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Aspects of the consultant-client relationship in the context of dealing with ignorance and the generation of innovations
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Aspects of the consultant-client relationship in the context of dealing with ignorance and the generation of innovations

16 pages · 3.51 EUR
(September 2011)

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Knowledge has long been recognised as a factor of production. A consequence of that is that the topic of "knowledge", in the context of both research and practice with relation to organisations, has been attracting increasing attention. On the contrary, there are relatively few studies on what can be defined as its counterpart, i.e. ignorance. This is surprising, given that ignorance plays a significant role, especially in situations where knowledge is insufficient or unavailable. For example, Wimmer states: ‘Nowadays, knowledge about the area of ignorance is becoming more important, especially for the top management, because there are increasingly more decisions to be made despite a high degree of ignorance.’

Assuming that decisions are always made and implemented on the basis of specific knowledge and thus also of specific ignorance, one can conclude that situations that depend on specific ignorance, which those involved in that situation may or may not be aware of, entail potentially unknown risks that become visible retrospectively. Being ignorant of ignorance (lack of knowledge and disregard knowledge) has a dramatic impact, whether in areas of health, the environment, economy, or the society at large (an example is the damage to the ozone layer by CFCs; Böschen 2000).

Ignorance often leads organizations to hire consultants. In that respect one might argue that consulting is ultimately based ‘on the assumption that the client system does not have specific significant knowledge at its disposal and that it is the responsibility of the consultant to bring this knowledge in adequately’ (von Rosenstiel 1991, 211, my translation. On consulting with relation to knowledge transfer see also Bessant/Rush 1995). However, in such situations, the sudden amount of information that consultants have to process, including the specific instructions they receive, means that consultants in their turn inevitably operate under conditions of ignorance. In view of that, the question that arises is, what are the specific functions and skills of consultants that enable them to help their clients deal with ignorance?

Consultants like to draw attention to their profound knowledge and a picture of themselves as experts. Accordingly, companies expect consultants to possess or be able to provide the needed knowledge, and to use it profitably for their clients. Knowledge becomes a prerequisite for the services of consultants; it is a pivotal element of their competence, their factor of production, their capital and expertise. Consultants have to update their knowledge constantly and adapt it to the needs and instructions of their clients. However, consultants also struggle with ignorance. Even they cannot always know everything that is needed for fulfilling successfully their tasks. There are three main reasons for this: first, in our knowledge-based economy the volume of knowledge increases at such a fast rate that even in highly specialised areas of expertise it is extremely difficult and labour-intensive to be always up to date. Second, the assignments of consultants usually concern new and very specific problems, which means that each assignment may require consultants to become experts in a new area. Third, consultants need internal company knowledge in order to develop solutions to those problems, which they also have to acquire during the consulting process. Fourth, knowledgeintensive jobs often involve drastic changes in key parameters and decisions and actions that cannot be anticipated, which means that outcomes are frequently hard to predict. Because, as the above shows, it is not clear how the consulting process develops, which unforeseen problems may arise, and so on, consultants are themselves largely confronted with lack of knowledge. Precisely because knowledge is one of their core competences and what attracts clients to seek their services, lack of knowledge is of enormous significance to consultancies. If a consultant is identified as ignorant, the consequences will be immediate and negative, which is why interviewed consultants assess ignorance primarily as a problem and a shortcoming (Dorniok / Mohe 2009). This assessment is certainly supported by the fact that e.g. ignorance in a consultant can lead to his or her competence expertise being questioned and the loss of his or her ‘consulting privilege’.

It is therefore not surprising that for consultants ignorance is a source of uncertainty. Not having access to professional and methodological knowledge while working on a project is in itself a source of uncertainty. At the same time consultants cannot expect to know everything. In any case, they operate in a state of permanent uncertainty about whether they have sufficient knowledge on the issue at hand to fulfil their tasks successfully. Furthermore, they are confronted with the uncertainty of whether their intervention will lead to the desired results. Finally, being apprehensive about the possible negative consequences of ignorance (e.g. loss of reputation, loss of expertise, etc.) also adds to their uncertainty. In the light of the above, dealing with ignorance competently is essential for a successful career as a consultant.

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the authors
Daniel Dorniok
Daniel Dorniok

Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg, studied sociology, occupational science and labour and organisational psychology at the University of Bremen. He is currently a research assistant and Ph.D. student at the University of Oldenburg. His exploratory focus is on work-life balance, ignorance, consulting and sociological theory.

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Jun.-Prof. Dr. Michael Mohe
Michael Mohe

Juniorprofessor für Business Consulting an der Universität Oldenburg.

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