An Ancient Greek Philosophy of Management Consulting

An Ancient Greek Philosophy of Management Consulting

How we can introduce useful novelty into our thinking about management consulting?

Bust of Heraclitus, Victoria and Albert Museum

In this talk, David Shaw draws upon ideas from his new book, An Ancient Greek Philosophy of Management Consulting, to suggest how we can introduce useful novelty into our thinking about management consulting by incorporating into it the ancient Greek philosophers’ ways of looking at the world.

Strategic organisational change is a major part of management consultants’ business. They typically offer their clients interventions that consist of step-by-step processes for changing an organisation from one kind of thing into another kind of thing. But is an organisation a thing? And can step-by-step processes reliably change it into another kind of thing? The notion that the universe, and everything in it, consists of substance has been a dominant notion in western thought since the fifth century BCE. But organisation theorists are increasingly drawn to the work of one of the earliest Greek philosophers, Heraclitus, who believed that continually changing processes constituted at least some of what we observe in the world. From this perspective, organisations might be collections of continually changing processes, and organisational change interventions attempt to guide those processes in a particular direction.

In association with their representation of organisations as things and their rational, linear methods of intervening in them, management consultants lay claim to management science knowledge that enables their interventions to produce predictable outcomes. Yet if Heraclitus is nearer the mark than his substantial list of successors, the effects of interventions in organisations are unlikely to be predictable. Aristotle drew a distinction between the intellectual virtues of sophia, possessed by those with scientific knowledge, and phronesis, possessed by those with experience-based practical ability. Management scholars are increasingly recognising the role of phronesis in an organisational world that requires the ability to improvise in response to uncertainty and surprise.

In exploring these ideas, David develops the notion that the effort to enter into the thinking of people from a different time, and with different ways of looking at the world, may enable us usefully to re-examine the assumptions and principles that underlie our practice.

Recording of the talk

Q&A Session


Speaker bio

David Shaw is an independent researcher. He was a management consultant for over twenty years. Since retiring from his management consultancy career he has taught courses in management consulting and other management topics at the University of Greenwich Business School and the School of Business and Management at Queen Mary University of London. He was awarded a Doctorate in Business Administration by Alliance Manchester Business School for research in organisational change management. He has published papers on various management topics in peer-reviewed journals, including a series of papers on ancient Greek philosophy and management in the Philosophy of Management journal. Before embarking on a career in business administration he studied Classics at New College, Oxford. He continues to visit places where remains of the ancient Greek world can still be found whenever he can.

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