Consultants must adjust their sets

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The Independent Online
Many management consultants will be pleased that Channel 4's three- part series on the profession concludes tonight. Flattered as some may well have been to have had their 15 minutes of fame, the consultants have not come too well out of the documentary - not least because they were generally less proficient at sound- bites than their critics.

However, it is possible some good will come of the exercise. While a series of this sort broadcast on Sunday evenings in August probably won't make much impression on the ratings, its presence in the schedules is at least evidence that somebody, somewhere cares about a business that generates $40bn (pounds 25bn) in fees around the world and sucks in more and more of the industrialised countries' brightest youngsters.

The interest is surely a result of the fact that there is hardly anybody today whose life has not been touched by the work of the profession. Whether you are packing pies in a meat factory, a lawyer representing corporate clients or a nurse in a National Health Service hospital, it is likely that the management consultants have had a go at changing how you do your job.

Given that most people see this impact most starkly in the rash of job cuts that followed "re-engineering" and the "downsizing" it spawned, it is hardly surprising it has negative connotations.

But management consulting can also be a force for good. The greatest value of consultants is their ability to bring experience of one industry to another. This is not to say they should package solutions as instant answers to complex situations. It is, though, an acknowledgement that huge improvements in efficiency (and not always at the expense of jobs) can result from organisations being encouraged to look at things differently or to learn lessons from elsewhere.

Rather than hiding from the limelight, consultancies could do more to explain how they can change things for the better - and, if they are feeling brave, how they have sometimes got it wrong.

But perhaps the biggest challenge is to be taken seriously as a profession rather than as a somewhat mysterious money-spinning exercise. There is a clear need for a body that could ensure practitioners meet minimum standards.

This won't be easy because consultancy is a very broad church - stretching from global organisations to one-man bands. It also includes a broad range of activities - from high-level strategy to information technology imple- menters and plenty in between who try to do a bit of everything.

However, these obstacles can and should be overcome because it is not satisfactory to have a situation like the one at present whereby the worthy efforts of the Management Consultancies Association to raise standards are undermined by the fact that its members account for only about half the fees generated in this country. And neither is it helpful that this membership does not in-clude McKinsey & Co, a star of the TV series and the one consultancy of which most people are aware.