Friday 22 July 2011


I have a terrible confession to make. Some years ago, I was employed for a few years by a well-respected, privately-owned American company as, take a deep breath, a consultant.

I hate the term “consultant”, not for any principled reason but because most of the consultants I’ve ever encountered have been hugely expensive, massively disruptive and utterly useless. Of course I was an exception, being naturally brilliant, talented and good-looking. That’s what I kept telling myself at least.

Actually, and here comes my defence mechanism, I wasn’t really a consultant. I had a fairly comprehensive knowledge of a particular suite of business software and was thought to be able to communicate this knowledge fairly well. Over the years I also think I developed a few skills that were also potentially useful but I think I knew my limits. I certainly wasn’t a expert on everything. Also, and this was one of my strengths, I had previously been employed by a former customer of this software company, had then been employed by them and had some real-life experience of their products.

I’ve always maintained that “consultant” wasn’t the right word for what I did. I would have preferred to be called something like a “product specialist” but that wouldn’t have been acceptable to my employer. They had fallen for the 90s fad of calling everyone other than the cleaner a “consultant”. They also seemed to think, as many companies still do, that calling someone a consultant enables you to quadruple the amount customers are expected to pay for their time.

By far the worst offenders. in my humble opinion, are those consultants wielding that business weapon of mass destruction, an MBA. Before I go too far I should say that there are some perfectly respectable people out there with MBAs. However a large proportion seem to believe, or perhaps just their employers believe, that possession of this piece of academic witchcraft allows them to pontificate on everything under the sun. I witnessed, many years ago, a bunch of MBA-stamped consultants help design the layout of a large new hospital and place the drug dependency unit, which treated drug addicts next to the hospital pharmacy. The same team placed the proposed in-patient and out-patient departments for elderly patients on opposite corners of the hospital, several floors apart.

Worse than consultants over-extending their sphere of expertise is the fact that many of them have no core expertise either. How many of them have ever actually had a real job?

Many years ago, when I was young, inexperienced and hideously idealistic and before I became jaded and grumpy I thought I wanted to be a social worker. Luckily, before committing myself I managed to get an interview with the Head of Social Work in the area I lived. You’re an excellent candidate he told me, just the sort of person we need to work in social work. Now go away he told me and come back in 20 years time when you’ve some experience of real life, then we’ll employ you. That was 25 years ago and I haven’t been back yet. However his point was a good one. In management as much as social work, the real strength someone can offer is experience, not a qualification. If I want to employ someone to advise me on how to run my parastatal, government department, hospital or private company I’ll look for someone who’s actually done it for real a few times, not just some graduate barely able to wipe his or her own, errr, nose.

Just last week Mmegi reported on the attempts that had been made by the Bokamoso Private Hospital to resurrect themselves from the financial grave in which they had buried themselves. On two separate occasions they launched “six-month plans” to get themselves back to normal. Both were catastrophic failures.

Ironically (yes, I know I’m spoiling my own argument here) it took some consultants, Deloitte & Touche (who were actually probably accountants) to point out that the management team “had operated without a well-defined operational plan or short-term cash flow forecast and appeared inadequately experienced to turn the business around”. Roughly translated I think that means they hadn’t got a clue what they were doing.

I think that’s correct and here’s an example why. Bokamoso hospital has 150 beds. If all of these beds are available every day of the year you have nearly 55,000 “bed-days” to occupy. The initial plan by the management projected that they might have 33,000 in-patients in 2013. But that simply doesn’t work out. Do the maths. In order to accommodate these 33,000 people the management would need to kick every in-patient out of the hospital, on average, after 40 hours. That’s an average remember, so for every patient staying for 4 days you’d need to kick out another two after only 12 hours in bed. And that’s before you realise that you can’t afford to employ doctors because you’ve spent all the money employing security guards to kick out the patients.

Of course I have no evidence that anyone with an MBA had anything to do with this fiasco but I wouldn’t be at all surprised, would you?

Maybe there’s a bigger problem? That, as a nation, we’re mathematically clueless. Hospital managers can’t do simple activity projections, consumers can’t calculate how much they’re being ripped off by stores that sell crap on credit and very few of us can estimate the damage done by teachers going on strike.

Maybe what our nation needs a whole lot more than consultants is a massive influx of talented maths teachers?

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