Meta-Consulting and the Division of Labor*

By Keith Blincoe, Staff Writer

ATTENTION: Satire article. Reader discretion is advised.

Consulting is on the rise—volatility in the world market and increased specialization raises the demand for consultants’ services. Thinking about entering a new market? Hire a consulting firm. Profits slipping despite revenue rising? Need to be reminded every 30 seconds that the world is changing, chaos is everywhere, and the old rules don’t apply? Want to fire 20,000 people, but don’t have the guts to tell them it was your idea? Want to use “leverage” as a verb instead just “use”? Are you convinced that a business model focused on providing “solutions” is a real thing? Consultants are there for you. But this is all old news.

The new news is meta-consulting: consulting about consulting. What happens when a consulting firm needs to change direction? To whom should they go for advice? They can’t just ask themselves. They go to another consulting firm, one that specializes in providing solutions for consulting firms.

“It’s kind of like an accounting firm outsourcing their own accounting,” said Karen Karelia, a partner at McBain, one of the “big 4” meta-consulting firms. “The division of labor marches on.” McBain has been at the forefront of attempts to farm out companies’ activities to other organizations that have comparative advantages in them. For example, McBain recently advised a large bottling company to outsource manufacturing to a small firm in Thailand, marketing to a California start-up, sales force to a Chicago company, logistics to a Japanese carrier, finance to IBM’s Watson computer, human resources to a pit of vipers, and executive leadership to McBain. “Because of comparative advantage, different firms have different strengths. There’s always a firm that can do what you do, only better and at lower cost. So you should find them and pay them to do it,” Karelia continued. “Meta-consulting is just the next step. Consulting firms need to start farming out their activities too, and not just be these ossified conglomerates. The bottom line is that no firm should do anything, and every firm should outsource everything, and that is increasingly true for consulting firms too.”

I asked my classmates who are interested in the consulting industry for their thoughts. Most students support the meta-consulting trend. The common sentiment was “It’s all just part of the drive for efficiency. A consultant is like a doctor. But even doctors need a second pair of eyes sometimes. You wouldn’t want to perform eye surgery on yourself, would you?” When asked whether a consulting firm seeking outside consulting help would lose credibility, most people said no. “In the end it’s a question about what you want to do. Do you want to be a dynamic leader in your industry, or do you want to be a paleontological curiosity?”

What other trends are in store for the consulting industry? Here’s Karelia again: “We’re updating our clichés. ‘Leveraging’ is out, ‘leveragizing’ is in. This is the kind of innovation for which McBain is famous, and there’s a lot more where that came from. It’s a fine time to be alive!”

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