Friday, February 01, 2008

Lucy Kellaway on management consultants - where £2.8bn is wasted

In 2005/6 you and I and the rest of the taxpayers spent £2.8Bn on management consultants according to the NAO. This story is about the type of company and people that our money buys.

For those who don't know, Lucy Kellaway has a column in the Financial Times where she takes a sideways look, or more generally a swipe, at management and especially the reliance of senior managers on the latest management fads. One of her specialities is management speak and this week she is on fine form with a destruction of an internal email from an Accenture senior manager.

So what has this to do with our £2.8Bn? Well Accenture, and this manager in particular, are typical of the management consultant world.

This isn't the first time I've singled out Accenture for its work in the jargon space. A couple of years ago, I wrote a column about its annual report, which was a perfect snapshot of the ugliest business language of the time. Inside was an orgy of "relentless passion" and "delivering value". The point, presumably,was to impress clients. Yet Mr Foster's e-mail is more troubling as it shows top people write like this even when they think no clients are looking. His memo was addressed to "All Accenture Senior Executives" - though title inflation being what it is, this probably stretches to include the cleaner. Indeed as "group chief executive", Mr Foster is in a band of eight others with the same commanding title, and still has a couple of rungs to climb before reaching the very top.

/em>I've worked alongside management consultants and can assure you that this is how they really act amongst each other. She goes on:

The memo starts with some background to the announcement: " . . . wanting to give you continued visibility of our growth platform agenda . . ." it says. Visibility is the latest thing in business. Companies and executives all crave
it but, until last week, I didn't know that growth platform agendas
were after it too.

What is he saying here, I wonder? I think, though couldn't swear to it, that he wants to tell his colleagues how the company plans to make more money.

Just remember that these are the companies and managers who have their snouts in the trough of public funds.
And so to the meat of the memo. "We are changing the name of the Human performance service line to Talent & Organization Performance, effective

Before you marvel at the stupidity of the name change, note first that departments can't even be called that: they are instead "service lines". As for the name, the old one may have been no great shakes, but to take away the "human" (which was surely the point) and replace it with "talent and organisation" is not progress. As I've often remarked before, the word "talent" is a hideous misnomer as most people aren't terribly talented at all.

People like this are instrumental in reorganising government departments and they have the ear of ministers and senior civil servants.

Next comes the business rationale for the change. "With the rise of the multi-polar world, the task of finding and managing talent has become more complex, turbulent and contradictory than ever before."

This conflicts with two laws, the first of geography - there are only two poles - and the second of business - finding "talent" has always been hard as there isn't enough to go round. The only excuse for saying it is "complex, turbulent and contradictory" is to make it sound so complicated that the services of Accenture must be needed to sort it out.

Now, I am all for reorganising institutions like the NHS,HMRC etc, but I wouldn't wish this kind of bollocks on my worst enemy

His suggestion is frightening. I'm not sure I've ever seen quite so many waffle words crammed together in one sentence. Broad. Strategic. Focus. Highly. Integrated. System. Capabilities. Fundamental. Strategies. Indeed the only words here that are acceptable are "to", "and" and "on".

I will spare you further long quotes from this dismal memo, which contains much "stepping up", "blue water", "space" and "walking the talk". There is an obsession with capabilities. In four different places Mr Foster talks about "repositioning" them, "differentiating" them, "integrating" them and "evolving" them. This sounds like quite hard work, especially as I'm not quite sure what capabilities are anyway.

I think this needs one of those banging your head against a brick wall smiley thingies . But seriously, is there any wonder that, as Wat Tyler points out, we have poured billions in to the NHS, amongst others, and seen a drop in productivity:
The Big Picture is that since Labour turned on the spending taps, value for money has collapsed. In the most recent five years studied (2001-2006), spending increased by 54%, but output only increased by 19%. Which means that for every pound we spend, we're now getting nearly 30% less. Just imagine how long Tesco or M&S would survive if they served up that kind of value. Between 2001 and 2006, annual spending increased from £58.4bn to £89.7bn, a rise of £31.3bn.
Well the answer is obvious, to companies like Accenture.

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