Business Anthropology

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

In order to grasp why some large organisations (but not others) spend so much money on something as ethereal as “strategy,” Matthew Stewart explains, one must dispose of the na├»ve idea that consulting involves the transfer of knowledge:

The savvier consultants and their clients understand that the basis of the business is not technological but anthropological — and that this is not always a bad thing. Among human beings, it turns out, the perception of expertise, however unfounded, can sometimes be used to good purpose. As the shamans who poison chickens and the soothsayers who read entrails have long demonstrated, sometimes it is more important to build a consensus around a good decision than to make the best possible decision; sometimes it is more useful to believe that a decision is sanctioned by a higher authority than to acknowledge that it rests on mere conjecture; and sometimes it is better to make a truly random choice than to continue to follow the predictable inclinations of one’s established prejudices. Consultants, following in the footsteps of their pagan forebears, understand that they must adopt the holy mien of a priestly caste.

So, cuff links matter; flying first class and ritual feasting, too, are part of the job. But consultants also know that an outrageously unjustified level of self-confidence can add several points to one’s perceived expertise quotient.

The most important of the all-too-human functions of shaman-consultants is to sanctify and communicate opinion. Like ministers of information, consultants condense the message, smooth out the dissonances, unify the rhetoric, and then repeat and amplify it ad nauseam through the client’s rank and file. The chief message to be communicated is that you will be expected to work much harder than you ever have before and your chances of losing your job are infinitely greater than you ever imagined.

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When you stipulate that management is the province of experts, you lose sight of the fact that organising fruitful co-operation among human beings is principally a matter of building trust. And you forget the most elemental truth of political philosophy, that in any system that does not have the features of transparency and accountability, no one trusts anyone.

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