By Jennifer H. Waldeck, Ph.D.//
I am a firm believer in the important role that theory and research generated in the social and organizational sciences play in consulting work. Although you may be reading this and thinking “theory?!!” “I just want fewer conflict-ridden days, easier decisions, more productive meetings, higher-profit quarters, more satisfied employees, and greater competitive advantage,” the prolific theoretician and social psychologist Kurt Lewin was correct when he famously wrote that “there’s nothing so practical as a good theory.” In thinking about that soundbyte you may have read in a textbook or heard in a lecture long ago, you may not know the context from which it emerged. Although Lewin developed many theories during his career and published many studies, he was not sitting in an ivory tower generating esoteric ideas. He was an action researcher, credited by many to be one of the “fathers” of the applied social sciences in the United States. His life’s work illustrates the reflexivity of theory, research, and practice which is also reflected in much of what Professional Consulting Associates does.
For example, some of Lewin’s later work in the mid-1940s involved a series of commissioned experiments designed to test messages for combatting ethnic, racial, and religious prejudice. His research on attitude change and group behavior suggested that people who learn by experience are more likely to change their attitudes and behaviors than those who learn primarily through lecture and reading. This conclusion led to his development of the T-Groups methodology, which is the foundation for the kinds of human relations, cultural sensitivity, and group dynamics training programs still used within organizations worldwide and facilitated by PCA trainers (but perhaps known by a different and broader set of names). Although he died suddenly in 1947 before actually working there, Lewin was the co-founder of the National Training Laboratories (NTL) Institute, which continues to be a transformative source of applied behavioral training programs and ideas about organizational development.
I share this truncated historical account to point out that the earliest consulting work of the last century was performed by some of social science’s brightest academic minds in partnership with organizations that were experiencing pressing problems. These consultants wore their “scholarly hats” to develop useful theories and conduct rigorous research, and then took it to applied settings to positively impact and transform human behavior and organizational functioning. What they learned in their interactions with practitioners—leaders, managers, laborers, administrators, secretaries—undoubtedly prompted new scholarly questions to ask and hypotheses to test. So, the relationship between a consulting firm like PCA and a professor like me is a natural.
Over the years, I’ve encountered a lot of confusion about what consulting and training really entail. Through conversations with colleagues on both the academic and practitioner sides, I have come to believe that there is this stereotype that anyone with some management experience or knowledge, basic observation ability, general familiarity with the industry of interest, and some degree of communication competence can offer consulting advice. If you’ve operated under any of these assumptions and hired a “consultant,” I’m betting you might not have been very satisfied with the results. The work that PCA does is evidence to the contrary of all these stereotypes about consultants. The team BoB and Sean Ross have built, the curriculum we’ve developed, and the programs PCA has customized for hundreds of organizations over the years illustrate intellectual rigor, contemporary thinking, and a real insight into the soul of each and every client. We know that “cookie-cutter” solutions and “off-the-shelf” programs rarely do much to address an organization’s challenges. We know that most of our clients have sat through these generic experiences in the past, and believe that they deserve better.
Truly impactful consultants understand the science, rigor, ethics, and depth of good consulting. PCA’s needs assessments and pre-session research ensure solutions and strategies designed to meet an organization’s unique needs. And overarching everything PCA does are the philosophical and ethical values of servant leadership and organization-wide human empowerment. As every consultation unfolds, what we teach and how we facilitate meaningful interactions among participants is guided by these values and state-of-the-art, research-based knowledge emerging from the fields of leadership, communication, management, organizational behavior, sociology, social psychology, and other disciplines. Everything we do, and how we do it, is directed, substantiated, and legitimated by rigorous theory and research made relevant for our clients.
Furthermore, when a client needs original research, a consultant should have the skills to do that. We can design protocols that will help clients design products, scan and assess their environment, determine performance standards, defend product or service quality, promote products and services, monitor morale, solve problems, make decisions, examine community perceptions, and more. The same research methods I rely on to conduct “academic” research help me to perform proprietary research for clients. PCA also uses valid and reliable research designs to evaluate consulting outcomes, and can show clients that their investment was worthwhile on any number of valuable metrics.
But good consultants know that clients aren’t particularly interested in dense, academic reading or talk. So, our team and all of our materials translate theory and research into working principles that can be applied to real problems in real organizations. We relate to our clients on a human level, using language they understand. We translate statistics, models, and complex material in helpful, non-technical ways that all stakeholders find meaningful and understandable. It’s a subtle thing—no one will ever sit in a PCA program and feel like they are in a boring college lecture. But they’ll be learning the most current applications of exciting scholarship emerging from the world’s most prestigious universities, labs, and thank tanks.
If your previous experiences with “consultants” have yielded a lot of talk but few meaningful outcomes, the importance of scholarly theories and research findings in the process of organizational transformation may not seem all that obvious. However, theory and research makes PCA’s work robust in key ways. As a result, we facilitate meaningful changes for our client organizations that make a difference not only for the bottom line, but for the lives of the people who work within them.
About the Author
Jennifer H. Waldeck (Ph.D., University of California, Santa Barbara) is associate professor of communication studies at Chapman University in Orange County, California. She has worked with PCA for two years in curriculum development and program design. This blog is adapted from a chapter in her forthcoming co-edited book (with David R. Seibold) “Consulting That Matters: A Handbook for Scholars and Practitioners” to be published by Peter Lang.