I recently received an invitation to attend a seminar on the new European Standard for Management Consultancy Services (EN 16114). This standard came into being around three years ago, in response to the EU's Services Directive, which seeks to establish a common market in services in the same way that it has in goods – a way of weeding out ‘bent banana’ consultants, presumably!
Its advocates see this as a common-sense – and hence self-evidently beneficial – approach towards the “professionalization” of consulting practice. But is it?
What the (so far) voluntary standard actually sets out is more like a ‘paint-by-numbers’ approach to consulting practice. That is, it offers an interminable list of ‘best practice’ guidelines, with which individual management consultants and those employed by consultancy practices are expected to comply.
Central to this is the presumption that effective consultancy demands a project-based approach, with clearly understood and readily measureable deliverables; formal, linear processes, systems, and procedures; extensive documentation; and so on. Its authors even continue to prescribe the use of SMART objectives to specify the outcomes required! In short, the standard is process-heavy and practice-light.
This unfailing belief in scientific rationality, predictability, and control is wholly consistent with the dominant discourse on organization and management, of course. But it further reinforces the illusion that practitioners (in this case consultants) can ensure that things will turn out as planned – provided that they do things ‘properly’ and get them ‘right’ in line with the formally approved ‘recipe for success’. Sadly - or, as some might say, thankfully - they can't.
Value-creating consulting practice
As I’ve argued throughout this blog, what we think of as “the organization” emerges continuously in the complex social process of everyday human interaction. As such, the professional practice of consultants (as with that of managers and other practitioners) is exercised through their application of practical judgement in the midst of the real-world wiggliness of organization. And this practice is enhanced over time by their adoption of a reflective and reflexive approach to their work.
For the most part, value-creating consulting practice is:
- less about project disciplines and more about personal dialogue;
- less about abstract prescriptions and more about active participation;
- less about procedural conformity and more about pattern-shifting creativity;
and, encompassing all of the above,
- less about paperwork, checklists and SMART-ness, and more about purpose, courage, and skill.