Practice what you Preach: Transforming the Professional Knowledge of Management Consultants

Practice what you Preach: Transforming the Professional Knowledge of Management Consultants

Clara Hoekman, Mohammad Hosein Rezazade Mehrizi

VU University Amsterdam


Digital technologies are transforming the professional landscape in ways that where unimaginable before. As digital technologies are increasingly capable of taking on higher level cognitive skills, it becomes especially relevant to study the transformations in more knowledge intensive professions.

Therefore we studied management consulting, a profession consisting of skills such as complex problem solving, synthesizing, relationship building, and continuous learning and adapting.

Paradoxically, we found that management consultants who are in the business of advising others to transform and become more digital are actually conservative in practicing these technological innovations and embracing transformations that they preach to their clients themselves.

We investigated this paradoxical phenomenon at the management consulting departments of a large, international professional service organization through an in-depth ethnographic study, collecting qualitative data over a period of four months in the form of 16 formal interviews, 40 hours of observations and informal conversations, and participation in 8 sessions related to digital transformations internally. Taking a knowledge perspective of professions allowed us to explain this decoupling between the advice to external clients versus the adoption of technological innovations internally by unpacking the knowledge domains that constitute the management consulting profession.

In addition to the natural inertia to transform related to the institutional and organizational structure of large companies, we found that there are two interesting mechanisms that explain why the management consultants are conservative in adopting technological innovations themselves. First, implementing digital transformations at clients makes the management consultants aware of the temporariness of most of these transformations. Since they are in the business of advising others on transformations, they are required stay on top of the newest developments and trends, ahead of what their clients know. This capability often showed them the temporariness of technological trends and transformation projects: “like five years ago they needed a cloud system, and then now they need an AI system”. Therefore, they have often been conservative in introducing most of these transformations into their own profession.

Secondly, we found that a strong client-commitment acts as a mechanism for the decoupling. Management consultants practically consume most of their attention and efforts into advising others, thereby being in an almost constant mode of client-focus. This leaves limited attentional, cognitive, and practical room for turning back and looking at themselves. The fact that management consultants are mainly incentivized to improving their clients thus goes at the expense of gaining capabilities and feeling the urgency to innovate internally.

If management consultants would only resist the adoption of technological innovations in their professional knowledge base because they are aware of the temporariness and committed to clients, they would not sustain in a rapidly changing environment. Indeed, we found two ways through which the management consultants do adopt technological innovations. First, on a substantive level, we found that consultants tolerate a period of no or little change up to a point that the pressure accumulates, making a big leap. Secondly, we found that management consultants develop the capability of symbolically adopting technological innovations because they need to be a role model for their clients that they are on top of these transformations: “live your promise, we have to propagate what we are explaining. If you tell them that we are super digital but we show up with flip-overs...”. This capability have helped them to decouple their symbolic engagement with technological transformations from substantial changes in their fundamental ways of creating and delivering their professional services.

Using a two-layer learning perspective, we show that management consultants are in a constant decoupling between changes at the surface and more substantive level. On the surface level, the consultants symbolically take action to show that they are on top of technological innovations, thereby moving with the continuous rhythm of technological developments in the market. However, on the substantive level, the professional transformations go in punctuated steps whereby for long periods of time limited changes happen, until the urgency to transform becomes accumulated, and a radical change is implement.

As a key take-away, we suggest that management consultants can take the decoupling as an opportunity to learn from their professional knowledge, reflecting back by implementing a feedback loop between what they advise their clients (symbolic changes) and what is needed internally, on the substantive level. Thereby this study provides a novel insight to the management consulting literature in which the profession is traditionally framed as helping other organizations develop and change. This case shows that although technological changes allow the consultants to learn from what they are preaching, there are systematic mechanisms that hamper continuous, substantive transformations inside their own profession. Moreover, as many professions are at their core about advising others, these findings contribute to the study of professions, explaining the mechanisms and solutions to the decoupling between practicing and preaching.