Book Review: Data Driven – An Introduction to Management Consulting in the 21st Century

The book is written by Jeremy David Curuksu, who is a data scientist, management consultant, and researcher. He worked at the strategy firm Innosight, at the Chief Analytics Office of IBM, and at Amazon Web Services. He holds a PhD in bioinformatics and was a research scientist for 6 years in applied mathematics at the Polytechnical School of Lausanne in Switzerland and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA.

The book is a ‘scientific’ introduction to management consulting that covers elementary and more advanced concepts, such as strategy and client-relationship. It discussed the emerging role of information technologies in consulting activities and introduces the essential tools in data science, assuming no technical background.

Drawing on extensive literature reviews with more than 200 peer reviewed articles, reports, books snd surveys referenced, the book has at least four objectives: to be scientific, modern, complete and concise.

The main takeaways I got out of this book are presented below:

       Consultants must be able to communicate their ideas to clients effectively to make their services worthwhile.

       Communication skills can be just as important to consultants as technical expertise.

       According to O*NET Online, an information service created by the U.S. Department of Labor, oral expression, oral comprehension and written comprehension are the three most important job skills for management analysts, including management consultants.

The Client-Consultant Interaction:

  1. Before to discuss client expectations and interactions along the different phases of a project, it is useful to clarify what is the nature of the relationship between a consultant and his/her client.
  2. Different types of relationships have been articulated in the literature. As we will see, the nature of the relationship depends on the context and most particularly on the client’s perception of what represents success in a consultancy.


Accepted Models of Consultancy:

  • Most models of consultancy can be clustered in four categories on the basis of how much expertise the client acknowledges in the consultancy.
  • A sort of continuum will then emerge: it starts with “total” reliance in the consultant, ends with “total” skepticism, and passes through more balanced views.


The Client-Expert Model:

  1. The client transfers information to the consultant and the consultant ultimately hands over solutions.
  2. It assumes a consultant’s capacity to solve the client’s problem.
  3. This is a consulting-centric view, thus quite unidirectional and ideological.
  4. Nevertheless, it underscores two core reasons that made the consulting industry become so successful, which were suggested more than 30 years ago by Peter Drucker and have so far stood the test of time:
  • External consulting can be impartialbecause its agents are independent.
  • Consulting can bring new ideas because its agents are exposed to different industries/companies.
  1. Other names found in the literature (see references) for this model are:
  • The Purchase of Expertise.
  • The Mental Adventurer.
  • The Strategic Navigator.
  1. This model arises from the classicalorganization theory: it is rooted in some highly normative essays that go back to Adam Smith and some early twentieth century’s popular economic theorists.
  2. Nowadays, this theory is widely criticized for its ideological tone.


The Doctor-Patient Model:

  1. This model is more balanced in that the Client-Consultant is a joint learning process.
  2. While the expertise of the consultant is omnipresent, it refers to an expertise in management and processes rather than in the client’s concrete’s problems.
  3. The popular analogy with a medical doctor comes from the focus on the diagnosis of the client’s problem.
  4. It ensues that the consultant’s capacity to solve the client’s problems gets “constructed” by a joint effort between the client and the consultant.
  5. Both are equally resourceful for developing the solution, so it underscores the importance of developing comfort and mutual trust in the interaction.
  6. Other names found in the literature (see references) are:
    The Business Doctor.
    The Management Physician.
    The System Architect.
  • This model does not acknowledge the existence of an all-embracing consulting expertise, but does not contradict the existence of an expert system that specializes in processes, routines, strategies, and hence who possesses unique diagnostic capabilities.
  • The “doctor” will develop treatment plans; the “patient” will choose what specific solutions fit its interests.

    The Social Helper Model:

    1. In this model the Client-Consultant interaction is also a joint learning process, but simply put, the client is the expert.
    2. The consultant’s value proposition lies in the confines of psychology and sociology frameworks. It might be understood as assisting the client with solving the problem, therefore assuming no responsibility in this journey.
    3. The consultant facilitates the problem-solving journey within the organization by building on Peter Drucker’s first value: the consultant is an independent party thus it can more easily facilitate teamwork and exchange of opinions within the organization, foster motivation and acceptance.
    4. In addition, the consultant contributes to these discussions by building on Drucker’s second value: the consultant benefits from exposure to different industries/companies than internal experts do not possess, thus he/she has a unique potential for sharing new perspectives.
    5. Other names found in the literature (see references):
      The Reflective Practitioner.
      The Social Learning Model.
      Process Consultation.
      The friendly Co-Pilot.
  • The core idea in this relationship is that the solutions to the client’s problem will come from a social experiment, where it is the client who brings most of the expertise, while the consultant brings methodologies to engage experts and assist in the confrontation of ideas.
  • If the expert model is the conservative view of management theory, then the social helper model is its antipode, the “open” view.
  • This model starts questioning the legitimacy of the industry as a whole, and opens doors for critics on the value and ethics of external consultancy.

    The Pervasive Persuasive Model:

    1. Over the past 25 years a body of articles, books and even television shows (see references) started to question the value, legitimacy and ethics of the management consulting industry.
    2. A particular attention has been put on large consulting organizations. In this view, consulting is a profit-driven symbolic interaction where either the client or the consultant is a victim.
    3. Supporters who put the client as the victim report the creation of management fads and fashion ads that, together with excellent acting skills, persuade corporate executives to add value.
    4. The literature also abounds with examples where it is the consultant (or rather its reputation) which is victim of the client’s hidden political agenda, whereby the consultant is brought-in with the sole goal of supporting a predetermined outcome. The consultant becomes an extension of top management authorities and so relies on impressions and rhetorics to deliver value.
    5. Other names found in the literature for this model (see references) are:
      The Rethorician.
      The Impression Manager.
      The Dramaturge.
      The Creator of Management Fads.
  • Of course, this model shall not be used as a guide for aspiring consultants: it is an anti-thesis to good management and hence entails none of the successful management theories.
  • However, it is useful for the consultant to be aware of this view. This awareness helps understand the extreme skepticism  that he or she might sometimes face upfront, and what might go wrong in the client-consultant relationship.

    Beyond these categories:

    1. The management consulting industry is a relatively new industry: the popular concepts and methods used by consulting organizations were almost all developed within the last few decades.
    2. If consultants are to their clients what doctors are to their patients, then consulting will never be accessory nor become obsolete – but it will certainly evolve in a continuous manner.
    3. This is especially important in the Data Science field – we might be at an historical juncture when the practice of consulting has to reflect on what is based on science and what is pure impression.


    The Client-Consultant Interaction:

    • This interaction may dynamically change during the assignment, with mutual dependencies and shifting power relations developing out of simple conversations over problems and solutions.
  • Role of the Consultant (every assignment is unique and in practice the importance of each category relative to each other):
    • Provide information to client.
    • Solve client’s problem.
    • Make a diagnosis, which may necessitate redefinition of the problem.
    • Make recommendations based on the diagnosis.
    • Assist with implementation of recommended actions.
    • Build consensus and commitment around corrective actions.
    • Facilitate client learning.
    • Permanently improve organizational effectiveness.
  • Role of the Client (to its first approximation, the role of the client follows a simple sequence):
    • Select the consulting service provider.
    • Explain problem and objectives.
    • Provide information to the consultant.
    • Check up regularly to follow up on status.
    • Evaluate quality of the consultant’s intervention.
  • Recent trends:
    • Recent trends recommended in the literature indicate that the relationship is migrating away from the expert model and closer to a partnership agreement characterized by a high degree of mutual trust (toward the Social Helper model).
    • However, each case and context may present unique and different characteristics.
  • Who is the client?
    • The initial client may be an individual or management team, but as trust and confidence develop between the client and the consultant, the consultants begin to see the organization as “the client”.
    • Several references recognize the issue of who is the client is often ambiguous and problematic.
    • There are at least three categories of clients affected by the consultant’s intervention:
    1. Primary client – individual(s)/unit(s) who contract and manage the intervention.
    2. Intermediary client – all other individual(s)/unit(s) who get involved in the intervention.
    3. Unwitting client – all other individual(s)/unit(s) who may potentially be affected by, but are not involved nor necessarily aware of, the intervention.


    Key Highlights:

    1. It is relevant to clarify what is the nature of the relationship between a consultant and his/her client.
    2. Different types of relationships have been articulated in the literature. The nature of the relationship depends on the context and most particularly on the client’s perception of what represents success in a consultancy.
    3. What is the right approach that a consultant should follow? Which information and criteria to consider, specially on a Data Science consulting endeavor?
    4. Identifying who the clients are (primary, intermediate, unwitting), their roles, and the role of the consultant are crucial. Even more, under the current trends that the Data Science field presents.


    Stand and Deliver – Terminating the Assignment:

    1. Closing a project versus closing a phase of the project have in common the necessity to obtain formal acceptance by the client.
    2. At review meetings, it may be required to obtain formal authorization to proceed with the next phase of the project lifecycle.
    3. At the end of the assignment, it may be required to obtain formal confirmation that the agreed-upon service has been delivered.

    Critical Insights:

    1. At review meetings, the sense of closure is also an opportunity for the data science consultant to measure client satisfaction (so far), review scope, budget plans, and ensure access to appropriate resources and infrastructure for subsequent phases.
    2. The end of the engagement is similar to a review meeting because the end of the project does not imply the end of the relationship.
    3. Repeat assignments may benefit both the client and the consultant, financially and management wise.

    About the formal presentation:

    1. The deck, is often what represents the concretization of the agreed-upon consulting deliverables.
    2. The deck should possess certain attributessuch as:
    • Relating back to the objectives
    • Recommending realistic alternative solutions
    • Enabling the client to make informed decisions
    • Ensuring that the client will be able to proceed with the recommended course of action without the consultant.

    Conclusions first – inductive reasoning:

    • The first slide of the deck is an executive summary. It contains the key insights and conclusions from the consultant’s work.
    • It may even include the recommended course of action.
    • An inductive reasoning is most of the time better, since consultants deliver research insights and recommendations to executive officers who do not possess domain expertise and pay large fees for the delivery.
    • Inductive reasoning aims to get everybody on the same page upfront, get to the point quickly and avoid losing non-experts in data intensive presentations.
    • Members of the audience are not listening to the consultant’s presentation because they connect to science, but because the consultant will recommend a course of action that is likely to affect their professional and even their personal lives sometimes.

    Structure, explain the structure, follow the structure:

    • The executive summary should be followed by a table of contents, a.k.a. the structure of the presentation.
    • Whether the structure is hypothesis-driven or not, the problem addressed and agreed upon in advance with the client should be the starting point.
    • The issue tree that ensues from the original problem statement should be a clear and convincing structure that the audience may easily grasp and follow.
    • The form if the issue tree may vary a lot, but it should always build on the original problem statement and follow a MECE framework.
    • Keep it simple:
    • Conciseness is the hallmark of well-trained consultants.
    • The deck should convey ideas to the audience in the clearest, most convincing way possible.
  • Use (simple) visuals
    • A picture is worth a thousand words.
    • If a message may best be constructed with a series of bullet points and nothing to show graphically, it is a sign that it might not show enough of supporting data and give the impression that the message could have been put in a prior memo to save everyone’s time.
    • Document sources

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