Perhaps you can embrace the corporate girlie lifestyle with a clear conscience after allIsrael Andrade / Unsplash

Two weeks ago, Varsity published a column criticising the consulting industry.

“Consulting serves capitalism in a way that being part of the civil service or working as an employment lawyer or developing new medicines just don’t. It is built on deploying the analytical skills of talented grads to help organisations expand to devour new markets, regardless of the client”, its author claimed.

The simple logic of the piece is hard to argue with: capitalism is bad, and capitalism is driven by money-hungry corporations, so consultancies that support those corporations are by association very bad! However, it became apparent to me while reading this piece that the writer clearly has no idea what consultancy actually is, and therefore wasn’t in a very good place to judge it.

So, let’s start by defining what consultancy really is, before we go bashing it about. The easiest way to begin is with our favourite celebrity chef: Gordon Ramsey. If you’ve ever watched Kitchen Nightmares, you’ll know what a failing restaurant looks like. The episode begins and we pan around a dark and dingy dining room, rats in the kitchens, and a menu the size of a terms-and-conditions document. The owners are baffled at their lack of customers and climbing bills, and are in dire need of help. It isn’t until our expert consultant, Gordon Ramsey, shows up and educates the owners on where and why they are suffering, and how to fix it, that they stand a chance at surviving another day. This is “management” consultancy.

“Consultants provide ideas on how to improve the welfare of their clients’ customers, employees or tenants”

The writer who criticised consultancy used the work of JCR committees as an example of “do-gooders”; people who advocate for social justice campaigns through their work with college staff. Those on the committee provide advice to the college on how to best allocate their limited resources in a way that will best serve the student population: e.g., “let’s direct the money towards more period products in the library toilets” or “the current method for room balloting is unfair to students after their year-abroad, so here’s a proposal on how you could improve it”. Have any idea what this reminds you of?

In both of the above, the consultants provide ideas on how to improve the welfare of their clients’ customers, employees or tenants. They are advocating for solutions which have a real impact on people and improve their quality-of-life. So, they are consultants acting to improve the world (albeit on a small scale).

However, these are simplified examples, so let’s look at the real world. The original piece relies on the assumption that the objective of most consultants is to maximise profits at all costs for a corporation (and hence they are inherently evil); this is misguided, and I’ll have a go at showing you why.

Ignoring the Big Names for a moment, let me catch everyone up on the wider industry of consultancy: freelance consultants act as individual contractors who provide temporary roles in e.g., project management, or as highly-skilled employees for a short-term project – these consultants have nothing directly to do with profits. The writer was right to point out the short-falling of ESG consultancy, but I doubt he had any thoughts on the role of regulatory consultants – which are not the same. These consultants also do not act to increase the profits of the company. There is also a growing industry of internal consultants, which is where a company will bring together a team of in-house specialists from engineers and economists to behavioural scientists, tasked with providing strategic business advice. All seemingly harmless, right?

“Perhaps it is possible to provide socially-good solutions to a ‘bad’ company”

Even when we turn back to the Big Names, most consultancy just appears to be some form of outsourced expertise or project design and temporary management. The crimes encouraged by firms such as MicKinsey are indefensible (obviously), but they reveal a large vulnerability of consultants to corrupt clients. To claim the entire consultancy industry is evil might imply that all their clients are corrupt, which leads you into questions about the state of our economy and capitalism above all else. So, is it evil companies asking for evil solutions, or evil consultants driving good companies into bad practices? Is it even as binary as good and bad?

A good example for this is the pharmaceutical industry. These companies are vulnerable to making profit-based decisions at the expense of the public (e.g.,prioritising research into treatments over cures). Yet still, when your PhD friends design a new cancer drug, who scales its production from their tiny lab into a product capable of supplying thousands of people? And what if this organisation needs expert advice on creating sustainable and cost-efficient supply chains? In this case, perhaps it is possible to provide socially-good solutions (which act to improve the reliability of medicines) to a ‘bad’ company.


Mountain View

Why are all my do-gooding friends becoming consultants?

Whether consultants are good at improving these businesses is another question. At its core consultancy is just about giving expert advice. At its best, it should solve a problem, and at its worst, it offers bad or harmful advice. It is wrong to assume that consultants only act to increase profits; it is also wrong to assume that consultancy is inherently bad because it serves a profit-driven corporation.

It’s unfair to label consultancy as this Big Bad Wolf that does no good, simply because you don’t understand what consultancy is. And to your credit, writer, if you’ve never actually worked in a corporation (or any job for that matter), it’s understandable why you failed to grasp the concept. So, if you, reader, want to be a consultant I certainly won’t judge you. But maybe don’t work for McKinsey if you can help it…