Consultant’s reverie

From The Jolly Contrarian
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In which the curmudgeonly old sod puts the world to rights.
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“The devil made me do it.” Or “That wasn’t me, that was just the darn urge that I have somewhere that sometimes takes control.” This is a very natural way of talking and there’s an element of truth in it. That is to say, a person is in fact a rather delicately poised committee—or not even something as well organized as a committee—sort of a crowd of sometimes cooperating, sometimes competing agencies, and one is just the sum total of them. And in fact, when people say, “That wasn’t me,” we very often disallow that, and say “Now, take responsibility.” As I put it in Elbow Room, if you make yourself really small you can externalize just about everything.

Daniel Dennett, Free Inquiry, Fall Issue, 1995.

Privatisation and outsourcing are really articulations of the same idea: that organisations should get out of all activities that are incidental to their core activity. If understood as “getting out of activities that they don’t do very often, and therefore aren’t very good at” this makes some sense: this is the sort of specialisation that markets have evolved to handle. A writer is best at writing, only needs cover art every so often, when there is something to publish, so should leave the job of designing book covers to someone who is good at it, who handles it for hundreds of dilettante artistes, and therefore does it all day long, every day. A specialist.

This can easily morph, and has morphed, into some abstract inquiry into what is of the essence of an organisation, and that anything not of that essence, however significant a part of the organisation’s daily operation, should be privatised. An investment bank is, abstractly, an institution for allocating capital, and not the adjacent business of negotiating legal contracts under which it can manage that capital allocation, notwithstanding that that is a monstrously complicated and time-consuming process, and occupying literally hundreds of people full time, and it requires intimate and sophisticated understanding not just of the capital markets and legal concepts, but of the operational, regulatory and organisational fundamentals of the business. This is a core activity, and hollowing it out and passing it to external consultants — even magic circle law firmsweakens the organisation, and makes it dependent on those external consultants.

See also