Do you believe what you’re arguing? academic versus consultancy work, first impressions.

Aug 7, 2011 by

Do you believe what you’re arguing?    academic versus consultancy work, first impressions.

Truth or interests?

Common knowledge (which a friend of mine communicated to me recently)  holds  that the main difference between academic and consultancy work is that one is objective, the other – subjective. He suggested that research was about arriving at a truth, consulting  – about serving the client’s particular interests. This huge simplification, it seems to me, tells us little about the reality of work in both places.

In American universities hardly anyone nowadays speaks of a truth. Instead, what you do in courses in humanities is  analyse and compare narratives, different accounts of truth.  In consultancy, on the other hand, the tendency is to move away from the discourse of pure material interests. An increasing number of companies focus on developing  and communicating their “narrative”, their function and purpose in the world.  One may argue how sincere this shift towards corporate social responsibility is, but the fact is that interests of others, of communities, or people in need come to play a role in corporate strategies of many innovative businesses. Speaking of a juxtaopposition “truth-interests” is therefore clearly outdated.

Arguments that connect

I would rather suggest we speak of argumentation as a methodological trait that connects both worlds. While academic work has always been based on research and  structured argumentation, communications have recently come to matter for companies , as well. Arguments, ideas and ideals gradually cease to act as mere adjuncts to money-making corporate philosophy  – they become fundamental in holding the company together. Truth, meaning and sense are no longer prerogatives of universities,  individual inquiries, family stories, they enter the professional life and the powerpoint presentations of consultants alike.

When I was in primary school, struggling with my first essays,  my father, who is a journalist, used to say: “You can make an argument in a 1000 different ways, and make it a good one. All it needs is structure and consistency.”  In other words, there are no good or bad arguments, just arguments that are well or badly made. I could not instinctively accept this. “But someone needs to BE RIGHT,  it cannot just depend on structure”, I rebelled. And yet, with time I have come to realise that the “rightness” is not located in one place, and that it often grows out of the text itself. The text is right when it is clear and when it establishes the connection with the reader.

Rationality or belief?

Humans are the only animals who posess reasoned speech (logos), said Aristotle. It was this reasoned speech that made the exercise of politics at all possible, just as it did academic research  and, in our own time, business communications. The ability to articulate arguments clearly and convincingly, rhetorics, is key to success in academia, as well as in consulting. The only difference, it seems to me, is that the arguments made in the university are primarily based on rationality, while in consulting the emotional element is often the decisive one. And that’s when belief comes into play.

In academia you may at first try and escape belief or commitment by resorting to intellectual distance, a “bird-overview” spreading from a pile of books located next to your bed.  In consultancy, distance is needed when you first analyse the problem, but once you speak to a client you should shed traces of irony, self-criticism, indecision. If you do not believe in the argument you are presenting, if you take distance to it,  you will not be able to convince others and put your plan to the test of reality. Execution of a plan is not just  functions of the rightness of an argument, but of your position towards it. In a way, your own conviction may make your argument right: if you convince your client to apply your  solution and it proves successful, your argument was right. In corporate world, the rightness of an argument is measured by  its success  in practical application.

Action or reflection?

It sounds right, but is that true? What happens if we take this idea seriously? Do YOU agree?  Why does it matter? Despite the tendency to wrap youself up in academic abtractions, such questions woke me up more and more often as I moved through the graduate school.  They forced me to look up from my books, use my  sense, instinct and experience, not just  rationality, and say what I think. Such question help you cross the line of objective inquiry and subjective belief, of intellectual exercise and commited argumentation.

And yet,  I still struggle with this line. I walk uncertainly on the thread hung loosely between academia and consulting, falling to the left and to the right, finding no balance.The more I read and analyse, the more cautious I  become of believing. And yet, the more presentations  and strategies I think of, the more I realize how much potential there is in conviction, in committed argumentation. Potential for action, for change and for the establishment of one’s  self-esteem, based not just on talents, script or diplommas, but on experience of changing the state of things.

Responsibility and stepping out of the text

After two years in America, the sentences like “I have a dream”, “make a difference”, “there is no change without belief” entered my bloodstream and still claim attention, like unnurtured babies. The simplicity, accuracy and pointedness of arguments of American professors leave you in a way no choice – you cannot hide behind a complex argumentation, as you find them in so many German academic books. You need to step out of text, look at yourself, turn on the news, and enter the texture of reality.

Consultancy is therefore in some ways not such an unnatural choice for an academically minded person as some might think. There are different consultancies, that’s true, but in general it is fair to say, I believe, that consultancy is the art of argumentation focused on practical results. The world is chaotic, the rational arguments structure bits of it and introduce order, convince people and drive them into action along the arguments. Without purpose there is no good work, but without argumentation there is no purpose. Storytelling, narratives, arguments – these are all means to finding sense  and continuity in our ever-changing,  fast-forwarded life.

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