out for greater responsibility and do whatever it takes to get the job done – a rather murky portrayal of consultancy prowess.
In our quest to fill this void, it is clear that much more systematic research is needed – study that is grounded in collaboration between academics and consulting practitioners, drawing out actionable knowledge about the nuances and complexities associated with intervention in organizational life. Far too much of the work that has been done in this area is anecdotal in nature, based on reflection and personal experience rather than methodical study. While these portrayals often offer rich descriptions about specific situations, it isn’t very clear as to the extent to which these insights are generalizable to the larger consultancy world. How often are client problems and challenges really solved by consulting engagements? What is the relative contribution of consultants themselves compared to other contextual factors, such as the role of leadership in the client organization or the timing of the change itself? What role should consultancy standards – from codes of conduct to international standards – play in further professionalizing the industry? What does professionalism in management consulting look like in practice? What role can (and should) professional associations play in this process? How do we go beyond veils of secrecy and claims of proprietary methods and practices to more fully understand the underlying dynamics across engagements? Such questions continue to abound as we develop a more inquisitive and critical view of consultancy’s possibilities and limitations – questions that can only be answered through in-depth, systematic comparative study carried out in collaboration between practical scholars and scholarly practitioners.
The collaboration between the Management Consulting Division of the Academy of Management and the ICMCI is an effort in this direction. For registration to the next Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, from August 9-13, refer to: www.aom.org
More information about the Management Consulting Division is available at: http://division.aomonline.org/mc/
By Anthony F. Buono, professor of management and sociology at Bentley University, the editor of the Research in Management Consulting book series (Information Age Publishing). He is also the 2013 Chair of the Management Consulting Division of the Academy of Management.