The gentle art of buying, selling and using advice

 

Mick CalderBringing in yet more more consultants to advise on the meat industry structure, will be a “futile waste of time, money and energy”, writes Mick Calder.

It never ceases to amaze me that there are so many people offering practical advice these days. I noticed this first in the writing, publishing editing field where there is any number of advisors, consultants and gurus offering to improve your abilities or productivity – at a price. I suppose if you have lost your muse setting up as a writing/editing consultant at least keeps the cash flowing in a positive direction. (I have tried it and it works.) The number of advisors suggests there is a ready market for such advice.

But the writing sector pales into insignificance when compared with the business sextor. In recent years, along with the questionable reliance on the efficiency of the market ecnomy, there has been a surge in the ranks of ‘consultants’ providing all sorts of advice, and new ideas, mainly reflecting competitive market principles, to companies, industry sectors, and the government in all of its many and varied forms.

This latter increase probably bears some relation to the decline in numbers of public servants, resulting from the restructuring requirements that have been imposed, possibly as a result of advice from other consultants.

Consultants used to be independent ‘experts’ flashing some form of business management degree like an MBA which somehow gave them incredible insights as to how to advise on the restructuring, rebalancing or reorganisation their client’s business to achieve greater efficiency; actual experience in running a company or managing an organisation was not necessarily a prerequisite.

Now, consulting advice has become one of the many services offered by the major accounting corporations. They acquire information as part of their accountancy and/or auditing roles, and simultaneously they position themselves to offer informed advice on the management of the business, if and when such advice is sought. So they gain revenue streams not only from telling enterprises where they have been, but also from advising where they think they ought to be going.

There used to be an adage that if you asked a consultant what the time was, he would borrow your watch, tell you the time (maybe with a power point presentation) and then keep your watch. In other words, they would find out what you were thinking and present it to you in a persuasive manner to convince you that you were heading in the right direction.

More pragmatically, there can also be a tendency to recycle ideas from companies in other industries or countries, or even regurgitate proposals from earlier studies of the same industry. All of which suggests that there is probably a significant volume of data and ideas already in existence, and readily available to those currently employed in the industry.

But there can be a yawning abyss between theory and reality; consultants’ recommendations may be very reasonable and acceptable, but their implementation can often be problematic due to lack of commitment, or lack of funds, or just plain bloodimindedness on the part of some of the players concerned.

When the report is written and the recommendations come out it is likely the parties will wrestle with the implications and how they might be affected. Then there are questions about implementation, so finally nothing much happens; so, many reports by consultants gather dust on the shelves of corporate libraries.

I suppose the growth in the numbers and activities of consultants demonstrates that there is still a belief that external “experts” (particularly those from overseas are more knowledgeable than those already on the ground, or at least they will not be pushing their own agendas, so their advice is more objective. The reliance on consultants also shows there are sufficient wide eyed pretenders who believe the hype and pay the fees, in the hope that the gurus will provide them with the silver bullet solution.

That has certainly been the case for the meat industry which has been inundated with reports from Commissions of Inquiry, Meat Industry Task Forces, study groups and various working parties, as well as myriad consultants investigating and reviewing all or part of the industry and its problems.

As a result there have been proposals for (and sometimes implementation of) company mergers or consolidation, Associated New Zealand Farmers, national pools, Tradeable Killing Rights, Meatmark, NZ Lamb Company, Meat Industry Trading Organisation, Trial Run Holdings, Lamb Promotion Council, Meat Industry Freight Council, Beef Council, and the Meat Research & Development Council, as well as Meat Board intervention and control of sheepmeat. It is not a case of lack of knowledge; it usually comes down to lack of commitment to implementation or dissatisfaction with the outcome among the various factions of agribusiness politics.

So it is of concern to learn that the Meat Industry Excellence Committee propose to use consultants (or architects) to advise them on an appropriate industry structure or business model for the future. On the basis of previous experience the idea of hiring yet another group of consultants to reiterate known options will be a futile waste of time, money and energy.

The industry does not need external advice to come up with another solution. It needs to have a commitment from the major companies (in consultation with the MIEC and other farmer bodies) to develop a common goal and strategy with an agreed time horizon, and a business plan to implement it.

It would really only require an industry task force to determine what is achievable, affordable, does not cause too much disruption, and meets at least some of the requirements being sought by MIEC. In the circumstances, improvements in the marketing activities seems to be the most likely. The models are known and some of them are working or would work if they were implemented with serious commitment from the major players including the producers.

Mick Calder says he’s a ‘generalist’ having started in agricultural science then marketing economics and trade policy, and finished in business management and administration, with elements of bookkeeping and legal drafting thrown in. His professional roles include former board secretary for the New Zealand Meat Board and later the NZ Lamb Company. He was co-author, with Janet Tyson, of Meat Acts, a history of the New Zealand meat industry from 1972 to 1997, which makes fascinating reading (Published 1999: ISBN: 0-9582052-2-1). He has written countless other reports, newsletters and articles for magazines and newspapers. He also maintains his own blog, Agriphile.

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