How McKinsey Destroyed the Middle Class
February 4, 2020 8:21 PM   Subscribe

As McKinsey’s John Neuman admitted in an essay introducing the method, the “process, though swift, is not painless. Since overhead expenses are typically 70% to 85% people-related and most savings come from work-force reductions, cutting overhead does demand some wrenching decisions.
posted by chappell, ambrose (70 comments total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
 
I thought Pete was just the hook. The argument about the STRUCTURAL aspects of the rise of management consulting were far more interesting.
posted by postel's law at 8:54 PM on February 4 [13 favorites]


This is what was really happening in Office Space. Most businesses weren't lucky enough to burn down in the 90s.
posted by bonehead at 9:00 PM on February 4 [7 favorites]


Utterly terrifying, and a must-read.

This is what we're fighting.
posted by kafziel at 9:09 PM on February 4 [13 favorites]


Pete's the hook, but also the line and the sinker.

He's not to blame for McKinsey in any way, shape or form, but his values align somewhere between acceptance of and indifference to the harm they've done to the American workplace.

We've got candidates who are fighting against this sort of harm, and he wants credit for not actively promulgating it (that he can recall).
posted by explosion at 9:26 PM on February 4 [40 favorites]


That article answered a lot of questions that I didn't even know I had. I mean, I lived through that crap, and only knew in the broadest way that things were going wrong.
posted by Chitownfats at 10:41 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]


I've worked for one company for 25 of my 30 post-college years, and in a lot of ways have been lucky to get an old-style career path, being solid, professional, respected middle management for the last decade. (No pension, alas.)

I've worked with enough McKinsey types to have an opinion and nothing in this article is wrong as far as I'm concerned. If anything it's a bit too kind. The biggest problem of McKinsey types isn't their direct influence, but the fact that they become a model for a lot of internal people. Talking like a smart 25 year old kid with only superficial knowledge of the industry or company has become a trapping of the successful manager. And moving on before you learn the consequences of your ideas isn't a mark against you. On the contrary, it merely proves your intelligence and ambition.
posted by mark k at 11:11 PM on February 4 [57 favorites]


Well, that was a rather depressing read, but thanks for sharing.
posted by Harald74 at 11:52 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]


The biggest problem of McKinsey types isn't their direct influence, but the fact that they become a model for a lot of internal people. Talking like a smart 25 year old kid with only superficial knowledge of the industry or company has become a trapping of the successful manager.

Oh my God, this is what I’m having to deal with right now. We had a trio of consultants blow through my department 2 years ago when it was understaffed, to “create tools” and “plan lifecycles” which make almost no sense for our industry or actual profession. Now we’re stuck pretzeling ourselves to try to make this crap useful because my boss believes that since said consultants cost 1500 bucks an hour their recommendations must be way better than anything we schmoes can come up with. I was literally dressed down last month for not “thinking like a consultant.” Uuuh gee that might be because I have some idea of the complexities of what we do and also give two shits about the people for whom we do it?
posted by peakes at 1:13 AM on February 5 [46 favorites]


To avoid abusing edit window: and by the way, that’s now become C-suite’s solution to staffing issues: why hire experienced people when you can just contract projects out to consultants who will hand you shiny, generic deliverables in a compressed timeframe, whom you neither have to train nor manage? The resulting hollowing-out of professional and institutional knowledge is going to smack us in the face, and soon.
posted by peakes at 1:20 AM on February 5 [31 favorites]


"The resulting hollowing-out of professional and institutional knowledge is going to smack us in the face, and soon."

You only have to look at Boeing for a good example of that. :(
posted by aleph at 2:33 AM on February 5 [36 favorites]


I was literally dressed down last month for not “thinking like a consultant.”

Exactly the opposite of what you deserve. I congratulate you for your acumen and perspicacity.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:15 AM on February 5 [10 favorites]


You only have to look at Boeing for a good example of that. :(

I was going to say that Dennis Muilenburg started at Boeing as an intern and worked his way up through the company and that his education was all engineering.

But then I thought to check his predecessor since he was only CEO from 2016 and all the 737 Max decisions were made before his tenure. His predecessor McNerney was indeed a McKinsey alumnus.
posted by atrazine at 4:19 AM on February 5 [24 favorites]


I wandered over to this from that.
posted by Pembquist at 4:32 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]


Jumping back in one last time to say: I'm sure we have Mefites who work in management consulting, and I personally have friends and acquaintances whom I like who work in that industry; I don't exactly mean to crap on individual consultants. The ones we had were merely doing what their clients and bosses asked them to do. Outside perspectives, in themselves, are almost always valuable or at least interesting. What I'm railing against is the relentless effort by the McKinseys of the world to send the rest of us through the shredder because fuck everyone but them, and the executive class's embrace of this same attitude.
posted by peakes at 4:53 AM on February 5 [14 favorites]


99.8% of the consultants ive met in my career deserve a free seat in golgafrincham ark fleet ship b

they're either wildly unqualified or tailor their results to what their customer wanted to hear all along, which then allows the customer to say "welp, we hired an expert consultant and this is what they told us"
posted by entropicamericana at 6:07 AM on February 5 [5 favorites]


99.8% of the consultants ive met in my career deserve a free seat in golgafrincham ark fleet ship b

Isn't society destroyed because it turns out society needed those telephone sanitisers after all?
posted by atrazine at 6:10 AM on February 5 [14 favorites]


we dont have payphones anymore bro
posted by entropicamericana at 6:23 AM on February 5 [6 favorites]


Isn't society destroyed because it turns out society needed those telephone sanitisers after all?

Don’t worry, someone will write an app for that
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:29 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]


" they become a model for a lot of internal people. Talking like a smart 25 year old kid with only superficial knowledge of the industry or company has become a trapping of the successful manager"

This can't be highlighted enough. I was pretty smart as a 25-year-old, but I realized pretty quickly that working with grown-ups is actually kind of a good idea. Alas, there are no grown-ups for me to work with anymore.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:31 AM on February 5 [16 favorites]


Sometimes you need a telephone sanitiser. Like lots of people I've hired consultants to to tell me what I wanted to hear, so I could tell senior management that some consultants recommended the company should do what it should do. None of that was about workforce reduction though.

When senior management hire consultants it's more often to help them make their numbers which is a different ballgame.

IMO McKinsey are a symptom of the success factors / reward strategies we set for the games we play. if we want different outcomes we need to change the rules.
posted by dudleian at 6:33 AM on February 5 [9 favorites]


FTFA:
In 1965 and 1966, [McKinsey] placed help-wanted ads in The New York Times and Time magazine, with the goal of generating applications that it could then reject, to establish its own eliteness.
Christ, what a firm of assholes.
--
Some of the (non-McKinsey) consultants I have worked with did a great job of getting us all to stop squabbling, and start making progress. Admittedly, they used the consultant's One Simple Trick of asking us what we needed, and what resources we had to get that thing done -- but that's exactly what it took to get us un-stuck.

Most of the consultants & auditors that I have been forced to deal with, though, were young and naive and inexperienced and ignorant, and as such we were able to give them narrowly factual answers and thereby satisfy what they obviously wanted to hear without creating new work for ourselves. (Not proud of this, but I know what I see in the mirror.)
posted by wenestvedt at 6:39 AM on February 5 [8 favorites]


we dont have payphones anymore bro

You think smartphones don't need sanitising?
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 6:47 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]


It is not a coincidence that the rise of McKinsey and the decimation of the middle class began in the 60's, when the civil rights movement was actually making progress.
posted by grumpybear69 at 6:55 AM on February 5 [10 favorites]


I just hope I'm never judged this harshly for the first job I took out of college [during a recession], which I promptly nope'd out of 2.5 years later.
posted by schmod at 6:57 AM on February 5 [8 favorites]


that’s now become C-suite’s solution to staffing issues: why hire experienced people when you can just contract projects out to consultants who will hand you shiny, generic deliverables in a compressed timeframe, whom you neither have to train nor manage?

Nutshell: everything, everything, everything can be outsourced.

I remember how in the 90s, working as an office temp was a thing for me and my cohort. If you had the basic skills (telephone manner, typing, "word processing," etc.) you could fill in pretty much anywhere for a receptionist who called in sick or some admin type who was out on disability or whatever. That's what "consultants" are: they're temps, except instead of having faxingtypingcopying skills, they have "management skills" that are applicable to every situation, or can be bent to sound that way.
posted by scratch at 7:06 AM on February 5 [8 favorites]


I've got a pack of Accenture friends that always questioned my decision making for going into the non profit sector (government child protective then state funded homeless shelter) because they said I was "smart" enough to pull in the big bucks with them. Wait...did I just call them friends?
posted by lextex at 7:11 AM on February 5 [5 favorites]


I was once parachuted into a software development project as a consultant. After two days my basic report to their management was, other than a few minor tweaks: "Your people have got this".

Holy shit were they not pleased!
posted by srboisvert at 7:17 AM on February 5 [37 favorites]


In 1965 and 1966, [McKinsey] placed help-wanted ads in The New York Times and Time magazine, with the goal of generating applications that it could then reject, to establish its own eliteness.

Those are at least free applications. Elite colleges do this to game their selectivity stats and they fuck over kids by charging fees for applications they solicited entirely with the intention of rejecting. Some graduate schools do it as well - they don't say which faculty are not interested in taking students during application cycles. They will also "accidentally" leave the profiles of people who have left, retired or even died on their sites for a long time.
posted by srboisvert at 7:21 AM on February 5 [6 favorites]


I'm a technical consultant who works on databases, mostly in higher ed. I 100% understand that the product of my work, ideally, is taking away tasks from humans. We talk about it in a lot of different ways, "You don't have to worry about busy-work anymore" but in essence a lot of what we do in designing automation and finding efficiencies is just taking away work that a human relies on to be able to feed themselves and their families.

We rely extensively on the knowledge of these same people to do what we do; without their expertise, we could never learn enough about their processes and systems to make this work. And most the time, like 90% of the time, we're implementing stuff that their own internal users have requested from them. But we get hired to come in and put a shiny Expertise on those desires, which suddenly ratifies them in the eyes of management.

Consultants have this weird dual-purpose function, both of which serve management. Either we are the people who make the "difficult" decisions management knows they're going to make (cutting staff, increasing workload, automating jobs) or we serve as the polished, educated voice of the desires of the workers, put into a language and format that allows management to believe that these obvious improvements are their own ideas.

Long story short, consulting is a very lucrative grift and 90% of it is telling people what they want to hear and already know. The last 10% is genuine domain experience and the ability to offer actual new ideas and improvements. But that's not the brunt of the work.
posted by turntraitor at 7:45 AM on February 5 [13 favorites]


I don't think the article is wrong, per se, but it's ignoring the underlying changes that precipitated the rise in management. It wasn't McKinsey that changed the world, it was the computer. That was the new tool available first in the late 50s and 60s that enabled the kind of analysis that middle management needed. It was also in the hands of a technocratic elite, which limited who had access.

The loss of unions is a separate issue, a victim of politics, short-term prosperity, and in a few cases, outright corruption. But the analytics and capitalism's relentless drive toward "efficiency" was inevitable (at least when combined with unfettered capitalism), with or without McKinsey.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:57 AM on February 5 [5 favorites]


Some graduate schools do it as well - they don't say which faculty are not interested in taking students during application cycles.

Similarly, if there's a large coursework component, they'll have a course catalog that lists courses that are never actually offered. Fortunately you can usually at least find the current course schedule.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:04 AM on February 5 [3 favorites]


I don't think the article is wrong, per se, but it's ignoring the underlying changes that precipitated the rise in management. It wasn't McKinsey that changed the world, it was the computer.

This is a good point, although of course the two aren’t mutually exclusive. The rise of the computer as a substitute for middle management has led to a complete barrier between entry-level positions and management, continuing the trend away from career paths that encompass the entire organisation (with the consequent understanding of the business that that entails). From the article:
The mid-century corporation’s workplace training and many-layered hierarchy built a pipeline through which the top jobs might be filled. The saying “from the mail room to the corner office” captured something real, and even the most menial jobs opened pathways to promotion. In 1939, for example, all save two of the grocery chain Safeway’s division managers had started their careers behind the checkout counter. At McDonalds, Ed Rensi worked his way up from flipping burgers in the 1960s to become CEO. More broadly, a 1952 report by Fortune magazine found that two-thirds of senior executives had more than 20 years’ service at their current companies.
From Replacing Middle Management with APIs (2015 blog post by Peter Reinhardt):
In the long run there’s always something for people to work on and improve, but the introduction of this software layer makes we worry about mid-term employment 5-20 years out. Drivers are opting into a dichotomous workforce: the worker bees below the software layer have no opportunity for on-the-job training that advances their career, and compassionate social connections don’t pierce the software layer either. The skills they develop in driving are not an investment in their future. Once you introduce the software layer between “management” (Uber’s full-time employees building the app and computer systems) and the human workers below the software layer (Uber’s drivers, Instacart’s delivery people), there’s no obvious path upwards. In fact, there’s a massive gap and no systems in place to bridge it.
The Uber driver is never going to find herself negotiating an infusion of cash from Soft Bank In a couple of decades, and Uber’s business model reflects this fact. At the same time, Uber’s business model also represents the triumph of the Coasian Hell model, where an organisation is deemed less efficient than a network of subcontractors. That’s on McKinsey and their ilk.
Since the 1980s, there has been a global trend towards replacing organisations with networks of contracts. The idea that a firm could be considered as a network of contracts was taken up by the management consulting industry, and strengthened from a positive observation to a normative statement that firms should become more so.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 8:10 AM on February 5 [34 favorites]


I had not thought of it in terms of "above the software/below the software " before, but that makes things much clearer. Thanks for posting.
posted by BeeDo at 8:43 AM on February 5 [4 favorites]


The Uber driver is never going to find herself negotiating an infusion of cash from Soft Bank In a couple of decades, and Uber’s business model reflects this fact. At the same time, Uber’s business model also represents the triumph of the Coasian Hell model, where an organisation is deemed less efficient than a network of subcontractors. That’s on McKinsey and their ilk.

Speaking as someone with a law and economics background, that "Coasian Hell" link is extremely well-written, accessible, and interesting. Thanks for posting it.
posted by Gadarene at 8:59 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


Sometimes you need a telephone sanitiser. Like lots of people I've hired consultants to to tell me what I wanted to hear, so I could tell senior management that some consultants recommended the company should do what it should do.

But, if consultants who tell you what you want didn't exist, then (accepting your assessment that you were correct about what needed to be done) you would still have been able to hire consultants to do this for you: honest consultants would tell you the same thing as dishonest ones.

Dishonest consultants who make pleasing recommendations are worse than honest consultants except to those who are either wicked, wrong or both (and even then only in the short-term): they facilitate the making of bad decisions thay harm our economy overall, and undermine trust in the value of all external advice and consulting.

Consultants who help enrich bosses at the expense of other workers are, of course, also class traitors, and perhaps the most pathetic and contemptible creatures ever to walk the Earth. Just imagine having that little self-respect. Uggghhh.
posted by howfar at 9:02 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


Running a company on a concentrated model requires a cadre of managers who possess the capacity and taste to work with the intensity demanded of top executives today. At the same time, corporate reorganizations have deprived companies of an internal supply of managerial workers. When restructurings eradicated workplace training and purged the middle rungs of the corporate ladder, they also forced companies to look beyond their walls for managerial talent—to elite colleges, business schools, and (of course) to management-consulting firms. That is to say: The administrative techniques that management consultants invented created a huge demand for precisely the services that the consultants supply.

I think this is very insightful. Once you start using management consultants to make what should be middle management decisions, you further deplete your middle management capability.
First, because your best middle managers will see where the money and responsibility actually are and become consultants themselves. I have seen this happen again and again, I go in somewhere as a consultant and once we get to know each other socially the best managers often want to know how to be a consultant instead. I work with a number of people that we essentially hired from our past clients on the basis of their known capability. Great for us but now their former employer is even more depleted of organisation talent.
Senior management starts to regard their own middle managers (who they have not trained and the best of whom have left) as less competent than external consultants. At some point it may even become true.

Meanwhile, management consultancies spend a lot on internal training which is no longer provided by "real" companies. Ironically many are organised as partnerships so they don't even have the external shareholders that are supposedly so essential to running an efficient organisation.

McKinsey is a partnership owned by its senior employees.
posted by atrazine at 9:32 AM on February 5 [19 favorites]


Not all management consultants can become the expensive CYA efforts they are for various management teams in big corporates who need to take decisions that may go awry and cost money or create a crisis. It takes McKinsey's brand for it to become the equivalent of IBM "you can't go wrong with >>>>>> brand". This is what they're selling for 1500 an hour and can afford to rotate the body you've hired because you don't care who is there wearing that McKinsey hat and logo.
posted by Mrs Potato at 9:37 AM on February 5 [3 favorites]


I've been called an "engineer's engineer" - I occasionally re-derive the Chain, Product, and Quotient rules for derivatives to make sure I still can, and constantly ask "why" to the point of making Career Limiting Moves.

Fresh out of college, I signed on to be part of a management consulting group inside a large multinational conglomerate. They had me read whatever books were the new hotness of that moment.

They tried to make me (an engineer) into a consultant.

I lasted seven weeks.
posted by notsnot at 9:42 AM on February 5 [6 favorites]


You only have to look at Boeing for a good example of that. :(

My f-i-l owns an aerospace company (it's a small one, but has components in most airplane engines). He's very much of the opinion that root cause of the 737MAX issues is over-reliance on non-engineering management. In his words, Boeing needs to throw them out and rediscover being an engineering company again. Funnily enough an MBA doesn't allow one to make evaluate engineering concerns, like will this change in engine placement impact the aerodynamics of the airframe?

A management that will decide to bet the company on a choice that it cannot understand is doomed.
posted by bonehead at 11:12 AM on February 5 [13 favorites]


"I just hope I'm never judged this harshly for the first job I took out of college"

He's not being judged for taking the job. He's being judged for either not repudiating the company after he realized how odious they are, or for not having the common sense to realize they're odious.

I've had jobs with crappy, problematic companies before. But every chance I get, I talk about how awful those companies were and how other people should avoid them. That is... not what Pete is doing.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:48 AM on February 5 [19 favorites]


A relative of mine is a business professor. When he was first doing his PhD research in the 1980s, he was interviewing managers at firms - and remembers still how one of them said, "Oh, yes, we had the consultants in. Fortunately, we've managed to fix what they did."
posted by jb at 12:19 PM on February 5 [3 favorites]


Management consultants - you hire them, they steal your watch, and then you pay them to tell you what time it is.
posted by dbmcd at 12:36 PM on February 5 [4 favorites]


Jumping back in one last time to say: I'm sure we have Mefites who work in management consulting, and I personally have friends and acquaintances whom I like who work in that industry; I don't exactly mean to crap on individual consultants.

I think we can certainly criticize McKinsey-style consulting while recognizing the value of consulting done properly. I have a friend who is a consultant: they are working as one after more than a decade of experience in data and information management, and completing a relevant masters' degree. Similarly, the project I work for has a part-time consultant who worked for years in the relevant field before retiring. Their experience and advice has been invaluable.

Consultancy used well means hiring experts who have specific skills and training that your organization doesn't need on a permanent basis.

Consultancy done badly is thinking that there is one approach or solution that would work for all projects or organizations - and that you can quickly train bright but inexperienced recent graduates to apply the one-size fits all solution.

But then I also disagree with McKinsey's very principles: I've studied the history of production and labour, and I'm aways aware that we are so, so much more productive than we have been at any other time for our species - too productive for our planet - and so I'd like to see more inefficiencies put into management. The more people we can employ to do stuff, the better - and (of course) the profits should be shared with more people, too.
posted by jb at 1:32 PM on February 5 [9 favorites]


99.8% of the consultants ive met in my career deserve a free seat in golgafrincham ark fleet ship b

Isn't society destroyed because it turns out society needed those telephone sanitisers after all?


I never understood why telephone sanitizers were included on the B Ark - they are really important, as are all cleaners. No one with a "white collar" job could do their work without the support of cleaners and maintenance people, etc., and we should pay them more in recognition of that.

That said, that doesn't mean there aren't bullshit jobs. The most soul-sucking job I've ever had was doing medical market research: asking people at hospitals what brand of devices they were using. Every other job I've had - cook, barista, archive assistant, apple seller - made the world better in some small way, but that one just made the world a little bit worse (by contributing to the rising costs of health care).
posted by jb at 1:38 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


I always understood the joke to be that for every obviously useless middle-man there's another person doing a job that sounds obviously useless but is actually extremely vital for survival.
posted by tobascodagama at 2:26 PM on February 5


I just hope I'm never judged this harshly for the first job I took out of college [during a recession], which I promptly nope'd out of 2.5 years later.

By all accounts (according to his friends and his enemies), Pete has spent his entire life meticulously crafting a career path that would lead him to becoming president. The idea that he just golly shucks gee whizzed his way into working at Kinsey and "noped out" when he realized what they did (and have done for decades) is... generous.
posted by Reyturner at 3:18 PM on February 5 [7 favorites]


@bonehead: "A management that will decide to bet the company on a choice that it cannot understand is doomed."

Plenty of companies manage to figure out how to do that. At least well enough to (reasonably) survive. Figure out how to get *good* advice (Engineering, Finance, Law, plenty-more) without understanding the material that well themselves. How that is done (seems to me) is more Art than Science. And suffers all the ills of fools trying to turn one into the other. Science can *support* Art but rarely replaces it. (By the time it does it's not Art anymore.)
posted by aleph at 4:05 PM on February 5


McKinsey and other Management consulting firms don’t show up until things are pretty fucked up and no one has been able to fix them. I think the article confuses what may be a snake oil cure with the underlying disease affecting many big companies. Pete Buttigieg was a young man who wanted to be President; so he went to a prestigious school, got the Rhodes Scholarship and then went to work for a company that spent a lot of time marketing itself to people like him as the place to go for people like himself. I don’t see what the big deal is.
posted by interogative mood at 4:23 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


I just hope I'm never judged this harshly for the first job I took out of college [during a recession], which I promptly nope'd out of 2.5 years later.

I am fine with people "judging" that I should not be in charge of the nuclear arsenal, the US military, immigration, appointing federal judges, etc.

TBH when this stuff comes up I always find it amazing that so many UMC Americans act like they're basically part of the temporarily embarrassed president class and like, we should make sure it's fair for them in case they ever get a shot or something

Like, you're not gonna. Me neither! That's not all that harsh. It's a really, really, really important job. Other super important things I also will not get to do include transplant surgery, aviation engineering, race car driving, jet piloting...
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 5:00 PM on February 5 [11 favorites]


we dont have payphones anymore bro

Yeah, and now people get pink eye because they text while they're on the can.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 5:23 PM on February 5 [2 favorites]


McKinsey and other Management consulting firms don’t show up until things are pretty fucked up and no one has been able to fix them. I think the article confuses what may be a snake oil cure with the underlying disease affecting many big companies.

This is just plain not true and betrays a lack of familiarity with the role they play. It's kind of like thinking they're vulture capital? But that's something else entirely.

McKinsey style companies comes in at any and all stages, especially and more enthusiastically with growing companies with large revenue streams. They certainly aren't viewed in the corporate world as a Hail Mary when things are all fucked up--on the contrary, you can bring them and they'll to provide prestige for a big initiative.

In just my direct experience I've seen top consulting firms brought in to do things like advise a successful company after it made large acquisitions, on reorganization to manage periods of high growth, on modern 'big data' initiatives, among other projects. The "more money than you know what to do with" stage is the perfect time to bring in consultants, at least from the consultants' point of view.
posted by mark k at 7:21 PM on February 5 [5 favorites]


Chances are high in my direct experience that a big acquisition isn’t a sign that things are really going great as great as people think they are. It’s a way to shuffle a bunch of money around under the guise of one time merger charges. Same thing goes for the prestige project with the consultants. It lets you dress up what you are going to do anyway.

Companies almost always mislead their staff about how great things are. Don’t fall for it.
posted by interogative mood at 9:53 PM on February 5


That doesn't apply to the situations I recounted though--and I have 20+ years hindsight to see if I've "fallen" for some sleight of hand, when in fact the company I'm at has generally continued to grow over that period.

I mean, if the only work McKinsey did was for failing companies, companies trying to hide failure would never bring them in.
posted by mark k at 10:31 PM on February 5 [1 favorite]


I think we can certainly criticize McKinsey-style consulting while recognizing the value of consulting done properly. I have a friend who is a consultant: they are working as one after more than a decade of experience in data and information management, and completing a relevant masters' degree. Similarly, the project I work for has a part-time consultant who worked for years in the relevant field before retiring. Their experience and advice has been invaluable.

"Consulting" is just another word for advising so anyone who comes into a client company and helps them with a specialist task is a kind of consultant.

The problem comes when external advisors are used to do things that should actually be part of the company's own skill set. That "Coasian Hell" link upthread is brilliant. Fundamentally the problem is that the "core competency" of companies ends up being much more narrowly defined than it should be and that external consultants are used to do things that should be done in-house. Once you start down that path you weaken your capacity to ever do it for yourself in the future.

Many consultants would argue that developing corporate strategy or managing organisational transformation are not part of the "core business" and therefore it is perfectly reasonable to bring in external specialists to do these things.

I do not believe that is true at all for strategy (n.b. I used to be a strategy consultant and all our advisory success stories were companies that actually had a clear idea of what they wanted and hired us as an upscale benchmarking service. The very best of them also understood and challenged how those benchmarks worked and what they could and could not tell you).

I'm not as sure for organisational transformation. I think the drive always has to come from within the client but I'm sympathetic to the idea that external co-ordinators are needed to manage a complex process that most internal managers will have little experience with.

(Also I would expect that my career in management consulting would disqualify me from being the presidential candidate for the party that is meant to represent the workers, because come the fuck on)
posted by atrazine at 1:53 AM on February 6 [11 favorites]


I do not believe that is true at all for strategy (n.b. I used to be a strategy consultant and all our advisory success stories were companies that actually had a clear idea of what they wanted and hired us as an upscale benchmarking service. The very best of them also understood and challenged how those benchmarks worked and what they could and could not tell you).


As someone who worked for those companies I can also say that a lot of this article is non-sense. Too many companies fall for the marketing of AI/ML/big data and yeah it is hard to tell them no, especially when it is a lot more complex then a CIO seeing an IBM commercial about Watson transforming business process. I am out of this world now but the first thing I would do would be, as you said make sure the company had clear KPIs irrelevant to what was being implemented and knew what they didn't know. I have turned down work after discovery phase simply because it is obvious they believe there's something out there that will transform their business like magic.

Management consulting when done right is like everything else, it works great. If you came to Accenture with $75million to transform BPM initiatives they will find a way to spend $75million. I've worked with some very, very smart people at consulting companies and will say the biggest issue isn't they don't know what they're doing, it is that they have a slick ad campaign (consultant speak) and push strategies on companies that simply do not know how to utilize them. Just because Derek Jeter's trainer works well for him doesn't mean he will help a little league player. I'm not defending consultancies, I'm just saying they're like every other industry. When they work, they work well but you must know how to use them.

I believe the article really glossed over the fact the 90s saw the rise of IT as a main business distributor that saw immediate and concrete value beyond "empowering an AI driven workforce." That and the rise of companies abusing consulting (as in contracting out W2 employees). Uber is an outlier as you know as a driver you're not going to empower change in the organization, you're there until self-driving cars cancel you out. But Uber drivers can work when and where they want to a large extent. I'm approached with too many 1099 roles where they want me in 9-5, work under their conditions and other shady behavior. It is great for them, but if I accept 1099 you must also accept you're dealing with me on my terms. For some reason this is just slowly simmering and no real legal action is enforcing this abusive policy. I lose legal rights as a 1099 vendor, not an employee, as in getting paid when you decide that the project is not working out.

In any case there's a lot of things wrong and actually right with the way thing are going and McKinsey is not the biggest driver. Companies want flexibility to cut costs quickly and and no longer carry the burden of for life employees. Employees largely want flexibility. There must be a middle ground between the two.

FWIW I have enough contacts with the big three they're "embarrassingly" moving into implementation. I believe McKinsey calls it support vs consultant but it is increasingly more difficult to just recommend a technical/strategic initiative and not implement it. The old way of delivering reports to management and not having any deliverable, e.g. a software program that does what is recommended, is being slowly jettisoned.

Also from assembly line to corner office was a myth and the exception, not the norm.
posted by geoff. at 2:48 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]


Also from assembly line to corner office was a myth and the exception, not the norm.

In the same way and for the same reason that the schoolyard basketball player getting to the NBA is a myth and the exception, not the norm. Of course it was rare, but it did use to happen.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:42 AM on February 6


to cut costs quickly and and no longer carry the burden of for life employees

This is ... a good thing?
posted by Chitownfats at 5:15 AM on February 6 [2 favorites]


This is ... a good thing?

If you define good as increasing top-line revenue and quickly meet quarterly earning goals ... yes.
posted by geoff. at 6:46 AM on February 6 [2 favorites]


That's the crux of the matter right there. More-precarious employment isn't a good thing. Management consultants sell the idea that bad things are actually good if they help the bottom line.
posted by Lyme Drop at 9:29 AM on February 6 [6 favorites]


I would be careful at scaping goats that hold no authority in the organization they advise and whose contracts are cancelled at a whim. Let's not get distracted by lesser villains because they use cringe-worthy buzzwords.

The trend that gutted the middle class over the last 50 years was an executive class that misinterpreted the over-capitalized American infrastructure and rising consumer class as conferring immortal status, and then spent the next 30 years slicing away all the "inefficiencies" in a way that kept them in power.
posted by SoundInhabitant at 10:21 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]


Employees largely want flexibility.

Do they, though?
posted by epersonae at 10:34 AM on February 6 [5 favorites]


I would be careful at scaping goats that hold no authority in the organization they advise and whose contracts are cancelled at a whim. Let's not get distracted by lesser villains because they use cringe-worthy buzzwords.

The trend that gutted the middle class over the last 50 years was an executive class that misinterpreted the over-capitalized American infrastructure and rising consumer class as conferring immortal status, and then spent the next 30 years slicing away all the "inefficiencies" in a way that kept them in power.


Check out the McKinsey Alumni network. They take in fresh MBAs and have a two year rotation "Up or Out"...
posted by Mrs Potato at 10:41 AM on February 6 [4 favorites]


That so many very smart people go into fields like management consulting instead of maybe doing something altruistic is definitely an issue I wish more people talked about. As someone who has, and will have to make similar choices, I feel like I have to keep my career goals a secret. The idea that someone wouldn't take the highest paying or most prestigious job they can get isn't one that a lot of people can handle.

But what I find frustrating is how this only seems to be an issue when presidential candidates that people don't like are doing well. When I was applying to jobs, I didn't feel that anyone had the same values I did, so I've learned to think about my career on my own. It kind of feels like people are only talking about this because they don't like Pete. I hope that after the election is over and when I have to look for a job again, there will still be support for people who decide not to take prestigious jobs if it means working in an industry they don't think is good for society.
posted by chernoffhoeffding at 10:49 AM on February 6 [3 favorites]


In any case there's a lot of things wrong and actually right with the way thing are going and McKinsey is not the biggest driver. Companies want flexibility to cut costs quickly and and no longer carry the burden of for life employees. Employees largely want flexibility. There must be a middle ground between the two.

This is not what drives employees in either public or private sectors in my experience. Management certainly wants employee "flexibility". Employees usually want contracts and assurances of full-time employment. Much of what you describe, I'd consider to be working against most employees' interests in stability and ability to seek advancement internally. It's about fragmenting employees into fungible units with no bargaining power, in the face of corporate management that's essentially free then to dictate terms of employment, or "contracts" to their workers. We won't even mention collective bargaining.
posted by bonehead at 12:31 PM on February 6 [6 favorites]


It kind of feels like people are only talking about this because they don't like Pete.

That seems to be the subtext of some of the responses here, but I don't see that at all.

This ties with daily complaints in workplaces and threads on MetaFilter. I haven't said anything here that I haven't said many times, and internal employees complaining about outside consultants with fancy powerpoints and shallow knowledge is like a knee jerk response. Heck, there've movies for years where Buttigieg in his McKinsey days would be cast as either bad guy, or at least as the protagonist who has to learn humility and non-MBA life lessons to find happiness.

I do think two things are going on here: One is that "McKinsey" is understood to be a short hand for, well, McKinseyism* only among a fairly small subclass of professionals (and a sliver of the commentariat) so gut reactions vary widely. And then of course a lot of people with pre-existing opinions about McKinsey admire successful, competent-seeming managers! So the criticism can seem weird and out of left field.


*And I mean McKinsey is the name example of the class. Being from BCG or some other firm people who don't like the approach these people would bring would still complain, but being actually at McKinsey is symbolic as well.
posted by mark k at 12:38 PM on February 6


That so many very smart people go into fields like management consulting instead of maybe doing something altruistic is definitely an issue I wish more people talked about. As someone who has, and will have to make similar choices, I feel like I have to keep my career goals a secret. The idea that someone wouldn't take the highest paying or most prestigious job they can get isn't one that a lot of people can handle.

You should hang out around a better class of people. Seriously. I'm part of a professional class peer group that has really high earning power and most people I know get this and admire it.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:53 PM on February 6 [3 favorites]


"It kind of feels like people are only talking about this because they don't like Pete."

That seems to be the subtext of some of the responses here, but I don't see that at all.


It sure as heck isn't me, for one. "Vote Blue, No Matter Who"

Don't people even understand anymore that just to get back to the zero point, let alone make some progress it is Democrats, Democrats, Democrats? Let a thousand blue blossoms bloom! Bad Democrats, sketchy Democrats, questionable Democrats, whatever, all preferable right now to anybody not affiliated with the party. Titanic, iceberg, etc., "Oh, that lifeboat was made with child labor! I'm not getting in it!"
posted by Chitownfats at 1:12 PM on February 6 [1 favorite]


"Vote Blue, No Matter Who" is the clarion call for the general election, not the primary. In the primary, it is absolutely the time to be critical of candidates who fall short, and push the agenda leftward.
posted by explosion at 9:23 PM on February 6 [4 favorites]


The usual cutesy Democratic habit of just repairing enough of the damage the GOP does to the country and the world, but not systematically setting out dismantling the infrastructure that makes that damage possible in the first place is no longer enough.

Obama kept up and intensified Bush's murder drone programme, we don't need a Biden or Mayo Pete to do the same with Trump's war on PoC.

Especially because we've seen how quickly all those "Vote blue. Compromise. Don't criticise" centrists stop paying attention when the warcrimes are being committed by a Democratic president.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:10 AM on February 7


If you want the drone program stopped you need to work to expand public support for that position. When 80% of Americans are aligned, along with big corporations and interest groups; no one who can get elected in that climate will bring you the change you want.
posted by interogative mood at 8:19 PM on February 7 [1 favorite]


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