OUTSIDERS ON THE INSIDE - Hope takes a seat in the boardroom and a shudder runs through the ranks when the management consultants are called in. Everyone knows their names but no one seems to know what they do. Until now. In a revealing documentary, Roger Graef, the award-winning film maker, explores a world where secrecy is the default mode and the client pays the cheque and takes the credit.
This is a cautionary tale for journalists and consultants alike. Almost the only thing people outside the business know about consultants is that they make good money and get a bad press. They are widely assumed to do little to justify the huge fees they command except offer common sense disguised as expertise. Like a workplace grim reaper, whenever they appear, job cuts follow. They are assumed to be obsessed by jargon and buzz words - meaningless or obvious cliches - to be far younger and less experienced than their clients, and to rely on recycling previous reports, or what clients tell them. They change their advice according to management fashion, and escape blame for abandoning previous positions.
And yet their business grows much faster than that of their clients. They are often asked back by institutions with whom they have worked for years. I wondered why.
Having seen their influence spread exponentially through business and governments worldwide, I proposed to make a serious television series with a non-judgmental agenda. It raised three questions: What do consultants actually do? Are their fees justified by their added value? And why do they get asked back? The structure we proposed four years ago has remained the same, despite the difficulties we encountered in making the series.
The first film deals with the history of the profession and is full of surprises. Did you know, for example, that consulting was a protected profession during the second world war? The second film deals with how consultants are recruited and trained, using, for the very first time, a McKinsey case study.
The third film looks at the future of consulting, and follows four sets of consultants at work: John Kao, professor of innovation and creativity at Harvard Business School, inspiring creativity among accountants; Smythe Dorward Lambert (SDL) working with Microsoft on human values; Gemini Consulting managing a multinational telecoms project in Egypt, and McKinsey Global Institute grappling with the Russian economy.
The series answers the three questions we posed at the outset. The key participants who have seen their segments regard them as fair and accurate.
It all sounds straightforward, yet of the 80 films of my career, these proved the most difficult. Although I would have missed out on the friendships made and insights gained, I might not have proceeded with the project had I known the frustrations ahead. I now see why there has been no such work on television before. Consultants are their own worst enemies.
I was warned early on. When a consultant told me they were 'insecure overachievers', I should have known it wasn't a joke. The next few years more than confirmed that description. Not that I am not used to dealing with such people. I specialise in unstaged, observational films inside previously closed institutions. My work is inspired by the desire to understand influential people whose image is based on fragments of knowledge.
Civil servants, diplomats, police and politicians share with business people and consultants a mistrust of the media. In this love/hate relationship, secrecy is the default mode. This self-perpetuating vicious circle generates more misunderstanding.
In business, the silence that surrounds day-to-day operations is broken by the occasional bit of good news - quarterly results, a merger, a product launch. Presented in glossy PR form, it is expected to be dealt with uncritically by friendly reporters. Bad news is hidden until it leaks so badly it cannot be denied, or scandal overtakes the effort at suppression or news management.
The feeding frenzy that follows adds to the victims' paranoia, making them more secretive and suspicious of journalists.
This polarised and constipated approach to the flow of information means that most non-business people know very little about business. We know even less about consulting.
As consultants and business people know to their cost, our ignorance does not stop us from having opinions. Britain may be a nation of shopkeepers, but the traditional aristocratic disdain for those in trade lives on in academia, the arts and the media. It has corrupted the way business is seen and portrayed, and is the subtext for business people's defensiveness.
Moreover, reporting is dominated by boardroom battles, sexual or political scandals, or personal feuds such as Rowland v Al Fayed, because many of us don't want to know more. Comfortable in their ignorance, many editors presume that business is boring.
Thatcher's Britain made wealth creation more fashionable, largely through the numbers game in the City. Industry and commerce, however, remained unglamorous. For yuppies itching for their first Porsche, it was too much like a hard grind. For journalists it was too slow and complicated to bother exploring properly. The get-rich-quick mentality was fascinating for the media as it fitted into the competitive, adrenaline-choked atmosphere of deadlines and scoops. The world of real business - investing, designing, making, building, selling products and services, managing people, productivity and profit - has remained shadowy.
The role of consultants is even less understood, obscured by our ignorance about business and compounded by the ethos of client confidentiality. Good consultancy often involves letting the client take the credit for ideas and achievements contributed to by the consultants. Thus proper professional concerns about remaining discreet, coupled with a mistrust of the media, produces resistance to approaches like mine.
And yet consultants do not want to be misunderstood. Like all of us, they want to be loved and respected, and resent their public image as hustlers and witch doctors who borrow people's watches to tell them the time. So when we approached them about participating in the series, they didn't say yes, but they didn't say no.
As the consulting world has grown more competitive, they were attracted by the prospect of free advertising to opinion formers. But the habits of a lifetime were not easily overcome. Moreover, they found our offer particularly awkward as they knew we were the safest bet they could hope for.
We approached a range of consultants, including the Big Six and their clients, offering guarantees which I have used successfully for 30 years. For The Space Between Words, the first fly-on-the-wall films in Britain, I devised rules which allowed us to gain access to people who work in private, including top managers, diplomats and psychiatrists:
1. To avoid disrupting the proceedings, we use the minimum amount of people - often no more than two - and small, handheld equipment. We use no lights or staging. We sit quietly, avoiding eye contact with the principals. People get on with their work. All we ask is to be informed of, and given access to, relevant meetings. We dress in suits and hide our equipment, in stark contrast to the intrusive presence of conventional filming.
2. To protect commercial secrets, all the crew are bound to secrecy throughout filming and editing. If a leak is traced to us the filming is off. No one is filmed without their permission, and they can ask us to switch off or leave the room at any time. The edited version is shown to participants so that personal or commercial secrets can be deleted. As our interest is in process rather than disclosure, this has never been a problem.
3. To deal with fears about bias, we agree the parameters of filming beforehand - in writing. In a spirit of collaboration rather than investigation, we rely on participants to keep us informed so that our 'films of record' are as complete as possible. Key participants check the edited version for accuracy and fairness.
These rules have led to the first unstaged films at boardroom and ministerial level inside the British and US governments, the EU, the UN and major national and multinational corporations. We have also successfully filmed the police, social workers, schools, local government and therapists.
The value of careful independent evidence is obvious for enterprises wanting to tell a more complex story than the media would normally present.
Failing companies have used us to show they were trying. Successful ones have used us to convey the challenges they faced. Our films are used in training and for promotion by the people we have filmed.
The consultants we approached for this series knew this. Ian Davis of McKinsey & Co said to me at our first meeting, 'We've checked, and you are the straightest person in television. That is why you are the first we have even considered to film us.' I quote this merely to establish what I expected to flow from it - access, once terms were agreed. I was wrong.
It took nearly two years to persuade first the BBC and then Channel Four to accept the series: they too were sceptical that what consultants do would make interesting television. But it took even longer to persuade consultants to let us film them. And for them to find clients who would agree as well.
The other warning sign was even more ominous. It seemed almost impossible to find anyone who could tell me or any of my researchers what consultants actually do.
Normally, when preparing to film inside complex confidential institutions, we spend months observing in order to do our preparatory research. Clearly, to correct misapprehensions based on ignorance, we must be properly informed ourselves. Yet even those consultants who had agreed in principle resisted that.
Our predicament therefore was: unanimous industry agreement that consulting had never been shown properly on television, but an almost collective unwillingness to give us a try - despite the protections on offer. It wasn't a simple rejection: the heads of most leading firms greeted the proposal warmly. But in the months that followed, their partners' resistance paralysed our progress.
Andersen Consulting was the worst. Over a year of meetings, including a trip to New York, they said yes no less than seven times, followed each time with the proviso 'once we can work out the terms', which we thought we had already done. With (pre-merger) Price Waterhouse, we translated our standard terms into legalese for their lawyers before it ran into the sand. Coopers, AT Kearney and Deloitte never came up with a client.
Boston Consulting Group wouldn't proceed past a positive initial meeting. After 18 months, Bain wouldn't allow us to cover anything except pro bono work with the homeless. At least we knew where we stood with PA. They turned us down flat.
Gemini, McKinsey and Smythe Doward Lambert finally took the plunge, thanks to courageous individuals in each firm who believe consulting should be more open. They are proud of what they do and think that the world will gain from a better knowledge of their work. Having at last had a chance to observe them, I think they are right.
We did not expect to change the minds of those with a poor experience of consultants. But we now can offer a far wider perspective on this contentious area. We have treated consultants better than they expected - or, arguably deserved, from the way many treated us. We focused only on strategy consultants, and top firms at that. The ongoing computing scandals, and poor practice at the lower end are omitted. Criticism comes mostly from consultants themselves.
McKinsey people are refreshingly honest about these concerns, and take steps to address them in training. We found the people we dealt with to be unfailingly intelligent and thoughtful and excellent role models for their industry. One verdict from the series is that much of the misuse of consultants is down to clients failing to brief and use them properly.
For the sake of those people brave enough to trust us, I hope colleagues support them when the series is shown. The long shelf life it will have in business schools and elsewhere should vindicate their decision, and attract the best and the brightest to their firms. As for the rest, I hope they are suitably jealous.
Roger Graef's three-part series on consultants, Masters of the Universe, is scheduled to be shown on Channel 4 this month.