Borrowing your watch: An apology to some consultants

I’ve always had a snarky attitude about some consultants, primarily big-name business consultants, expressed in the saying about what they do:

Borrow your watch, tell you what time it is, then walk off with the watch.

After all, why would someone hire an outsider to come in and tell them what they do?

Then I was working on the third in a series of six pieces on “The Storied Library” for WebJunction.

This one, Developing Your Story, is the second of three about figuring out what your library’s story is, so that you can tell that story (or, if you prefer, market your library) better. Part of what I say there:

You may be too close to your own library to recognize some aspects of its story: You’re a fish in a familiar river, hard-put to describe the details of that river. It’s your world.

Have you considered visiting some other river—and inviting one of their fish to visit yours? The analogy breaks down, but the idea’s sound.

A perceptive librarian at some other library may spot aspects of your library’s story that you’re too close to recognize. That’s part of what good consultants do: Tell an institution what it’s all about but is too close to see. Maybe a little free consulting from a suitable specialist—another librarian—will help.

There’s more. Heck, read the whole series (well, you can’t yet–I haven’t written the final piece yet, but will within the next four weeks or so). It’s freely available . For the moment, you can reach the story so far from here, and in any case a name search should work well.

Then, a while after I submitted the piece, the horrible truth sank in. What I was describing was just a different form of the kind of business consulting so many of us are quick to deride.

No more. I understand now that yes, it sometimes does make sense to pay someone–maybe quite substantial sums–to come in as an informed outsider to show you things about your operation that just aren’t visible from the inside.

In the interests of sending you to an appropriate Cites & Insights essay whenever possible, let me point out the Bibs & Blather from the June 2007 issue, On Being Wrong.

I was wrong in this case. Nothing new about being wrong. I continue to be amazed by the few people who will keep redefining and reiterating and recontextualizing and re-whatever to avoid admitting that, even on some small matter, they just might be wrong. I really, truly hope never to become one of those people.

3 Responses to “Borrowing your watch: An apology to some consultants”

  1. Seth Finkelstein Says:

    Somewhat tangentially, my understanding of the business consulting market is that *some* of it is based on the need for having an outsider state what is obvious to the insiders, so that the outsider is the bearer of bad news rather than any insiders. They aren’t being paid for the obvious, but rather for the politics behind the obvious.

  2. walt Says:

    Not all that tangential, and another perfectly legitimate reason to pay a consultant. Thanks.

  3. K.G. Schneider Says:

    The consulting jobs I consider most successful (for both me and the organizations engaging my services) were those where the library clearly had an issue over which they were strongly divided and needed third-party input. In many cases, the consult boiled down to one crucial question.


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