Why did the academic and the consultant stand on different sides of the road?

May 5, 2013

By Craig Prichard

email: C.Prichard@massey.ac.nz


I spent last  weekend at the ‘Creativity Challenge’, a two day conference  on things  artistic,  self-helpful and activistic held  in the always awesome, Taranaki.   The event was somewhat marred for me by the Saturday night plenary speaker and a meal time interaction with an Australian business consultant. The first marring came from the pre-dinner speaker’s  spotless superfection.  He sprinkled on just  right amounts of personal confession, parables and,  when we finally got to them, finally polished nuggets of, well, the blatantly obvious.  His unique offerings, his  words of truth and wisdom, his seven keys to creativity to be precise,  where frankly a  bunch of painted rocks.  The seven began with  the spectacularly  unnovel recommendation that we  ‘pay attention’ and ‘take notes’.

The borish Australian  had a different problem.  AcaDEMics, he grrred when he said it,  ‘are useless,  fullstop’.  Followed by another  ‘Full Stop’  for extra gravity.

As it turned out he was a man smarting from a string of ungratifying  interactions with academics and universities. These included the appointment of an academic to the top job at a  prized consulting venue, his dumping from a project involving Australian academics and  other incidents where he had  been  belittled and likely oppressed by the pointy hats.

By consultant I mean someone who is selling knowledge to businesses or the self-help or professional friend industry. In this ‘space’​, to quote the current vernacular,  knowledge is divided up and neatly presented for sale.  It needs to be  simple, easily consumable and easily recyclable into multiple formats. It needs a ring of common sense and a wider ring of confidence, indexed by soundbites from big name users. And it should be plausible but not obvious. It should be like a  herring on a hook. It looks like it is swimming freely and a tasty meal but really it’s bait with a longer relationship in mind.

Now I’m not throwing stones at people making a living from a few nuggets that they are found or developed. What I do find hard to bear is transference  onto academics of the frustrations that arise from playing in this particularly muddy knowledge pond.

So what charges did the Australian lay? Academics are good at writing papers and not fit for much  else  – and  useless at  working with practitioners. Fair cop! Academics are trained to do research and write papers. The skills of tracking down lucrative leads and securing  a two minute audience with a CEO who might, and its a big might,  then invite them to work for them  is beyond almost all academics. And yes of course they can get away with lecturing young people but would  struggle in the heat of the consulting assignment. But is ‘useless’ the right word here? Is ‘variable uses’ better?

Secondly, Governments are unjustifiably in the thrall of ‘the academic’ to whom they pay hefty sums for ‘research’ that is worse than useless to everyone apart from the paper writing academics themselves (This actually has a hint of the  pot and the kettle about it). Perhaps this is a fair cop! But what the Government or corporation or other institutional formation is buying (at its best!) is not more ‘pay attention’ or ‘take notes’, but (at its best) something  a little more challenging, something a little less  polished for the  customer’s cheque book and something  a bit  more difficult to chew and swallow than  the  lollies  handed out in the consultant’s pick and mix selection.

And third, they, them, those guys, the grrr academics . . .  are sponges on society.  Perhaps! But a sponge could also be a metaphor for a kind of symbolic universe from which others, including consultants, draw and whom have neither the time nor inclination to develop or maintain.  In other words, and without getting all epistemological about it, academics occupy a quite different ‘space’ in the knowledge food chain.

But of course none of these points make a blind bit of difference to our ‘grrr-ing’ Australian. For him the sooner the pointy hats stepped into the road and were run down by a fleet of Ferrari driving CEOs desiring of his coloured stones the better – full stop!

One response to “Why did the academic and the consultant stand on different sides of the road?”

  1. Roger McEwan says:

    Really enjoyed reading your blog Craig, so well written I was there!!!

    As someone who currently stands some what uncomfortably on both sides of the road (with just enough clearance to let the traffic flow) the point I would offer is that there is (or maybe should be) a difference between a consultant and someone peddling rocks of wisdom although admittedly they currently go under the same title.

    Real consultants (those that eat quiche) are in search of unique problems to solve uniquely. Rock peddlers have their solution ready to apply to any problem…

    Could be that the words themselves, academic and consultant just carry too much stereotypical meaning.


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The Other Side of Business

Welcome to The Other Side of Business. This is a blog that collects and distributes the opinion and analysis of staff and students from the School of Management, College of Business, Massey University. The aim is to post once or twice a month on current issues in business... Read more