Here’s a view I heard the other day. That consultants and consultancy is a misnomer. Why? Because consultants do not ‘consult’ they impose. Consultants and consultancy firms are in fact impositioners and imposing firms. Interesting, as all pictures of consultants show smiley co-operation and listening people or shaking hands. Does this view stand up though? This particularly interests me as the older and more glamorous brother of internal is said to be consultancy. Let us not forget also our claim to be a consultancy activity.

Well one of the great myths is that someone independent of the organisation, and by that we mean outside of it, must necessarily have better and clearer answers than the specialists and experienced people inside the organisation. I am sure that the logic goes that the organisation has a problem, therefore the people inside it are not able to solve it. This would probably be because they are incompetent, lack experience, or are in some way less good than the people outside of the organisation. Well I am not so sure that analysis stands up. Sure, sometimes that is the case. Oftentimes the issue can be genuinely difficult to solve and deal with. The blockage to the solution’s implementation is rarely one of a lack of ability or understanding in my experience. More likely than not resources, politics, individuals, culture or other things block it.

The second myth in my view is that consultants listen, consider a problem, and then design a bespoke solution. While this is sometimes the case, consultants are bringers of experience, but are often bound by it. they are not necessarily programme to listen in the same way auditors are.  Their context dependent knowledge may be dependent on a completely different or inappropriate context. Or worse, they are tied to a particular solution, software or scheme that they then sell. This latter element is particularly questionable. Let’s stick with considering consultancy as a thinking activity. Do the consultants really think in the client’s context? Some do, not all though. Some of this is confidence. An internal auditor is normally acutely aware that they are not the expert and can use this effectively to listen to the management ‘expert’. Consultants are normally supremely confident ‘experts’. This limits their capacity to listen, reflect and adapt their thinking.

The world and organisations are complex. They take time to learn. The soft, unwritten, unstructured, elements of the organisation are difficult. Sometimes it is helpful to have a view independent of this. But a view that is just not cognisant of it? So lifting and shifting an intellectual answer to a problem may simply not work. That’s where consultants really struggle. Diagnosis is easy. Treatment back to health is somewhat more challenging and difficult.

So if context independent knowledge (theory) needs to be combined with context dependent knowledge (experience of the area being reviewed) and context dependent knowledge of the organisation being treated (e.g. in depth client knowledge) is  a consultant the right answer? Well I think consultants can combine all three elements and can do it effectively, but it is not often done in my experience. Perhaps we as internal auditors need to get the three elements right to be consultants ourselves. We have the context dependent knowledge of the organisation (probably more than many within the organisation because of our unique overview position). We have context dependent knowledge from our current and previous clients. Do we have the context independent knowledge. Not in all cases. This is where good training and development programmes come in.  This is where external consultants with specialist knowledge will be useful. Why not link them with the audit team to get the real value. Focus them on thinking and using their specialist knowledge rather than learning about the organisation and not understanding the context into which they will deliver their ‘solutions’.

Internal auditors are true consultants in my view. We as auditors have to consult with our clients because we are there all year around. We cannot fly in and then out. We must live with the consequences of our work and track record. Perhaps if more organisations listened to the consultants on the doorstep and developed their own staff they could avoid the ‘imposers’ altogether?

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