Monthly Archives: April 2007

Consulting as system and profession

Toppin, G. and F. Czerniawska (2006). Business Consulting: A Guide to How it Works and How to Make it Work. London, The Economist.

This is a useful but uneven book. Its main contribution lies in the development of a model called “the Business Consulting Ecosystem”, which describes the various entities in the consulting profession and how they interact. There are also good descriptions of how the industry has evolved over time and good interviews with many consultants and clients. I particularly liked chapter 11, which describes the markets for ideas and how companies try to capitalize on them, though that may be because one of the companies described is Index, which I worked for in the nineties.

On the negative side, the latter part (second half) of the book and the conclusions feel quite a bit like a Powerpoint presentation, with bullet points giving the outline and filler text added in. The book is also slightly dated, since it was published in 2004 and things have moved on a bit, though it does report on the transition to outsourcing and the increasing polarization between advisory consulting and implementation.

So, smart in parts, useful in general, but uneven when it comes to drawing decisive conclusions. Sounds like the consulting business.

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Bryson on cricket

After three weeks in cricket-obsessed India, I came back and dipped into Bill Bryson’s incomparable Australia travelogue, In a Sun-burned Country. I couldn’t resist quoting his comments on cricket (note that Bryson’s father was a baseball writer, so it is not like he doesn’t know other games):

"After years of patient study (and with cricket there can be no other kind) I have decided that there is nothing wrong with the game that the introduction of golf carts wouldn’t fix in a hurry. It is not true that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavors look interesting and lively; that was merely an unintended side effect. I don’t wish to denigrate a sport that is enjoyed by millions, some of them awake and facing the right way, but it is an odd game. It is the only sport that incorporates meal breaks. It is the only sport that shares its name with an insect. It is the only sport in which spectators burn as many calories as players — more if they are moderately restless. It is the only competitive activity of any type, other than perhaps baking, in which you can dress in white from head to toe and be as clean at the end of the day as you were at the beginning.

Imagine a form of baseball in which the pitcher, after each delivery, collects the ball from the catcher and walks slowly with it to center field; and that there, after a minute’s pause to collect himself, he turns and runs full tilt toward the pitcher’s mound before hurling the ball at the ankles of a man who stands before him wearing a riding hat, heavy gloves of the sort used to to handle radio-active isotopes, and a mattress strapped to each leg. Imagine moreover that if this batsman fails to hit the ball in a way that heartens him sufficiently to try to waddle forty feet with mattress’s strapped to his legs, he is under no formal compunction to run; he may stand there all day, and, as a rule, does. If by some miracle he is coaxed into making a misstroke that leads to his being put out, all the fielders throw up their arms in triumph and have a hug. Then tea is called and every one retires happily to a distant pavilion to fortify for the next siege. Now imagine all this going on for so long that by the time the match concludes autumn has crept in and all your library books are overdue. There you have cricket.

But it must be said there is something incomparably soothing about cricket on the radio. It has much the same virtues as baseball on the radio – an unhurried pace, a comforting devotion to abstruse statistics and throughtful historical rumination, exhilarating micro-moments of real action – but stretched across many more hours and with a lushness of terminology and restful elegance that even baseball cannot match. Listening to cricket on the radio is like listening to two men sitting in a rowboat on a large, placid lake on a day when the fish aren’t biting; it’s like having a nap without losing consciousness. It actually helps not to know quite what is going on. In such a rarefied world of contentment and inactivity, comprehension would become a distraction."

My thoughts exactly. Restful in the extreme, much like watching snooker on late-night TV. Micro-excitement and levels of understanding you can dip into if you care to. But in general, you don’t.

IBM and the other Indian companies

Excellent article about IBM and the company’s foray into India – echoes the sentiments I heard from outsourcers when I was there. IBM and Accenture legitimizes the Indian outsourcers, most importantly in the eyes of the local politicians and the public, and legitimizes their strategy to move to higher-level work, in the process improving profits and finding believable career paths for their engineers, who will want to break out of SAP fiddling and support calls at some point.

Supply-side supplied

Bruce Bartlett argues that supply-side economics has jumped the shark and now occupy the same place in history as Keynesianism did in the early 80s.
Hard to disagree: Any management fad (and, by extension, any school of economics) comes up to address a real problem, then expands in scale and scope, failing to recognize why it started in the first place.
Since the last sentence in itself is a Russell’s paradox, I better stop here.

Warming causes CO2?

Does global warming cause CO2 buildup, and not the other way around. Interesting discussion at Stubborn facts, summarized by Stuart Buck.

I don’t know myself – in cases like this, I would like to see the data, but as one commenter points out, the data is very hard to get. How I wish for a Hans Rosling-like source of data on environmental change, something you could put into Gapminder and see what came out.

Yes, pollution is bad, as anyone who has visited Beijing and Shanghai knows the second they step of the airplane. It is also a byproduct of certain stages in a country’s economic development, and the two biggest countries in the world are currently in that stage. That is the real problem here, not whether I should get a Prius I cannot afford or start biking to work.

Where is the data in all this? What kind of data is there that either isn’t very short-term (100-200 years) or very vague. How much does CO2-from cars matter compared to, say, Mount Pinatubo? Yes, I know that there are 3500 cars registered new in Beijing every day, and I get an instant headache the second I leave the airplane coming there. But coal-burning London was worse in the beginning of the century.

Is it nature or is it us? Most expert says it is us, the one that convinced me was Stephen Emmott, but I would so like to see the data.

Jim McKenney dies at 77

18-mckenney1-225I just got word that Jim McKenney, Harvard Business School Professor (Emeritus), died last week.

Jim was responsible for the MIS Doctoral students at HBS and my thesis advisor after Benn Konsynski left for Emory in 1992. Jim taught me many things, such as interview technique, longitudinal research strategies, and how to understand corporate strategy from behavior rather than theory. Most of all he taught me how to draw parallels between technical, organizational and societal evolution. He was an expert on the US airline industry (he was on the board of Continental Airlines) and had life-time memberships to most airline clubs, as well as a strong network of contacts in all kinds of transportation businesses.

Jim was defiantly original in everything he did. Small and wiry, he wore a bowtie and spoke quietly and eruditely in large classrooms, constantly surprising students with wry observations on why organizations did as they did. I still remember how I talked to him about an organization that did something specific (I have forgotten what). As I was trying to work out why, Jim said “That’s not a strategy – that’s just bad management!”

Jim had a big Victorian (I think) house with self-tended garden in Lexington where he and his lovely wife Mary held annual summer parties for faculty and friends. As he became my thesis advisor and I also worked as his research assistant, I frequently made the trip up to Lexington to retrieve papers or ask questions.

Jim is one of two reasons (the other is Benn) that I (and my good colleague Ramiro) wear bowties. His reason for wearing them was practical – when he arrived at HBS, he was a poor junior faculty with worn shirts collars, and the bow tie hid that fact effectively. That’s the story he told, anyway. I have a sneaking suspicion his real reason was to be original, though, to mark a distance to the slicker parts of HBS and cut a noticeable and contrarian figure around campus.

Jim was stricken with Alzheimer towards the end of the 90s, and we lost touch. I last saw him in 99, still living in his large house, still gardening, but gradually being reduced. Still, you could find that spark of originality underneath at times, and I like to think he never lost it completely.

My thoughts go to Mary and the rest of the family – may their memories be of an interested and interesting man, well read, soft-spoken, opinionated, kind and unabashedly original.