Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Dirty Little Business Secret

The idea that business is a hard edged world where the rewards go to those with the most drive, initiative, and good ideas is debunked by this article from an MIT student paper reporting on one student's experience as a business consultant. Here are some key bits:
The first clue that my mental picture of consulting was off came with “training” in Munich. I expected instruction in Excel programming, data analysis, and business theory. Instead, Munich turned out to be little more than a week long social outing with other recently matriculated consultants and analysts within the BCG’s European branches. We donned name tags, shook hands, and drank often. Classes were fluffy, and mostly consisted of discussion of high-level, almost philosophical topics. I got along well — as both an American and a member of the Dubai office, I was doubly foreign and therefore double the curiosity.

After a pleasant week of pseudo-partying, I returned to Dubai and was assigned to writing case proposals. In the consulting business, it is standard practice for clients to write requests for proposals, describing the question they would like answered. The consulting firm in turn writes a case proposal: We will answer A by having Consultant B do X, Y, and Z. A well written case proposal promises much, but is deliberately vague about what concrete things the consultants will produce.


Despite having no work or research experience outside of MIT, I was regularly advertised to clients as an expert with seemingly years of topical experience relevant to the case. We were so good at rephrasing our credentials that even I was surprised to find in each of my cases, even my very first case, that I was the most senior consultant on the team.

I quickly found out why so little had been invested in developing my Excel-craft. Analytical skills were overrated, for the simple reason that clients usually didn’t know why they had hired us. They sent us vague requests for proposal, we returned vague case proposals, and by the time we were hired, no one was the wiser as to why exactly we were there.

I got the feeling that our clients were simply trying to mimic successful businesses, and that as consultants, our earnings came from having the luck of being included in an elaborate cargo-cult ritual. In any case it fell to us to decide for ourselves what question we had been hired to answer, and as a matter of convenience, we elected to answer questions that we had already answered in the course of previous cases — no sense in doing new work when old work will do. The toolkit I brought with me from MIT was absolute overkill in this environment. Most of my day was spent thinking up and writing PowerPoint slides. Sometimes, I didn’t even need to write them — we had a service in India that could put together pretty good copy if you provided them with a sketch and some instructions.


What I could not get my head around was having to force-fit analysis to a conclusion. In one case, the question I was tasked with solving had a clear and unambiguous answer: By my estimate, the client’s plan of action had a net present discounted value of negative one billion dollars. Even after accounting for some degree of error in my reckoning, I could still be sure that theirs was a losing proposition. But the client did not want analysis that contradicted their own, and my manager told me plainly that it was not our place to question what the client wanted.

In theory, it was their money to lose. If they wanted a consulting report that parroted back their pre-determined conclusion, who was I to complain? I did not have any right to dictate that their money be spent differently. And yet, to not speak out was wrong. To destroy a billion dollars is to destroy an almost unimaginable amount of human well-being. Spent carefully on anti-malarial bed nets and medicine, one billion dollars could save a million lives. This was a crime, and failing to try and stop it would be as bad as committing it myself. And if I could not prevent it, then what reason was I being paid such a high salary? How could I justify my income if not by prevailing in situations such as these?


What did surprise me was the offer BCG made to me as I was on the way out the door. In exchange for me signing an agreement, BCG would give me the rough equivalent of $16,000 in UAE dirhams. Much of it looked boilerplate, like any common compromise agreement used in Europe — in return for some money, I would stipulate that I hadn’t been discriminated against on the basis of race or gender, etc.

But the rest was very clearly a non-disclosure agreement, and it made me uncomfortable. I signed a non-disclosure agreement when I first took the job, but that only covered BCG’s intellectual property and client identities, things that seemed entirely reasonable to protect. This agreement went much further. Not only did it bar me from making any disparaging comments about BCG or my work experience, but I wouldn’t even be allowed to reveal the existence of the non-disclosure agreement itself. The implication was clear: I could either be a cheerleader for BCG or stay silent, but anything else would bring swift legal retribution. When I asked to have the non-disclosure clauses removed, I was told that the agreement was a standard offer to employees, and that its terms were non-negotiable.

As hard as it was to decide whether or not to stay at my job, it was easy to pass up the hush money. Mistake or not, my future hypothetical children deserved to hear their father’s story, and $16,000 did not seem like a lot of money in the grand scheme of things. After rejecting the offer, I enjoyed a full night’s rest.
Go read the whole article.

This article debunks the idea that business is an efficiency-driven value-creating force that advances our society. This article points out that there is a fair about of feather bedding at the top. A lot of what is bought and sold are status markers and cozy stories to assure those on top that they are "masters of the universe" and charting a business course filled with the promise of success. But what they are really buying is a lot of bilge of "feel good" and "let's pretend" clap-trap.

I sure hope this newly minted MIT graduate is an augury of a change in heart in business schools. In the 1980s these schools churned out Gordon Gecko wanna-be "masters of the universe" who would sell their mother if they got a good price. This guy shows a new moral direction. He wants a job with integrity, with purpose, and that will help build society and not tear it down for a quick buck in his own pocket. I sure hope this is a harbinger of a new business ethic.

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