The Consultant–Client Relationship: Critical Perspectives on the Management of Organizational Change

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Abstract

The management consultancy industry is attracting more and more attention. The critical literature in particular has questioned how a non-codified body of knowledge like ‘consultancy’ could become so apparently influential. The answering emphasis has been on the symbolic nature of consultant strategies and consultancy as a powerful system of persuasion. However, an emerging structural perspective has developed a rather different view, focusing on the limits of the industry discourse, and the constraints of a consultancy role defined largely by external forces. While it is useful to contrast the two perspectives – strategic and structural – they can also be viewed as complementary, and indeed a number of writers have been well aware both of the importance of consultant strategies and the context of consultancy work. In particular, they have explored the interaction between consultant and client, and called attention to factors like the countervailing power of client organizations and the uncertainty of the management task. The paper aims to contribute to this debate and draws on case studies of consultants' role in the management of organizational change – one of clients with considerable market power, and another of interdependency between consultant and client. The point stressed is that the consultancy process contains no ‘necessary’ structures (which may be implied by pairings such as the dependent client and indispensable consultant, or alternatively the resistant client and vulnerable consultant). Instead the consultant–client relationship is best regarded as part of an overarching managerial structure and a contingent exchange that assumes a variety of forms.

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