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Succeeding in postgraduate study
Succeeding in postgraduate study

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1 Critical thinking and reflection (Part 1)

The next activity, based on material from the Open University’s MBA course, should help provide you with some insight into this process from a business and management perspective. It will allow you to become aware that, for most management topics, there is no single right answer. There are differing and sometimes competing views that you will need to hold in tension, developing your thoughts and your ability to argue (in an academic sense) for their worth.

Activity 1 Critical thinking and reflection (Part 1)

Timing: Allow approximately 30 minutes

Read the text below and note your responses to the questions that follow.

How do management consultants act?

Management consultancy is a relatively recent topic of interest to academic researchers. At its beginning, in the 1980s, the early research that looked at consultancies and the work of consultants arose from the organisational development (OD) perspective (e.g., Schein, 1987; 1988). This work tended to draw analogies between consulting and medicine, and advanced a doctor–patient model of consulting, with consultants positioning themselves as the expert helper and curer (doctor) of the client’s (patient’s) problems. This, of course, is a comfortable role for consultants to allocate to themselves, because it establishes a clear relationship with a client based on knowledge and power. It is worth remembering that it is not unusual for academics also to work as consultants. For example, Michael Porter, as well as being a professor at Harvard Business School, is also a founder, senior partner and academic director of The Monitor Group, a strategy-based management consultancy. Does this matter? Well, academics who are also consultants are less likely to be critical of their own models and ideas, or to admit to limitations in their theories; rather, they are inclined to defend them against criticism.

Following the doctor–patient model of consulting, a more critical perspective has emerged and has taken root in the early 21st century. This critical move condemns the OD perspective as largely self-congratulatory, written by practicing consultants/academics and containing unreflective accounts of their own consultancy interventions (Fincham and Clark, 2002). Indeed, the most strident criticisms of the actions of management consultants have seen them described as ‘witchdoctors’ (Sturdy, 2009, p. 459) or ‘shamans’ (Linstead, 1984, p. 25), exploiting gullible and naive managers.

  • Which of the two extreme characterisations of management consultants, as ‘doctors’ or as ‘witchdoctors’, do you find most convincing?
  • What experiences have you drawn from to arrive at your position?
  • How would you characterise management consultants and management consultancies?
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Management consultancies have a significant impact on our working and social lives, and therefore it is important that you examine what they do as part of your postgraduate studies. Two extreme views have been presented here, drawn from academic literature – academics frequently disagree with each other, which is to be expected, and in this instance there is no single right answer to the question: ‘How do management consultants act?’ Your response would depend on several factors. For example, you could be a management consultant yourself. You could have worked with the consultants featured in this extract (in your organisation), or you may have had no direct contact but have read about them and seen them depicted in films and on television programmes. All of these experiences can interplay together to influence your view. This is why reflective thinking is so important. We need to become more aware of how our experiences, preferences and, most importantly, our assumptions influence what we think.

We do not expect you to arrive at the beginning of your Master’s studies as fully-developed critical and reflective thinkers. However, we do expect that you will be prepared and able to develop these qualities further during your studies. The ability to think critically and reflectively will not only help you in your career aspirations (Arum and Roksa, 2011), but is necessary if you are to be successful in your studies, and to demonstrate your skills as a Master’s graduate.