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2022 | Book

An Ancient Greek Philosophy of Management Consulting

Thinking Differently About Its Assumptions, Principles and Practice

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About this book

Management consultancy practice is particularly concerned with helping clients implement strategic organisational change. But what exactly are organisations, and management consultancy interventions in them? Management consulting is said to be a knowledge-intensive industry. But what kind of knowledge do management consultants possess, and how far can we rely on it? Management consultants are often criticised for unethical exploitation of their clients. But how ought management consultants to behave in order to meet acceptable ethical standards?

These are questions about the philosophical topics of ontology, epistemology and ethics. The ancient Greek philosophers thought deeply about these topics, and their ideas remain fresh and relevant even to so modern a subject matter as management consulting. Writing between the end of the sixth and the end of the fourth century BCE, these philosophers were drawing upon an intellectual tradition that was very different from our own, and were responding to social and economic conditions that were wholly unlike ours. Approaching these philosophical questions from a perspective that is radically different from our own, their work provides a rich resource for novel thinking about management consulting.

From the speculations of the Presocratic philosophers Heraclitus, Parmenides, Leucippus and Democritus about the nature of the universe to the thought of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle about the nature of human beings, this book uses the work of these great thinkers as a lens through which to study major philosophical questions about management consulting. Examined in this way, many established assumptions and principles of management consultancy practice seem questionable, and new ways of thinking possible.

Table of Contents

Frontmatter
Chapter 1. Learning from Ancient Greek Philosophy
Abstract
Ancient Greek philosophers, writing between the end of the sixth and the end of the fourth century BC, developed ideas that challenge us to question our assumptions about a wide range of issues, including those arising in management consulting. The ideas of people who were responding to social and economic conditions very different from our own help introduce useful novelty into our thinking about contemporary issues. These early philosophers’ ideas about ontology, epistemology, and ethics have direct relevance to issues encountered in management consulting. Management consulting is particularly concerned with helping clients manage organisational change, and Heraclitus and Parmenides raised fundamental issues that affect our understanding of the nature of organisations and of management consultancy interventions in them. Management consulting is said to be a knowledge-intensive industry, but yet management consultants’ knowledge claims are often questioned. Plato’s epistemological theory provides a framework that can help to assess these knowledge claims. The ethical standards that management consultants observe in their work also are often questioned. Aristotle’s virtue ethics constitute a major contribution to professional and business ethics that can inform thinking on ethical practice in management consulting. Subsequent chapters draw upon these philosophers’ work to examine the problems of management consulting.
David Shaw
Chapter 2. Aristotle and the Function of Management Consultants
Abstract
Any analysis of management consulting must be based on a satisfactory definition of its function. Defining it is difficult, because the management consulting industry encompasses a wide, diverse, and changing range of activities. Some definitions are biased towards management consultants’ own, unrealistically favourable views of the industry, and many encompass unselectively everything that people calling themselves management consultants do. Aristotle defined consultation in the “Nicomachean Ethics”. His definition entails the notion that those consulted must give practical advice and that the intellectual virtue of phronesis, which is an experience-based kind of practical intelligence, is the fundamental characteristic that people need to be useful to the clients who consult them. Knowledge of management science may complement, but cannot be a substitute for phronesis. Clients accept those whom they consult as partners in their deliberations, and their advisers should respond with parrhesia, that is, by providing advice that is frank and honest, unconstrained by extraneous considerations such as the desire to ingratiate themselves with their clients. Aristotle believed that, in order to know whether people were good, you needed to know their function. Defining the function of management consultants is the starting point for defining the ethical standards that they should meet.
David Shaw
Chapter 3. Aristotle and Management Consultants’ Ethical Obligations
Abstract
Aristotle based his theory of virtue ethics on the idea that it is moral and intellectual virtues that lead people to behave well. Moral virtues are character traits that dispose people to behave ethically. The intellectual virtue of phronesis enables them to make good judgements as to how to give practical effect to their disposition. He thought it impossible to define with precision what the ethical course of action would be in any particular situation, so he had no interest in defining specific moral laws. He was concerned rather to set up a target which, if people aimed at it, would enable them to behave better than they otherwise would. Virtue ethics is highly applicable to management consulting. The intangible nature of the outputs of management consultancy work, and the reliance that clients and others, therefore, have to place on subjective impressions in evaluating the performance and behaviour of management consultants, means that the character of management consultants is a central issue in determining whether or not they can be trusted to behave in an ethical manner. Ideas from Aristotle’s theory could go far towards strengthening management consultancy firms’ typical approaches to ensuring that ethical standards are observed.
David Shaw
Chapter 4. Aristotle and Ethical Choices of Clients
Abstract
Management consultants can choose whether to accept particular business corporations as clients. Bad choices may mire them in ethical, reputational and legal troubles. Aristotle made few remarks about business ethics, but they have influenced much modern writing on the subject. Aristotle believed that the interests of the community of the polis should be paramount in all aspects of people’s lives, including their business dealings, and that people should not make profits out of each other. Management consultants, if they accept Aristotle’s beliefs, should expect their clients to observe the same ethical standards in their business dealings as they would in their everyday lives as members of their communities, and to serve their customers and communities rather than to maximise profits. Some modern business ethicists, however, draw additional inferences from Aristotle’s work, that is, that business corporations should be communities in which their members can find meaning and fulfilment in their lives, and that they should furthermore be seen as members of wider, global communities whose interests they should serve. Much of what modern business ethicists have inferred from Aristotle’s work, however, is misguided because it takes insufficient account of the particular social and economic conditions to which he was responding.
David Shaw
Chapter 5. Plato and the Ethics of Management Consultancy Interventions
Abstract
Managers often consider that the ends that they pursue, as stewards of the shareholder interest, are given and that it is only the means of achieving them that merit consideration. Projects on which they seek management consultancy advice and assistance sometimes benefit shareholders at the expense of harm to other stakeholders, in particular employees, who have interests that should be considered. Projects aimed at changing corporate culture, often seen as necessary to bring about strategic organisational change, may do this. In the “Republic”, Plato had Socrates propose the telling of a “noble lie” as a means of creating the kind of unitary culture that was necessary to establish his ideal state. While Plato believed that his “noble lie” had a good purpose, many commentators regard his programme’s treatment of people as morally objectionable. Corporate culture change programmes also use story-telling to influence and even manipulate, organisation members’ beliefs, assumptions, and values. This chapter considers how far these programmes are similar to Plato’s programme for establishing his ideal state and open to similar moral objections. Management consultants are more than mere agents of their clients and ought to consider the moral content of the ends towards which they commit their efforts.
David Shaw
Chapter 6. Heraclitus and the Nature of Management Consultancy Interventions
Abstract
Management consultancy interventions typically are based on rational, step-by-step procedures to change an organisation from one kind of static object into another. This reflects a tradition of western thought that began with Parmenides, Leucippus and Democritus, who believed that the universe was composed of stable substances. By contrast, Heraclitus had argued that the universe, at least in part, consisted of continually changing processes, just as a river consisted of continually changing flows of water. Management scholars increasingly look to Heraclitus to inform their thinking about organisations. Application of his ideas to organisation theory does not exclude the possibility of continuity or stability, but it suggests that organisations are complex, dynamic and to some extent unpredictable. If the Heraclitean metaphor of an organisation as flux is accepted, management consultancy interventions based on rational, scientific, linear methods cannot be relied upon to produce predictable results. Effective management consultancy interventions must rather be characterised by flexibility and provision for well-judged improvisation. This in turn indicates that the knowledge required to intervene effectively in an organisation is not the lawful, scientific knowledge associated with the Aristotelian intellectual virtue of sophia, but rather the practical, experience-based good judgement associated with the intellectual virtue of phronesis.
David Shaw
Chapter 7. Plato on Leadership
Abstract
Management consultants can achieve nothing without corporate leaders to sponsor their work, because they can have no executive authority within their clients’ organisations. A group of corporate leaders, rather than a single individual, is likely to sponsor management consultants’ work in a large, complex organisation. Management consultants may have some influence over the membership of the groups that sponsor their work, and how they perform their roles, so they need to have a point of view about the kind of leaders they need as their sponsors. Leaders are typically characterised as people who can bring about transformational organisational change, by contrast with managers, whose expertise is said to lie rather in dealing with day-to-day operations. Plato provided a complex and nuanced account of leadership in the “Republic”, in which knowledge of the enduring truths of the Forms was the fundamental characteristic of a leader. This account resonates with some modern leadership theory, which emphasises the need for leaders who are committed to enduring principles and values. While Plato focuses on the centrality of leaders’ intellectual and moral qualities, his ideas are quite compatible with leaders’ involvement of a wide community of people in giving effect to their visions.
David Shaw
Chapter 8. Plato, Aristotle and Management Consultancy Knowledge
Abstract
Plato determined that the poets, that is, all creative writers, should be banned from his ideal state, because they commanded unjustified reputations as sources of knowledge when, in fact, they possessed no real knowledge. Moreover, the rhetoric they used to stir their audiences’ emotions and make their fictions seem real made them dangerous. Plato also objected to the sophists, who travelled the Greek world offering teaching in various subjects in return for fees, on the grounds that they too lacked any real knowledge. Management consultants attract similar criticisms, for using rhetoric to support doubtful knowledge claims, and for charging large fees for services of questionable value. Plato set a standard for definite, lawlike knowledge, which management science cannot meet. Management consultants’ claims to possess rational, scientific methods that can be relied upon predictably to solve clients’ problems are spurious. Management consultants derive the most valuable kind of knowledge for their practice from their experience of carrying out projects for clients. Management science can make useful contributions to management consultancy practice. It is, however, the Aristotelian intellectual virtue of phronesis that enables management consultants to offer their clients advice based on experience-based intuition and good judgement, and makes their services valuable.
David Shaw
Chapter 9. Management Consulting and Heraclitus’s Unity of Opposites
Abstract
This book has posed a range of fundamental questions about management consulting to the great thinkers of the ancient Greek world. It suggests that there are a range of useful answers that can be inferred from their work. These encompass what the function of management consulting is, how management consultants ought to behave, the nature of the organisational problems with which they deal and of the organisational interventions that they make, and the kind of knowledge that they require to perform their function. Moreover, Heraclitus’s doctrine of the unity of opposites expresses an enduring reality of working life for management consultants, in that they continually encounter dualities, that is, apparently contradictory forces that they can nevertheless manage so as to make them complementary. The liminal status of management consultants, as in part insiders and in part outsiders of their clients’ organisations, embodies such a duality. Evolution over time has greatly changed the character of management consulting from its earliest beginnings, and this evolution will undoubtedly continue as the industry responds to change in clients’ businesses. Aristotle believed that we achieve true progress, not with the passage of time, but through ever more complete fulfilment of our true and particular function.
David Shaw
Metadata
Title
An Ancient Greek Philosophy of Management Consulting
Author
Dr. David Shaw
Copyright Year
2022
Electronic ISBN
978-3-030-90959-8
Print ISBN
978-3-030-90958-1
DOI
https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-90959-8

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