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date: 15 July 2019

Researching Management Consulting: An Introduction to the Handbook

Abstract and Keywords

This article introduces management consultants and management consultancy, which have quickly become an important part of modern organizations. It notes that research on management consultancy is an interdisciplinary effort and can help identify some crucial issues that have surrounded social science for the past half decade. It then addresses the ambiguity of the definition of management consultancy and the importance of management consultants. It then presents a chronological overview of research publications on the management consulting industry. The rest of the article summarizes work on management consulting.

Keywords: management consultancy, management consultants, modern organizations, social science, management consulting industry, research publications

In a relatively short period of time management consultants and management consultancy have come to occupy a significant role in modern organizations. Many major decisions in a wide range of organizations and sectors are made with the assistance of management consultants. The impact of their advice is hard to avoid. Indeed, whether we are aware of it or not, many of us will have experienced the outcome of some kind of consultancy-led initiative or programme. It is, we will argue later, this sense of influence and power, combined with concerns in relation to their accountability, that has heightened the profile of management consulting in the academic literature and made it a thriving area of research.

This volume brings together contributions from leading scholars to provide a comprehensive and authoritative overview of the extant literature on management consulting. This Handbook is therefore designed to present the full range of research and thinking on management consulting, dispersed amongst different disciplines, sub-disciplines, and conceptual approaches. Each chapter reviews and critically reflects upon the existing research on a specific topic or theme before identifying potentially productive avenues for future research. Individually, they demonstrate the diversity of conceptual and empirical approaches and relate these to one another so that overlaps, parallel concerns, and areas of synergy are identified. Collectively, the range of topics covered demonstrates that although there is a fast expanding and rich body of research on management consulting itself, it has also been used as an illustration by scholars working in a number of disciplines to provide an example to broader (p. 2) questions. Research into management consulting is therefore an interdisciplinary endeavour and as such provides a route into a number of critical issues that have occupied social science over the last fifty years or so. These issues include the shifting nature of organizations, the rise of management, the nature of knowledge, professions, fashion, and the post-industrial economy. These chapters not only provide an unrivaled insight into management consulting as an activity but also enable readers to develop their broader knowledge and become better informed and more rounded social scientists.

As will be discussed at various points in this volume, definitions of management consultancy are problematic because the permeable boundaries of the industry have resulted in significant shifts over time in the composition of the industry. This means that what comprises consulting work is dynamic, ever shifting, and contested as new firms enter the industry and techniques deemed formerly appropriate, change. Although the industry is characterized by periodic structural shifts, at its heart it is an advisory activity built on the client–consultant relationship. However, many definitions of management consulting derive from industry bodies that have an interest in presenting the activity in a very positive light. The following is an example of an early definition of management consulting from the Association of Consulting Management Engineers (ACME) (quoted by Higdon 1969: 306):

Management consulting is the professional service performed by specially trained and experienced persons in helping managers identify and solve managerial and operating problems of the various institutions of our society … This professional service focuses on improving the managerial, operating, and economic performance of these institutions.

This definition has been echoed in many subsequent definitions (such as Kubr 2002: 3–4), where consultants are frequently portrayed, and indeed like to be portrayed, as experts who draw on a professional knowledge-base to help solve client problems of various kinds. They are often ‘seen as synonymous with the role of professional helpers remedying illness in client organizations’ (Fincham and Clark 2002: 7). As a number of the chapters in this volume demonstrate, the nature of consulting knowledge and the degree to which it has been able to professionalize are vigorously debated issues in the literature (Kipping and Wright, Chapter 8; Kirkpatrick, Muzio, and Ackroyd, Chapter 9; Werr, Chapter 12; Morris, Gardner, and Anand, Chapter 14; Jung and Kieser, Chapter 16; Nikolova and Devinney, Chapter 19). In a later section this Introduction will discuss the rise of consulting, but it is important to note here that it is perhaps this chimeral ability to avoid precise definition and to be able to constantly reinvent its core services to meet ever changing understandings of the problems that beset contemporary organizations, which partly underpins its growing economic importance. As an industry, management consulting has proved very adaptable, as it has sought to sustain demand for its services in a context that, occasionally, radically alters.

In terms of structure, the first section of this introductory chapter details the merits of management consulting as a research topic, highlighting three reasons why it (p. 3) has attracted the attention of researchers: (i) While not necessarily big in overall revenue terms, it grew quickly, faster than the economy as a whole in many Western nations, especially since the 1980s; (ii) it employed many smart, or at least well-educated people, becoming an example of the kind of knowledge work many saw as the future of economic and business activity; and (iii), probably most importantly, its activities impacted an ever wider number of organizations and even society as a whole. The subsequent section will provide a chronological overview of the evolution of research on management consulting (for earlier reviews, see Armenakis and Burdg 1988; Mohe and Seidl 2009). It will show that interest in the industry was originally limited, mainly confined to the business and even general press as well as a few investigative journalists, but that this interest accelerated in the 1950s and reached a first high point in the late 1960s with the publication of a small number of influential books. From the mid-1970s attention grew and diversified, with research involving, in addition to journalists, consultants themselves and academics from a variety of backgrounds. Academic research in particular, but also more popular accounts of management consulting, have exploded since the 1990s, following on from the unprecedented growth and visibility of the industry. The final section of this Introduction will briefly explain how this Handbook has chosen to present the current state-of-the-art thinking in academic research as well as promising avenues for its future development.

1.1 Assessing the Importance of Management Consultants

Today, consultants are ubiquitous in the business world even beyond their advisory role. They frequently pop up when one leafs through business magazines, attends business events, or checks the shelves of bookstores or billboards at airports. There is hardly an issue of any leading business magazine that does not have an article referring to management consulting firms or individual celebrity consultants and management gurus. According to some accounts (e.g. Faust 2002), consultants have actually replaced academics, and even managers, as the leading ‘experts’ on business matters, and as such are influential in determining our understanding of contemporary organizational issues. They have not only become a pre-eminent ‘reference source’ but also (co-)author articles in popular academic journals, have written many bestselling management books, and even, in some cases, publish their own periodicals (Clark, Bhatanacharoen, and Greatbatch, Chapter 17; Engwall, Chapter 18; both this volume). Consequently, there seems little doubt that consultants are highly visible. However, what are the reasons for their importance and do they merit being the focus of sustained research? In the following three sections we explore different potential answers to these questions.

(p. 4) 1.1.1 Consulting as an Economic Activity

There is little doubt that management consulting is a business, even if most consultants try to think of themselves—and portray themselves—as ‘trusted professional advisors’. Management consulting has indeed become an important economic activity. Since its boundaries are not well delineated and shift over time, it is notoriously difficult to obtain any accurate statistics on the size of the management consulting market, globally or for different countries, regions, and sectors. Estimates tend to be provided by industry groups, such as the European Federation of Management Consultancies Associations (FEACO—Fédération Européenne des Associations de Conseils en Organisation), or industry experts, such as Kennedy Consulting Research. Kubr (2002), who has written a widely used Guide to the Profession, estimated the global market to be worth US$102 billion in 1999, with Europe accounting for $33 billion, as compared to a total of $28.3 billion in 1992 (with these totals equivalent to, respectively, $133.5 and $44 billion in 2010). According to FEACO, in 2010, the European consulting market had an estimated value of €85 billion, with ‘business consulting’ (rather than IT consulting, outsourcing, and a few other activities) accounting for 43 per cent of this total. Taking business consulting only, and applying the same proportion as that of ten years earlier, suggests that the global market in 2010 had a value of around $150 billion. If one takes all consulting revenues into account the resulting market size would be closer to $350 billion.

One should take all of these data as, at best, providing an order of magnitude, which will vary widely depending on what is included, given the vague boundaries between business and IT consulting (and even outsourcing) and with much of the market dominated by individual practitioners and small firms (see Faulconbridge and Jones, Chapter 11, this volume; Keeble and Schwalbach 1995). Nor do these estimates take into account the size of internal consultancy activities, which have attracted attention only very recently (see, e.g., Wright 2009; Sturdy and Wright 2011). Given the above, plus the growth of markets other than those of North America and Europe, the above estimate of $150 billion is probably on the low side. The largest consulting firm is (by most measures) IBM Global Business Services, which alone had revenues of $18.2 billion in 2010, which would translate into a 12 per cent market share—highly unlikely in what continues to be a very fragmented market. Nevertheless, not all of its activities can probably be counted as management consulting. Against this backdrop, $350 billion seems a somewhat more realistic estimate of market size, since this would give IBM an approximate share of 5 per cent.

Whatever their reliability in detail, these figures do show that the market has grown significantly relative to the early 1990s (despite some setbacks following the bursting of the Internet bubble in the early 2000s, lack of confidence after the Enron collapse in 2001, and the 2008 economic/financial crisis). This growth has at least partially contributed to a surge in academic interest from the 1990s onwards (see below). The recent rise of management consulting as an economic activity becomes even more pronounced when comparing the current industry size to the late 1950s, when the first more comprehensive market and firm data were available (Higdon 1969: 21). At the time, the US was by far the largest market with estimated revenues for close to 2,000 consulting firms (p. 5) reaching $426 million (equivalent to $3.45 billion in 2010) in 1954 and $850 million with 2,700 consultancies in 1968 (a 2010 equivalent of $5.33 billion). These numbers once again do not include the tens of thousands of individual consultants acting as sole-traders. In comparison, the UK—even if also a relatively developed market—was only estimated to generate total revenue of £4 million in 1956 (corresponding to just under £80 million or $123 million in 2010), with the big four firms accounting for about three quarters of this amount (Tisdall 1982: 9). In 2010 it had grown 100-fold, generating fee income of just under £8 billion or $23.5 billion. The UK market seems to have remained fairly concentrated with the Management Consulting Association's (MCA's) now fifty-five member firms accounting for an estimated 70 per cent of total turnover (http://www.mca.org.uk/about-us accessed 14 June 2011), even if the late 1980s and early 1990s also saw a significant growth of individual and small and medium-sized consultancies (Keeble and Schwalbach 1995).

Throughout most of this period, therefore, consulting has grown faster than the economies of many Western nations, partially by expanding globally (Kipping 1999). The leading firms in terms of revenue also grew much bigger. In 1968, the largest firm in the US was the Stanford Research Institute with $60 million in revenues ($376 million in 2010 dollars), which corresponded to a market share of about 7 per cent. Among those firms that are still significant today, the biggest then were Booz Allen with $50 million ($313 million in 2010) and McKinsey estimated between $22–5 million (with $24 million equivalent to $150 million in 2010), corresponding to market shares of 5.9 and 2.8 per cent respectively. Today's firms are significantly bigger in absolute terms but do not seem to have increased their market share. Some of the market leaders in the 1960s actually have a lower share today. For example, with respective revenues of $5 and $6.6 billion in 2009 Booz Allen and McKinsey only accounted for approximately 1.4 and 1.9 per cent of a market estimated at $350 billion (see, respectively, Booz Allen Hamilton 2009 and Forbes 2010). This suggests that the market might have undergone some structural change since the 1950s as consulting has been both absorbed and appropriated by other occupational groups (for more details, see Kipping 2002; McDougald and Greenwood, Chapter 5; Galal, Richter, and Wendlandt, Chapter 6; both this volume).

However, while the overall size in terms of markets and firm revenues is important, it is still small when compared to many other industries. This might explain why little of the extant research examines the industry structure or competition among the incumbent firms, or changes among those firms (e.g. through exit and entry). Thus, there are few if any studies that use approaches from economics, including ‘old’ or ‘new’ industrial organization or population ecology (see for details Saam, Chapter 10, this volume; Clark 1995). Neither have there been traditional strategy studies, based, for example, on Porter's (1980) Five Forces framework. Much of this has to do with the lack of statistical data on the industry and their lack of reliability, arising from the already mentioned blurred and fluid boundaries. The industry has a very fragmented nature, with highly visible and increasingly large professional service providers operating alongside a myriad of smaller niche firms and a plethora of individual consultants. But it also shows that, as a business, (p. 6) management consulting does not seem to be of major importance. According to FEACO (2010: 9), for instance, management consulting accounted for an estimated 0.7 per cent of European GDP in 2010 (up from 0.24 per cent in 1998 and 0.53 per cent in 2000). Other reasons, therefore, seem to better account for the broad interest it has received over recent decades.

1.1.2 The Human Element in Consulting

One of the reasons for the attention paid to management consulting can be found in the human resources it employs. As the above mentioned Forbes (2010) entry on McKinsey notes, somewhat casually, ‘[t]he firm is among the largest hirers of newly minted MBAs in the United States’. Ruef (2002) has traced the rise of management consulting as an employer for a large business school in the western US between 1933 and 1997, showing that their share increased from a meagre 2 per cent in the mid-1940s to just under one quarter of all graduates by the 1990s. In general, management consultancies developed a complex—often complementary, sometimes competitive—relationship with business schools (for details see David, Chapter 4; Engwall, Chapter 18; both this volume). Consulting firms have actually become so important for business school graduates that there are specialized websites tracking their reputation and/or offering resources to help potential hires land a job with a consultancy (e.g., vault.com and wetfeet.com).

But management consultancies do not only target postgraduate MBAs. Indeed, the major source of new talent in the largest consulting firms consists of recruits fresh out of undergraduate programmes. For example, in the late 1990s, according to the managing director of Andersen Consulting, now Accenture, the company received 3 million applications per year worldwide (Films of Record 1999). While an astonishing number at first sight, it is less surprising when considering both the attraction of (under)graduates to the industry and the size of Andersen Consulting, which had grown to over 70,000 employees by 2000 (http://www.accenture.com/us-en/company/overview/history/Pages/growth-global-leader.aspx accessed 7 June 2011). In addition, there is significant turnover among consulting staff due, on the one hand, to the consultancy's up-or-out policies and, on the other, the possible recognition among employees that the job is not so glamorous after all, given, among other issues, the long hours, extensive travel, and, for junior consultants, limited client exposure (Alvesson, Chapter 15, this volume; Armbrüster 2006).

Yet, it is not the sheer numbers of consultants that have attracted most of the attention (after all, employment in the sector in absolute terms is not that high), but their ‘quality’. Consultants have become, for many, synonymous with a new type of employee, the ‘knowledge worker’, a type that has attracted significant attention in the popular and in the more academic management literature. The term was apparently first coined by Peter Drucker in his 1959 book The Landmarks of Tomorrow. A number of futurologists such as Alvin Toffler (1971) and Daniel Bell (1973) noted the macroeconomic shift from manufacturing to services in many advanced Western (p. 7) economics from the 1960s (Stehr 1994). Critical to these economic and social changes was the emerging prominence of a host of knowledge occupations such as accounting, law, IT services, employment agencies, and management consulting. Their rise has been seen as synonymous with the development of a new economy in which knowledge and intellectual abilities have become the key source of competitive advantage for companies (e.g., Lloyd and Sveiby 1987; Eisenhardt and Santos 2001; Newell et al. 2002). At the same time, because their key assets are in their heads, knowledge workers are seen as highly mobile, which creates numerous problems in terms of hiring and retaining talent (e.g. Drucker 2002). Management consultancies themselves have made a contribution to further exacerbating this issue, by encouraging their client firms to be very active in ‘the war for talent’—the title of a book by three McKinsey consultants (Michaels, Handfield-Jones, and Axelrod 2001).

While there has been some research about what it actually means for consultants to be defined as ‘knowledge workers’ (see Alvesson, Chapter 15, this volume, and 2004), studies looking at how consulting firms manage their knowledge have been more numerous (Werr, Chapter 12; Heusinkveld and Benders, Chapter 13; both this volume) and are part of a much larger literature on knowledge management in which consultancies have been, once again, seen as providing an example for other companies, given the (supposed) knowledge-intensive nature of their business (e.g. Hansen, Nohria, and Tierney 1999; Alvesson 2004). But knowledge was not the only area where consultants were considered to be exemplary, even trendsetting. There was another area related to the idea that consultants are ‘professionals’—a term they or the firms they work for often use to describe themselves.

Consultants were not included in the original academic research and debates on professionalism and professional occupations (e.g. Larson 1977; Abbott 1988), in part because of the lack of awareness of their activities but also because they had not reached formal professional status (McKenna 2006). However, they became more interesting as a result of changes observed in traditional professions, such as accounting and law, which gradually loosened their previous professional obligations and drifted towards a new type of organization, the professional service firm (PSF). PSFs became a focus of attention in organization and management theory and were used as examples for a process, which saw traditional professional partnerships adopt more features of ‘normal’ organizations, evolving towards what are widely called ‘managed professional businesses’ (MPB) (Hinings 2005; Von Nordenflycht 2010). Much of this research ultimately focused on the traditional professions, namely accounting and law, but some researchers began to examine the case of consulting, where PSFs had predated external professions, and therefore never let the latter develop fully, while looser associations between consulting and professionalism—often in purely discursive form—continued to persist (Gross and Kieser 2006; Leicht and Lyman 2006; Kipping 2011; Muzio, Kirkpatrick, and Kipping 2011). Nevertheless, for consulting, much of the discussion centred around the reasons why consultants had failed to develop a professional status in the first place (Kirkpatrick, Muzio, and Ackroyd, Chapter 9, this volume). This was another issue in which consultants were somewhat more central in the research interest.

(p. 8) 1.1.3 Consultants as Promoters of Organizational (and Societal) Change

A third reason for the attention paid to management consultants does not concern the liveliness of their own business or the human resources behind it, but rather the considerable impact it is believed they have on other organizations (for a critical review, see Sturdy 2011). Indeed, they are frequently portrayed as shadowy figures operating in the background but exercising considerable influence. This has clearly been the most important reason for the interest shown towards them both in the business press and academic research, since their influence by far exceeds their importance both in terms of size of economic activity and employment. As research has shown, their influence has been widespread. They have not only influenced commercial/business organizations, but also governments (Saint-Martin, Chapter 22, this volume) and a variety of other organizations, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), trade unions, and the church (Macdonald 2006; also Capron 2000). Their impact has not only been exerted through the advice they have sold, but also, if not more importantly, through their more general pronouncements on major issues such as regulation or health care (Kipping and Wright, Chapter 8, this volume), and even the future of capitalism (Barton 2011), and, last but not least, through former consultants occupying leading positions in business, politics, and society (Kipping 2012).

Their influence is not only recent. Some, like Marsh (2008: 35–40) go back as far as antiquity, highlighting how Plato and others as outsiders shaped Greek society and polity. Possibly even more famous is Machiavelli and his advice given to the prince (2003) in The Prince (pp. 43–6). However, most would argue that management consulting only emerged with the ‘visible hand’ (Chandler 1977) of management since the second industrial revolution in the second half of the nineteenth century (Wright and Kipping, Chapter 2, this volume; for a divergent opinion McKenna 2006). Some of the earliest and most detailed studies of how consultants tried to change organizations—and frequently encountered resistance in doing so—cover this period. There is, in particular, the book by Aitken (1960), examining the failed introduction of scientific management methods at the US government arsenal in Watertown in the early twentieth century, which even led to a congressional investigation (providing, in turn, much of the material for the study). At that time, the US Congress also invited well-known consultants to give their opinion on important economic issues, for example, the regulation of rates for railway companies (Quigel 1992). Some of them, most prominently Frederick Taylor, also gave occasional lectures at the newly founded business schools, in his case, Harvard (Engwall, Chapter 18, this volume).

In terms of the actual impact of consultants, the literature is—probably not surprisingly—divided. The extent and effect of this impact has been one of the major issues debated vigorously in both the popular and academic literature. Many of the studies mentioned above have highlighted the resistance of those concerned, in these cases the workers, against the organizational changes introduced, mostly concerning the introduction of (p. 9) scientific management methods (for example, Littler 1982, Downs 1990; for studies highlighting the resistance or at least reluctance of middle managers, see Cailluet 2000; Kipping 2000; Kipping and Armbrüster 2002). There are very few studies that actually claim, based on empirical evidence, that consultants have done harm to the organizations they advise. There are, however, a number of cases discussed by journalists and based on court documents, where clients have alleged that the consultants did not deliver the results they promised and, in one case, were even accused of having caused the company's bankruptcy (see O’Shea and Madigan 1997). It should be noted that all of these cases were eventually settled out of court and that O’Shea and Madigan (1997) also discuss cases where the consultants, supposedly, had a positive influence. On the other hand, there are a number of authors, many of them action researchers, who highlight the positive effect of their own work and the work of other organizational development consultants (see below; also Trahair and Bruce, Chapter 3, this volume). Indeed, as Fincham and Clark (2002) point out, many of the key authors in organizational development were reflecting on and describing their own practice. It is unsurprising that they present such a positive picture of the consulting process and its potential benefits to clients.

The majority of the literature, however, remains rather neutral or uncertain when it comes to the evaluation of the effect that consultants have. A sizeable number of commentators agree that consulting interventions lead to organizational change, but they differ in terms of its depth and directionality (see Faust, Chapter 7, this volume). There are those who believe that consultants disseminate very similar organizational templates to their client organizations, leading them ultimately to convergence in organizational form or to display ‘isomorphism’ (e.g. Hagedorn 1955; Chandler 1962; DiMaggio and Powell 1983). Others argue that most organizations will not blindly copy these templates, but adapt, hybridize, or, more generally, ‘translate’ them (see also Nikolova and Devinney, Chapter 19, this volume). Another view, and currently possibly the dominant one among researchers, sees the changes, if they take place at all, as mainly superficial. Following in the footsteps of Abrahamson (1991, 1996), they argue that consultants—and other actors in what they term the management fashion arena—induce managers to adopt new ideas, but, just like fashionable clothes, shed them as quickly and replace them with new fashions launched by those same actors (see below; also Jung and Kieser, Chapter 16; Clark, Bhatanacharoen, and Greatbatch, Chapter 17; both this volume). This, some suggest, might not necessarily cause immediate harm, but the ever changing nature of consultancy-led techniques at the least leads to cynicism among those affected inside an organization.

Whatever the differences in opinion, and there continue to be many, it is clear that the main reason that management consulting has attracted such a broad interest can be found in the (at least supposed) impact they have had on a broad range of organizations and even on society at large. This interest seems to have been particularly strong after the industry ‘exploded’ in the 1990s and early twenty-first century—making consultants much more visible actors in the economy. But, as the following section will show, there has been even earlier research covering a number of different issues (some of them (p. 10) already addressed above). This section will provide both an overview of the evolution of this research and a snapshot of the current situation.

1.2 Extant Research: Evolution and Current State

The following discussion will provide a chronological overview of research publications addressing the management consulting industry—research being broadly defined as encompassing investigative work emanating from scholars, journalists, and self-reflecting practitioners. As has been widely noted elsewhere, and as this section will confirm, more narrowly defined academic research on management consulting took off primarily in the 1990s. Nevertheless, there were studies examining the industry and its actors before then, usually written by journalists, sometimes commissioned by the consultancies themselves or their associations. Occasionally, and more by accident rather than design, consultants also appeared on the radar of scholars working on a number of different issues. Moreover, despite the surge in interest directed at management consultancy, even today the research output has remained on the margins of the mainstream (defined as the top-ranked, US-based management journals), with much of it being published in the form of monographs, edited volumes, and articles in European-based journals. Many of the scholars, journalists, and (former) practitioners publishing during the recent research boom from the 1990s have taken a broadly critical stance towards the industry and its activities, whereas most of the earlier publications had adopted a more neutral or even a positive tone.

1.2.1 Early Research on Consulting

The early investigative work on management consultancy came from three rather different sources: the (business) press, which has probably shown both the earliest and the most consistent interest almost since the inception of management consulting; the consultancies themselves as well as their associations; and scholars, with most of them ‘stumbling across’ the industry while researching other issues (e.g. Jackall 1988).

Journalistic accounts of consulting firms and, in particular, of their eponymous founders go back to the beginning of the twentieth century (if not further). Thus, the already mentioned resistance of workers to the introduction of scientific management at the Watertown arsenal prompted not only the intervention of the US Congress but also a reaction in the press, with an editorial in the New York Evening Post in 1914, for example, supporting Frederick W. Taylor and his system (Aitken 1960: 231). In addition to Taylor, who is widely seen as the ‘father’ of scientific management and the ‘grandfather’ of management consulting (Tisdall 1982; Wright and Kipping, Chapter 2, this volume), (p. 11) other leading industrial engineers (and by extension the consulting firms they founded) also received their fair share of attention.

However, at least in the first half of the twentieth century, much of the public interest was not due to their consulting, but their social activities. For example, Charles Bedaux, whose firm was the most important consultancy during the first half of the twentieth century, attracted most of the attention for the adventurous expeditions he organized though the Rocky Mountains and the Sahara. And he received even more publicity by hosting the wedding between Wallis Simpson and the Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII, at his château in the Loire Valley as well as organizing the Duke's subsequent trips to Nazi Germany and to the United States—the latter was eventually abandoned in the face of significant opposition from organized labour (for details on all of these see, in particular, Christy 1984; for his consulting activities, see Wright and Kipping, Chapter 2, this volume). Thus, of the 20 articles published about Bedaux in the New York Times between 1930 and 1944 (when he committed suicide), only two dealt specifically with his consulting activities—one of them, incidentally, with his mission ‘to Reorganize Economy of Greece’ (published on the first page of the newspaper on 2 August 1938). Since the 1950s, press articles dealt more frequently with a new breed of consultancies and, in particular, with their more prominent representatives, including Booz Allen Hamilton and McKinsey (McKenna 2006; Kipping 2012; about their rise, see also David, Chapter 4, this volume).

Journalists and freelance authors are also behind some of the first broad overviews of the industry. An exemplar is Higdon's (1969) book entitled The Business Healers, which draws on data from the US-based Association of Management Consulting Engineers (ACME), earlier press articles, interviews with consultants and their clients, as well as personal observations. Like many of his later emulators Higdon provides an overview of the industry and its activities, but focuses on the most visible firms at the time, dedicating entire chapters to Booz Allen Hamilton, ‘[t]he mammoth among management consulting firms’ (p. 112); McKinsey, the firm with the ‘self admitted reputation for working with the uppermost of those on Fortune's 500 list’ (p. 148); and George S. May, ‘The Most Brazenly Resourceful Self-Publicist of Our Time’ and, in the eyes of most industry insiders ‘the black sheep of management consulting’ (p. 149). Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber's (1968) book on The American Challenge, published as the French original Le défi américain in 1967, should also be mentioned. While examining the threat to European companies posed by US multinationals, he, in passing, highlighted the role of Booz Allen Hamilton, Arthur D. Little, and McKinsey in disseminating an ‘American-style management that is, in its own special way, unifying Europe’ (pp. 38–9)—an observation much quoted and investigated in the later literature (see, for example, Kipping 1999: 209; McKenna 2006: 165).

The consultants themselves wrote books long before the publication of In Search of Excellence (Peters and Waterman 1982), which is often regarded as the starting point for management bestsellers authored by celebrity consultants (Jung and Kieser, Chapter 16; Clark, Bhatanacharoen, and Greatbatch, Chapter 17; both this volume). To mention but a few, in addition to Taylor's works there are, for instance, Harrington Emerson's books: (p. 12) Efficiency as a Basis for Operations and Wages (1909) and The Twelve Principles of Efficiency (1912); James O. McKinsey's Budgetary Control published in 1922 (Wolf 1978); and Maynard, Stegemerten, and Schwab's (1948) Methods Time Measurement. However, like today, these books usually tried to summarize and publicize the consultants’ ideas rather than reflecting on their and the industry's activities.

There are exceptions, like C. B. Thompson's (1917) The Theory and Practice of Scientific Management, which examines the implementation and effects of the diverse systems as well as the reactions of those concerned. He relies on ‘consulting engineers’ for part of his information (p. 36) and also includes some reflections upon the role of consultants in this process. However, it was not until the 1970s or even the 1980s, that consultants themselves showed more interest in their own activities and, in particular, the evolution of their own firms and the industry as a whole. There are surprisingly few memoirs of consultants, probably due to the secrecy with which the industry has surrounded itself in order to protect client confidentiality. And the few that exist were usually limited to internal use (e.g. Neukom 1975 for McKinsey). This has changed only recently, when a series of former consultants wrote sensationalist and—usually—damning accounts based on their own experiences (e.g. Ashford 1998; Pinault 2000; Craig 2005).

In terms of academic research, there were numerous, usually comparative, studies of the different systems of scientific management that were disseminated by individual consultants or a few larger consulting firms (for an overview, see Wright and Kipping, Chapter 2, this volume), but they paid little attention to these consulting activities per se. The same is true for the books written about the inventors and early proponents of these different systems, and, in particular, Taylor. Thus, in their overview of the 13 ‘pioneers’ of scientific management, Urwick and Brech (1945) did not include either Harrington Emerson or Charles Bedaux, who through their commercial consulting activities had made a major contribution to disseminating these ideas (Wright and Kipping, Chapter 2, this volume). But, for that same reason, they were looked down upon, even ostracized by the ‘purists’ within the movement. This lack of recognition within the academic literature lasted until the 1980s (e.g. Merkle 1980; Nelson 1980). It was only then that another school of thought, that is, labour process theory, recognized the roles consultants had in imposing scientific management onto workers (see below for more details). This ‘discovery’ seems to have prompted other researchers to pay closer attention to consulting in their own work (e.g. Nelson 1992, 1995).

Another stream of academic research concerned with consulting comes from the literature on organizational development (OD). This is related to what today is called ‘action research’, when academics were deeply involved with the subjects they were researching and, as a result, often also gave advice (for two early examples, see Trahair and Bruce, Chapter 3, this volume). Much of this literature was written by individuals actively engaged in consulting and focused on using behavioural science methods to build and sustain an organization's problem-solving capability (Beckhard 1969; Bennis 1969; French and Bell 1995). Perhaps Schein (1969) provided the definitive statement on this approach to consulting when he identified the distinctiveness of the OD practitioner (p. 13) as a process consultant, whose role he defined as ‘a set of activities on the part of the consultant which helps the client to perceive, understand, and act upon process events which occur in the client's environment’ (p. 9). From this perspective consulting is a joint endeavour in which the consultant uses their expertise in ‘processes at the individual, interpersonal, and intergroup levels’ (ibid.) to build capacity in the client to diagnose and resolve the problem should it occur again.

Finally, there was a concluding remark in Chandler's (1962) Strategy and Structure on the spread of the multidivisional form of organization, where he noted ‘the very significant role that management consultants […] have had in bringing about the adoption of the new structure as well as introducing many other administrative innovations and practices’ (pp. 381–2)—though without providing any additional details. While made somewhat in passing at the time, it would eventually lead to his own quip that ‘a manager once advised a colleague that he could save the $100,000 fee that McKinsey & Company was charging corporations to oversee their reorganization by reading a copy of Chandler's Strategy and Structure, which could be purchased for $2.95’ (John 1997: 152, n. 2, which refers to a 1984 chapter by Chandler). The original observation would also be echoed more than 20 years later by DiMaggio and Powell (1983) in an article, which established the foundation for research on the role of management consultants in the diffusion of management ideas/fashions (see below).

Overall therefore, prior to World War II interest in consulting was almost exclusively limited to a few articles in the business and general press, and many of these dealt with the more ‘newsworthy’ private lives and adventures of the most visible consultants. In this respect they were celebrities of their time who happened to be consultants. Interest grew from the 1950s and increasingly involved, in addition to journalists, the consultants themselves and academics who, in the case of OD, were often personally involved in consulting activities. A first high point was reached in 1969 with the publication of the books by Higdon and Schein. What unites all of these authors is their generally positive attitude towards management consultancy and their belief that it could make a positive difference if correctly applied and used. This was to change from the mid-1970s onwards, which also saw a broadening of the approaches towards the industry.

1.2.2 Growing Interest and Divergence

While research activity occurred from the 1990s onwards, slightly lagging with the growth of the industry itself, there were a number of significant publications during the mid-1970s, which in many ways shaped the directions of the studies to come. Much of the new dynamic no longer came from the business press and journalists, but from the consultants themselves and from academia, where opinions became increasingly divided between those seeing management consulting as positive (and even providing normative advice on how to become a good consultant) and others who started to examine the impact that consultants had on client organizations, but diverged in terms of evaluating it—positively or negatively (see also Section 1.1.3 above).

(p. 14) The business press continued to write about the industry at an accelerating pace (see Kipping (2012) for an overview of articles in Business Week). But there was some change in tone with not all reporting being positive. For instance, two lawyers wrote a popular book that was highly critical of the US government's use of outside advisors (Guttman and Willner 1976; see also Saint-Martin, Chapter 22, this volume). The press in general seemed to pay more attention to the growing influence of consultants and became more alert towards possible downsides. Thus, it appears that the sales methods used by George S. May, which had already been criticized by Higdon (see above), also prompted some negative reaction in the European press, not only for his firm, but for consulting in general (Wright and Kipping, Chapter 2, this volume).

Possibly prompted by these criticisms, in order to ascertain their own position in the emerging ‘management fashion arena’ (Faust 2002; Jung and Kieser, Chapter 16, this volume), consultancies began to become more active in publishing. This not only concerned books intended for managers, like the already mentioned bestseller In Search of Excellence by McKinsey consultants Peters and Waterman (1982), but others that examined their own industry or firm. Thus, Tisdall (1982) wrote a book about management consulting in the UK, commissioned by the Institute of Management Consultants (IMC). Her book also seems to have been motivated by the growing success of US consultancies in the UK (see Ferguson 2001; McKenna 2006), since it focuses mainly on the home-grown firms and their associations, the MCA, and the IMC. The accounting firms, which had also started to develop consulting activities after World War II (see McDougald and Greenwood, Chapter 5, this volume) were among the most active in publishing their histories, probably because many of them originated in the nineteenth century and at the time reached milestones in their development (e.g. Coopers & Lybrand 1984; Spacek's 1989 oral history of Arthur Andersen). Among the consulting firms, Arthur D. Little had its centenary history written by a journalist from the New Yorker (Kahn 1986). This was aimed at claiming its position among the leading management consultancies, which it only entered after World War II through operations research, having previously provided contract research for the chemical and natural resources industries. Additional firms, once again mainly accounting-based ones, followed, with similar commissioned histories in the subsequent decade (e.g. Allen and McDermott 1993; Jones 1995).

Most importantly, the 1980s also saw an increase in academic attention towards management consultancy. Thus, the work on OD consulting continued with some of the most influential publications being published as updated editions (e.g., French and Bell 1995). Furthermore, this work branched out into a much more normative literature, which tried to provide guidelines and advice for those wanting to offer consultancy services; a section whose numbers were swelling as the industry overall grew and as many of the middle managers who had been made redundant as a result of de-layering joined their ranks. Similarly, a growing series of publications sought to make the insights from the work of the consultants available to others, in particular managers and management students (e.g. Biech 1999; Rasiel 2001). Others, recognizing the rise of (p. 15) knowledge-intensive firms, developed titles specifically focusing on how to manage these firms (e.g. Maister 1993). Since the 1990s, dedicated textbooks have been published for the growing number of consulting courses (e.g. Wickham 1999; Biswas and Twitchell 2001).

Taken together, all of these books might subsequently have become the most successful parts of consulting-related publications in terms of sales. But with very few exceptions—namely O’Mahoney's (2010) recent textbook—they contain little if any research, and will therefore not be discussed further. Another important exception was first published by the International Labour Office in 1976 under the title Management Consulting: A Guide to the Profession. While in part aimed at offering advice to consulting practitioners, it also provides an in-depth overview and analysis of the industry and its various facets. This is probably still the single most comprehensive contribution to the literature from a practical perspective and is currently in its fourth edition (Kubr 2002).

At the same time, other academics became interested in consulting, albeit usually tangentially. Their work, however, foreshadowed some of the subsequent developments during the 1990s, when scholarly interest in the industry accelerated, as some might say, ‘exploded’ (Ernst and Kieser 2002). First of all, there were some studies that looked at consulting from a labour perspective. These studies examined cases where consultants had contributed to the degradation of work and the deskilling of workers posited by Braverman (1974). The most comprehensive work of this kind was conducted by Littler (1982) based on several case studies of UK firms, whose consultant was Bedaux. Subsequently, there were a growing number of studies, also by labour historians, examining the reaction and resistance of workers to this process (e.g. Downs 1990). Bedaux, in particular, received increasing attention in terms of his personal life (Christy 1984) and his consulting activities (Kreis 1990). Consulting received even greater academic attention as labour process theory morphed into critical management studies, where the focus extended beyond the politics of work organization and capitalism into a more general critique of managerialism, hegemony, and power (see below; also Nikolova and Devinney, Chapter 19; Czarniawska and Mazza, Chapter 21; both this volume).

Second, mirroring the remarks by Chandler (1962) and Servan-Schreiber (1968), DiMaggio and Powell (1983: 152) highlighted that ‘[l]arge organizations choose from a relatively small set of major consulting firms, which, like Johnny Appleseeds, spread a few organizational models throughout the land’. Their widely cited article became a kind of manifesto for what has since been called ‘neo-institutionalism’ in management and organization theory. And their example of consultancies as a force for mimetic isomorphism has significantly influenced subsequent studies of consultants as transmitters of organizational templates (even if that idea was first voiced by Hagedorn 1955), leading to many studies of diffusion. Unlike labour process theory, this was a more neutral view, which is why it was eventually questioned by more critical scholars and those seeing a translation rather than transmission process at work (for details, see Faust, Chapter 7, this volume).

(p. 16) 1.2.3 Current State of the Art: Some Light, Many Dark Spots

The past two decades saw a general increase in publications on consulting from all the sources mentioned above, including, in particular, from former consultants, some of whom wrote some very harsh criticisms of the industry based on their own experiences (see above). Journalists also showed an increased interest in the industry, both using them as ‘experts’ on management matters and examining the consulting firms and their role in more depth. While some of their accounts were almost ‘hagiographic’, such as Edersheim (2004) on McKinsey's Marvin Bower, many others took a more critical stance, for example O’Shea and Madigan (1997), who used court filings to identify some of their (alleged) failures, or Byrne (2002), who, following the Enron collapse, highlighted that many other firms advised by McKinsey had gone bankrupt.

More importantly, from the point of view of this Handbook, is the fact that this period also saw academic research on management consulting come into its own, that is, it treated the industry and its rapid growth as a phenomenon worthy of examination per se. Many researchers adopted a ‘critical approach’ (Clark and Fincham 2002). Much of this work is summarized in the chapters of this Handbook. This section, therefore, only provides some more general remarks about the features of this research, as it has evolved over the last two decades and presents itself at the time of writing (in mid-2011).

First of all, it is necessary to stress the importance of the work by Abrahamson (esp. 1991, 1996, 2011), who has drawn the attention of researchers towards the notion of ‘management fashions’ and of ‘fashion-setting communities’, and how the latter, which include management consultancies, produce ideas to be consumed by managers. This sparked research on the different waves of management fashions, usually based on a bibliometric approach which, although criticized for its somewhat simplistic assumptions and methodological shortcomings (e.g. Clark 2004), nevertheless highlighted the tremendous impact and influence of fashionable ideas. More importantly, this research also drew attention to the different actors within the fashion-setting communities, not least the management consultants (e.g. David and Strang 2006), who had so far remained fairly marginal, or rather, tangential in the interests of scholars. However, much of the research and the subsequent publications on the topic emanated from Europe and were published in European-based journals or, even more frequently, in the form of monographs or contributions to edited volumes. This is all the more surprising as the industry itself originated in the United States, where it continues to have its largest market today (Wright and Kipping, Chapter 2, David, Chapter 4, both this volume; McKenna 2006; Kipping 2012).

The explanation for this can be found in the fact—and this is the second important observation about the extant academic literature—that research on management consultants has found it difficult to meet the two most important conditions for publication in the top-rated management journals in North America: the need to contribute to a major theoretical concern and to collect systematic, ideally quantitative data as the basis for statistical analysis and hypothesis testing. Consulting has yet to find its ‘grand’ theory (see Salaman 2002) and, from what has already been noted above, is an industry difficult (p. 17) to put into databases—partially due its unclear and fluid boundaries, and partially due to the reluctance of the main actors to share information for fear of breaching client confidentiality. Sturdy and colleagues (2009) note the lack of research based on observations of the detailed mechanics of the client–consultant relationship in situ. Much of the empirical research on consulting has therefore been conducted in the form of semi-structured interviews or observational studies—which only rarely find their way into these top-rated journals—or by historians, who are more used to incomplete data and more amenable to either filling gaps through triangulation or living with the idea that certain facts are ‘possible’ or ‘likely’ (rather than certain within a particular confidence interval).

Some consulting research has been able to attach itself to bigger questions and therefore find its way into those journals—but this has been and continues to be an exception. This concerns research that has dealt with the issue of knowledge management, which was quite fashionable in the 1990s, where some empirical studies led to publications in leading US journals such as Academy of Management Journal, Administrative Science Quarterly, and Strategic Management Journal (e.g. Hansen and Haas 2001). But even with respect to the knowledge-management strategies being pursued in consultancies, the vast majority of the research was published either in practitioner-oriented journals (less interested in formal rigour) or European outlets, which have tended to value the interest in the phenomenon per se—something that is now also changing. Slightly more successful were studies of management consulting that addressed the widely debated issues around PSFs and their evolution (see above; also Kirkpatrick, Muzio, and Ackroyd, Chapter 9; Morris, Gardner, and Anand, Chapter 14; this volume), but even here most of the cases came from the more central, ‘traditional’ professions such as accounting and law, since they offered, by definition, more comprehensive and complete data (for overviews, see Hinings 2005; Von Nordenflycht 2010).

What should also be noted here is that the lack of publications in top-rated US journals is by no means a reflection of the ‘quality’ of the extant literature. Rather, although the topic has attracted few scholars from the United States (something that is apparent by looking at the contributors to this Handbook), the literature is more varied in its underlying theoretical frameworks and, possibly, somewhat more critical than it might have been otherwise—and this is, we believe, ultimately a good thing.

Third, it needs to be highlighted that different academic disciplines have contributed to a very different degree to consulting research. In this respect, sociology—as well as management and organization studies based on sociological approaches—and economics present the opposite ends of the spectrum (see, respectively, Faust, Chapter 7, Saam, Chapter 10, both this volume; also Armbrüster 2006). While research based on the former abounds, at least in relative terms, economists have produced little to elucidate the management consulting industry, with almost all studies coming from heterodox, in particular neo-institutional rather than orthodox, neo-classical economics. This is not surprising given the lack of data for econometric analysis and the complexity of the phenomenon, which make formalization, for example through game theoretical modelling, close to impossible. A similar dichotomy can be found between history and geography. (p. 18) The former has produced a large body of—usually atheoretical—research, not only in English but also in many other languages, tracing the industry's development either in particular countries or focusing on particular types of service, such as strategy or scientific management (see Part I in this volume for the latter and also above). A geographic perspective, by contrast, has only informed a handful of major studies despite significant potential, which could have linked the consulting phenomenon to important issues such as globalization (and spatial dislocation) or the rise and role of cities (see, for details, Faulconbridge and Jones, Chapter 11, this volume).

The chapters in this volume attempt to reflect the diverse, albeit skewed, nature of the extant academic literature. They also attempt to highlight possible avenues for future research within existing approaches. Thus, the final chapters in this Handbook point to important issues, where management consulting has yet to become the object of serious study, including, in no particular order, ethics, postcolonialism, and gender. The next subsection gives an overview of the Handbook's structure and briefly summarizes the main contribution of each of the chapters.

1.3 Structure and Contribution of the Handbook

This book is not the first attempt at summarizing the extant academic literature and offering a kind of stepping stone for future research. While geared more towards practitioners, Kubr (2002) also provides an overview of some of that literature. Two edited volumes were published in 2002 with more of an academic focus. Clark and Fincham (2002) brought together some of the leading critical researchers on management consultancy. Although not intended to imply that these commentators and researchers shared identical views about consulting as an activity, the label ‘critical’ was used to highlight the fact that client demand for consulting cannot be assumed. Building on Alvesson's (1993) observation that consulting is beset by ambiguities in relation to the nature of its knowledge (i.e., its constant churn), its perceived value (i.e., is it superior to other forms of knowledge on organizations?), and its relation to the outcomes of a project (i.e., did consultants make the difference?), it is argued that consultants have to actively convince clients of their value and worth. The critical approach therefore emphasizes the inherent vulnerability of consulting to shifting perceptions of its legitimacy and value and the need to constantly establish its credibility via a range of strategies. By contrast, the contributions in Kipping and Engwall (2002) took a more comparative and historical perspective, examining the development of the industry in a wide range of countries, focusing in particular on how consultants gained legitimacy, how they managed their knowledge, and how they interacted with their clients. Finally, concurrently with this Handbook, Avakian and Clark (2012) are publishing a double volume collection of many of the key (p. 19) publications on management consulting. These two volumes complement this Handbook in that they provide ready access to many of the works that have most influenced thinking about management consulting and are frequently referenced in the subsequent chapters.

In terms of its structure, this Handbook is organized around some of the dominant themes in the literature. Thus, the first part focuses on the history of the industry, which not only reflects the fact that management consultants have influenced organizations for over a century, but also the strength of historical research on the industry. The chapters are organized chronologically, with Wright and Kipping examining the important origins of consulting in engineering and scientific management (see also above). Breaking with some perceived wisdom they show how consultants contributed significantly to the spread of these approaches, some of which continue to be applied today. The next chapter by Trahair and Bruce traces the trajectories of two of the pioneers of the human relations school, Elton Mayo and Eric Trist, whose ideas influenced many human resources (HR) consultancies and whose action research also prefigured some of the later OD consulting. David, in the following chapter, focuses on the institutional context, in which strategy consulting emerged and expanded in the United States, suggesting that changes in this context created opportunities subsequently exploited by a number of still well-known consultancies. The next two chapters (by, respectively, McDougald and Greenwood, and Galal, Richter, and Wendlandt) focus on firms that entered management consulting later from different origins—respectively, accounting and information technology. In both cases, they not only show how these firms eventually or became pre-eminent players in the industry, but also explain the consequences of this evolution for the organization, management and continuing resilience of these firms.

The second part of this Handbook provides extensive overviews of the various disciplinary approaches in the research on consulting, highlighting the significant differences in their respective contributions. Sociological perspectives, as shown in the chapter by Faust, have so far dominated much of the extant research. He subdivides the rich literature into two major perspectives, institutional and cognitive–cultural on the one hand, relational and structural on the other, and argues for an increased dialogue, if not integration, between the two. In another broad-based overview, Kipping and Wright examine management consulting from one of the key debates in the social sciences—the extent to which national business systems are converging. While the relevant literature seems to point towards convergence, there are also counter indications depending, to a large extent, on the level of analysis. As mentioned by Faust and discussed above, one of the major sociological questions concerns the nature and role of professionalism and professionalization in management consulting. The quite extensive extant research is examined in depth by Kirkpatrick, Muzio, and Ackroyd, who focus on the reasons why professionalism has remained rather weak and what consequences this has had for the industry. The final two chapters in this part of the Handbook discuss two academic disciplines, which so far have contributed relatively little to our understanding of the management consulting phenomenon: economics (p. 20) (discussed by Saam) and geography (summarized by Faulconbridge and Jones). In both cases, management consulting has only received marginal attention. This is unsurprising for economics, where mainstream approaches either lack the data or the tools to deal with its complexity. It is more surprising for geography, where issues of proximity and distance play an important role for consulting success with clients, and where consultants have played an important part in the decisions about the (re)location of economic activities.

The next three parts develop in greater depth three of the issues that have found most attention in the previous literature: knowledge management, relationship with management fashion, and consultant–client interaction. The chapters in the part on knowledge management address the notion that, at their core, management consultants are creators and disseminators of management knowledge and have therefore been viewed as exemplars of knowledge-management processes. Werr begins with a broad overview examining the nature of consulting knowledge, how it is shared within the firm, whether these processes impact on performance, and how consultancies create new knowledge. Heusinkveld and Benders pick up on the last theme and explore how consultancies engage in ‘new concept development’ and then apply this knowledge in different client contexts. Morris, Gardner, and Anand draw on the literature on professional service firms to initially examine the different macrostructural arrangements adopted by consulting firms and how these have changed over time. Following this they discuss the microstructural arrangements, which underpin how work is organized in these firms. Alvesson's chapter completes this part by identifying the special features of knowledge work and what these imply for the management of knowledge workers, their retention, and identities. This chapter stresses the importance of normative control within consulting firms.

The chapters in the fourth part of this Handbook focus on the relationship between management consulting and fashion. Jung and Kieser examine the nature of management fashions, their importance in generating client demand, and the role that consultants play as members of a ‘management fashion arena’. Clark, Bhatanacharoen, and Greatbatch look at a group of celebrity consultants known as management gurus. They stress how their celebrity status is founded on their ability to create and disseminate fashionable management ideas through bestselling management books and lectures. Engwall's chapter turns to examining the relationship between business schools and strategy consulting in terms of the former's supply of graduates, their role in fostering ‘celebrity consultants’, and the way in which these consultancies have emulated various features of business schools.

The fifth part of this Handbook focuses on a core and much researched aspect of consulting—the client–consultant relationship. Nikolova and Devinney provide a detailed overview of the literature on this relationship by identifying three broad and contrasting models: the expert/functionalist, the social learning perspective, and the critical approach. The features of each model are explored in relation to a common set of factors (nature of consulting, nature of client–consultant interaction, power relations). Fincham seeks to rebalance the current focus on the consultant side of the relationship (p. 21) by stressing the role of clients. His chapter demonstrates how such an approach can generate new understanding in relation to the knowledge creation, power, and dependency in the client–consultant relationship, and the notion of the client itself. Czarniawska and Mazza adopt a social constructivist perspective to examine the client–consultant relationship; drawing on Luhmann, the role of consultants as merchants of meaning; and, drawing on ideas from anthropology, consulting as a ‘liminal condition’. Saint-Martin looks at the role of consultants in central government, why their use has expanded and the possible consequences of the growing influence of consultants for the operation of government (both positive and negative).

The final section of this Handbook is intended to be exploratory by considering how to develop existing areas of focus in terms of potential gaps but also identifying new approaches that are currently absent from the literature but have strong potential to contribute to broadening our understanding consulting work. In this respect Sturdy draws together a number of the themes of earlier chapters and introduces others to identify productive areas for future research in terms of empirical, theoretical, and methodological focus, as well as addressing the absence of importance groups such as employees, unions, and citizens. Krehmeyer and Freeman discuss how different approaches from the literature on ethics could expand our understanding of consulting work, help focus on the codes of ethics that operate within the consulting industry, as well as assist in addressing debates around the ethics of consulting (i.e., confidentiality, client's interest, conflicts of interest). Kelan reviews the literature on gender in consulting to illustrate that many of the broader endemic organizational gender issues are present within consulting. This chapter emphasizes the fact that future work would benefit from examining the gendered nature of the career model, consulting skills, and the notion of the ideal consultant. The final chapter of this Handbook by Frenkel and Shenhav considers the implications of a post-colonial perspective for future thinking and research on consulting work. Their main point is that studies examining consulting work at a global level, and in emerging markets in particular, need to move away from such stereotypes as ‘Western-advanced’ and ‘Third World-developing’ since these perpetuate historical power relations and a ‘sense of supremacy’, with the former shaping the latter in their own image. To overcome this imbalance and to ensure appropriate prominence for and sensitivity to non-Western interests they propose a ‘hybrid space’, which actively recognizes the immediate market conditions of the relationship as well as the ‘historically situated geopolitical context’.

Individually, the chapters offer authoritative overviews of the key themes in the extant and emergent literature on management consulting. Collectively, they demonstrate the breadth of empirical and theoretical approaches adopted, the opportunities to extend these, and the degree to which work in this area is highly interdisciplinary. As we stated at the outset of this chapter, research on management consulting is a vibrant area of study which generates important insights that contribute to broader debates in business and management and the social sciences. We very much hope that the contributions in this Handbook will galvanize readers into conducting research that further expands our understanding of management consulting.

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Notes:

Note

(*)  We are grateful to Pojanath Bhatanacharoen, Robin Fincham, Andrew Sturdy, and Chris Wright for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this chapter.