thinking the role of management
consultants as disseminators of business
knowledge flows, directions
and conditions in consulting projects
Karen Handley, Timothy Clark and Robin Fincham
*Warwick Business School, University of Warwick
Coventry CV4 7AL, UK
Consultants seen as core agents in the dissemination of business
knowledge (relative expertise; rhetoric; knowledge management)
few studies focus on their role in projects with client organisations
paper examines knowledge flow in consultancy projects from
longitudinal observation and interview research & survey of clients
conventional view of consultants as disseminators of new
management ideas to clients is, at best, exaggerated and certainly
misrepresents their role in project work.
knowledge flow tends to occur by default; concerned with project
processes/management; multiple, sometimes unexpected, directions
enabling and constraining conditions for knowledge flow are
not in a deterministic sense, but as a loose or partial
structuring of knowledge in practice.
acknowledge support of the ESRC/EBK (RES
Introduction and context
economic importance of knowledge
emphasis on role of those
bringing new knowledge into organisations from the outside
(assumes that all new knowledge is good… for whom?)
external management consultants seen at the forefront
eminent knowledge brokers’
expert outsiders (McKenna, 2006).
assumed that because consultants actively promote
new management ideas and widely used, they do perform this role.
knowledge studies of consultancy reproduce conventional and
common sense view of consultants
‘marginality’ as key in bringing
distinctive and unfamiliar knowledge (eg management and change
methods and tools v ‘operational’ knowledge of clients) but
knowledge clash presents
‘burden of otherness’
this conventional view of consultants as outsiders bringing
alien knowledge to clients is highly problematic, as a
generalisation, in consultancy projects and a conceptual
framing of knowledge flow.
Complexity and Variety (from wider
process consultancy (but process experts)
legitimate senior client knowledge
client familiarity with mcy kn/tools (media, MBAs)
learn from (eg innovative) clients; co
‘partial employees’ in product development etc
So…need to specify the actors and dynamics or
stages of consultancy
once the project has
, selling ideas lessens in significance,
especially for the project team members (a
key boundary, like project work,
is with team and other organisations
Knowledge Flow over Transfer
conventional view implicitly assumes a view of knowledge as a
pseudo object (cf translation or ‘re
invention’). We are concerned
the mobilisation of a range of knowledges in business contexts
rather than specific and separate knowledge forms
with practices, processes and conditions and how they relate to
identity and power
communication as well as meaning or understanding and the
politics of knowledge and its transformation associated both with
actors’ senses of interests or motivations (cf Carlile, 2004).
But modest aims
‘one particularly important topic which has as yet
to be explored empirically is knowledge flow between the
heterogeneous communities and networks that cut across an
organisation’ (Tagliaventi and Mattarelli 2006: 292).
Four project cases selected to maximise the degree of
'observer as participant' (35 formal project meetings),
structured interviews (81) and documentary
survey of participants in the 2003/4 and 2004/5
Management Consultancies Association (MCA) Awards
for Best Management Practice (ie ideals).
Re data collection and analysis, developed a framework
informed where learning is viewed as the devt of
through different forms of
within communities and networks of practice
Analysis of Knowledge Flow in Case Study Projects
Specific content; media/practices/channels; capacity
issues; orientations (see appendix in paper)
Summary of Case Study Projects
MCA's Annual Awards Survey and
some evidence of conventional view but
by default as design
even when explicit, learning was not always pursued or achieved,
especially beyond the project group context
focus on project
objectives in time
(cf IT project
practices designed into the
more amorphous notions of consultants’ ‘external’ view & client
sector kn. & from reflection from commissioning consultants
the low priority formally attributed to conventional knowledge
transfer has not been evident in prior research.
survey open question
‘what have you personally learned
through your involvement in this project?’, only 10 (from 110
entries) referred to learning about the specific content of the
project (eg culture/BPR etc).
where learning was far more evident from the accounts of actors
at least, was in the domain of
project practices and processes
more generally (the remaining 100 of the 110 entries were
concerned with project (32) and change management (29) either
generally or in terms of the importance of clear and shared goals
Directions and actors
From consultants to clients
in strategy case: internal organisational
knowledge in the form of client procedures, personnel and strategic
an organisational library or memory.
Among consultants and clients
general and consultancy project
management knowledge and responsibility.
From clients to consultants
consultants gained or appropriated
client organisation and sector (contextual) knowledge from project
participation in contextualising their analyses and prescriptions &
identifying future business opportunities.
commissioning consultants itself prompted
reflection among clients and seeking out other sources of
information such as elsewhere in their particular sector.
internal KM was largely beyond the scope of
this research, but: incidental observation and coaching with respect
to client, process and project domain knowledge and testing and
using tools and frameworks.
Enabling (and constraining)
Channels, Practices and Orientations
range of (pre
)conditions, practices, orientations, actors and channels which
seem to enable knowledge flows (eg transfer, translation, application).
Some relate to checklists but more contextualised.
Time, space, motiv’n and planning for activity, observation & reflection
Interactional styles of challenge appropriate to individuals, phase and
context (eg combined humour/politeness for communication).
Development relationships such as an emerging commitment to project
goals and individual credibility / likeability.
Consultant able/allowed to acquire/use contextual knowledge early
Legitimation; formal & informal learning networks, meetings and
processes (including documentation) in and beyond project team
hindering knowledge flow
: absence of the enablers; c
contextualised (eg organisational/sector) knowledge; p
‘tiredness’ or low investment in relationship and/or project; failure to
anticipate knowledge transfer; c
: negative prior/early perceptions
of consultant/firm (eg credibility) leading to lack of engagement (cf push
back) and failure to create space for communication etc etc
The traditional concern with persuasive consulting rhetoric and
clients responses to it and the more or less explicit adoption of a
diffusion perspective becomes less salient.
set out an overview of some of the findings with respect to the
domains, directions and conditions of knowledge flows
emphasis was placed by actors on gaining knowledge of project
processes such as project, consultancy and change management.
knowledge flow not a formal or primary objective in the case study
at the level of the project, clients are more likely than their peers
already to have a sense of expertise in the project domain
overestimates the degree of ‘otherness’ and weakness of ties
caution is required here at the methodological level
admit, or perceive themselves as, ‘sub
expert’ in relation to
If learning is wholly or at least partly, based in practices, especially
those shared through participation in joint activity, then it is hardly
surprising that those involved in project practices report this domain
it is what they were doing.
(cf (pre) sales presentations or implementation of a new
some unexpected directions of knowledge flow
from consultants to
clients as organisational memory or ‘database’
also clear that more classically cognitive processes were important
reflection & ‘writing things down’!
detailing contexts revealed complexity rarely evident in generalised
checklists and conditions eg space for joint working, can be
need to allow for situational specificity,
(embedded?) human agency and relationship dynamics.
conditions might be seen as a loose or partial structuring for
knowledge flow, but sometimes structures are tighter
implementing the new IT system at Imperial
little choice but to
adopt new practices
power and structures are important!
thinking the role of management consultants
as disseminators of business knowledge
knowledge flows, directions and conditions in
*Warwick Business School, University of Warwick
Coventry CV4 7AL, UK