The Analyst's Couch

Unbound Opinions from Industry Observers

The World's Second Oldest Profession

By Stan Lepeak

We all know what's the world's oldest profession. Well, somewhere in the third millennium BC, in jolly old Egypt, market leaders in that profession were enduring a prolonged slump. Industry analysts attributed this slowdown to an overall stagnant economy triggered by layoffs in the pyramid-building industry due to the untimely longevity of Pharaoh Ramses I.

One industrious money handler, Anwar Andersen-Hammer (he was not originally from the area), had an idea. He approached senior management in the world's oldest profession with a bold plan: a proposal for a radical restructuring and reengineering of their operations. Delivery processes must be streamlined, non-value-added steps eliminated or outsourced, head count reduced and overall levels of customer service improved. Management bought it. The second oldest profession--consulting--was born.

Unfortunately, Andersen-Hammer's plan did not lead to the improvements envisioned. Several years into the project, employees were complaining of long hours and low pay, and customer gripes increased, particularly over the new concept of "self-service" service. Disgruntled shareholders banded together to take action, leading to the birth of the third oldest profession, one closely related to the first two: the lawyer. Andersen-Hammer, when reached for comment while out inventing golf (a new forum for making key management decisions), blamed incompetent users and saboteurs in middle management, praised his methodology and referred inquiries to his PR department for some colorful graphics that illustrated overall high levels of client satisfaction.

Today, things have not changed much (though one of these professions has been outlawed). Organizations are still paying a lot of money to get repeatedly screwed. Despite all the warnings to practice the act safely, they jump right in and often catch something from which it may take years to recover. Finally, when all is said and done, it's probably something they could have done to themselves for much less money and with less risk of injury.

Why is management so keen on having their organizations regularly practice BOHICA (Bend Over Here It Comes Again)? Is it simply ignorance? A uni-dimensional goal to improve stock performance over the next quarter and then cash out another $5M in options? Delusions of godliness manifested in the perceived ability to (re)create the world in seven days while only lifting a few fingers and blowing life into clay forms of managers? All of the above? A more important question, though, is what can organizations do to overcome this addiction for consultants?

Getting Help

Afflicted organizations, like alcoholics, need to recognize that they have a problem. They should also remember that in this era of the victim it's OK to admit that they are addicts and, of course, to pursue litigation. Locking lawyers and consultants in the same room so they can gorge on one another is a fitting end for both.

Unlike tabloid TV victims, though, the Global 2000 cannot blame their addiction on a mother who drank during pregnancy or a father who abused them. They have no one to blame but themselves: for placing blind faith in the altruism of external consultants to not only understand the technology design but also implement significant organizational changes, and for expecting quick fixes for fundamental organizational maladies that have been painstakingly crafted over years.

Having come to grips with its dysfunctionality, an organization's first step toward a cure is to identify the specific type of parasite that has entered its bowels. There are several prominent kinds. Cures for the disease vary widely. "Cold turkey" is one painful option, which few organizations have the fortitude to undertake. In the increasingly "virtual" business world, few organizations are capable of doing on their own everything that their business encompasses. As with all things to which it's easy to become addicted, there is potential good in moderation. Especially with consultants.

Hiring a management consultant to tell you what you should be doing in five years is an open-ended, expensive, frivolous exercise. Tasking them to provide five best-of-breed case studies on optimized customer support systems in the packaged goods industry is not. Overall, you would generally be better served by "boutiques" (smaller, user-friendly, cost-efficient consulting groups, staffed primary by FREDs: Friendly REgular Dudes/Dudettes).

Moderation is key. Red wine with dinner improves longevity. Judicious use of consultants in a measured and controlled environment can add to management's longevity. Swilling grain alcohol at breakfast, like letting a horde of ex-accountants determine your organization's strategic direction, is a recipe for disaster.

So stay on top, pay only for what you get and watch out who you let in your bed.

Stan Lepeak is program director in the advanced information management service of the Meta Group in Stamford, CT.

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