Remember the big scare of the '80s: Would America become a nation of hamburger flippers? Here we are skidding down the '90s, and the answer is in: America has become a nation of ... consultants. Nobody does anything anymore-we just talk about it.
This became official for me last week when I went to a swank Los Angeles hotel to attend a conference entitled, "How to Make Money Online." My hunch was it'd be the first conference in history with no speakers. Instead the stage was filled with consultants, peddling advice. Key insight: nobody knows shit, everyone dresses badly, details will cost you $50K.
I walked out of the session-into a swarm of consultants. My collar felt tight and I started to perspire. Fleeing outside, I nearly tripped over it, there on the street corner, between the wire newsracks with the "LA Weekly" and "XXX Swinging Singles": a box with free copies of the "Los Angeles and Orange County Consultants & Entertainment Directory."
In it is the new social hierarchy of American business, circa 1996. It ain't a pretty sight. At the bottom are the street people of consulting — one-and two-person shops, telecommuting from home to ... home. They are the lint in a vicious spin-cycle that has washed out U.S. business. The companies these people used to work for put them out on the street on the advice of ... consultants. Once out on the street, this new class of knowledge-unemployed has become ... consultants.
Smack in the middle is the petit bourgeois gathered in clamoring 10 to 20 person firms. What they have is a gimmick. They will, for example, consult to you on your annual report — so that Wall Street analysts, who can't read, don't find out that you can't write.
At the top are the aristocrats: the global management consultants. Their main concern is Strategy, a broad-shouldered term for "hot buzzword." Strategy comes dressed in pin-striped language: every aristocrat carries a matrix, model, or methodology. These "technologies" get turned into numbers: Three Paths to Market Leadership, Four Fs, Five Forces, Six Sigma Quality, Seven Ss, Eight Maids A'Milking, Nein Das Ist Ein Schnitzelbank.
For a look at the aristocrats I book a flight on the morning shuttle between Boston and New York. I step inside the flying cattle car and ... it's that LA hotel: Consultants occupy every seat in every row. They're talking in code no competitor can crack.
"Will we be working for French Fry?" asks Slicked Back.
"No, we've cooked something up for Big Burger," answers Cuff Links.
In the city I ascend to the heights of consulting: the top-floor offices of one of consulting's crème de la crème. It's Friday, dress-down day. The guys — think Doogie Howser, MBA — are in khakis and work shirts (starched). The women are in Armani-casual: soft black pants, creme-colored tops, tasteful dark shoes. I vault past the Doogies for my appointment with a full-fledged vice president, whose goal is to get to lunch: this army travels on its stomach.
We find our way to an expensive-looking brasserie, where the maitre d' calls the VP by name and shows him to his table. I look around and my collar tightens, my sweat glands activate: this morning's shuttle flight is having lunch together. The room's table-talk swirls into one consulting pitch:
"Our objectivity will help you see things in a new light." "Our methodology will help you analyze your business more efficiently." "We'll script it for you. When you present, the rest of the management team'll be blown away." "You will meet a tall, dark, woman with one white shoe."
My VP is a world-weary guy, with travel bags under his eyes dark enough to hide a Samsonite Pullman. So I gingerly approach the subject: Why do tough CEOs hire weasely consultants?
"There's the Status Symbol Factor. All the other CEOs at the club have high-priced consultants. You can't admit you don't even have one. There's the Linus's Blanket Element: CEOs need someone to hold their hands. There's the Ponzi Scheme Effect. Consultants advise a company. One of them becomes CEO — and he hires his old firm. As long as the money circulates, everybody's happy."
Our food arrives: two burgers, medium, with fries.
I turn and look at the grill in the middle of the room. The two guys behind the counter, flipping the burgers...look an awful lot like Slicked Back and Cuff Links.
The spy is a novelist living in the Pacific Northwest.
A version of this article appeared in the April/May 1996 issue of Fast Company magazine.