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In the workplace, are we all consultants now?

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In the workplace, are we all consultants now?

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Over the past decade or so we’ve seen the rise in what Dan Pink called the free agent nation, whereby people are increasingly acting like independent consultants going from project to project as they please.

Of course, whilst this approach has numerous upsides to it, there is also the lack of social safety net that such a self-employed approach affords, whether it’s holiday pay, maternity rights or any of the other things that salaried staff may take for granted.

That hasn’t stopped the rise of the generalist however, with an increasing emphasis being placed on so called ‘t-shaped’ skills.

I’ve written about the value of this approach in terms of innovation previously, but a recent study highlights how it’s increasingly finding its way into management too.

The paper reveals how managers are increasingly adopting the habits and behaviors of consultants.  The authors outline the three principle ways this shift is happening:

  1. Firstly, it seems increasingly that organizations are recruiting ex-consultants into management positions, with all of the habits that brings with it
  2. Various internal departments are also setting themselves up as quasi-consultancies.  Whether it’s HR or IT, departments whose primary aim is to serve internal clients are evolving in such a way
  3. Finally, the report highlights a growth in so called internal consulting units

When combined together, the authors believe this represents the rise in what they call ‘consultant managers’.

Whilst the broad generalism that is often required in a consultant is a good thing, I think it’s some way short of replicating how I believe managers should be in a adaptive organization.

Indeed, it is broadly speaking limited to two distinct tasks.

Providing context

The first of these is to provide both the organisation as a whole, and the employees within it with a context.  The context is crucial because it outlines three things that are essential to ensure the organization retains a focus.  It outlines the reason for the organisations existence (it’s purpose), it outlines the core principles by which it functions, and it outlines a high-level design for the business.

These things help to set out the over-riding goal for the organization and some principles by which it will go about achieving that goal.  In essence it’s providing the organization with some boundaries and rules by which employees can then play by.  They help to give empowered people some guidance on how to behave that are crucial to ensure that all employees work together.

Providing coordination

The second main task for the manager to provide therefore is that of coordination.  Once the context has been outlined, it’s important to understand if that guidance is being adhered to.  The sense and respond philosophy at the heart of adaptive organisations applies just as much internally as it does by pulling in external data.  It’s crucial therefore that managers play a strong role in monitoring what’s happening and adapting accordingly.

It should be said, this isn’t focusing on how people go about their job.  That’s very much the preserve of the old make and sell approach.  Rather it’s ensuring that what people do fits well together.  The actual way people go about doing their job is largely decided by them, within the guidance outlined in the context phase from earlier.

These are tasks that I’m not sure consultants have done particularly well in the past, and indeed it’s often not even part of their remit, so whilst there are positives to be taken out of the apparent move towards greater consulting type behaviors in the workplace, it is certainly not without risk.

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