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Negotiating imitation

This research study investigated how clients and consultants approach embedding standard practices in specific organisations.

The paper won a CMCE Consulting Research Award 2021.  The published abstract of the paper can be accessed here; the full paper is also available for a payment.  The authors' summary of the paper setting out its relevance to management consultants follows.   

Summary of research article: “Negotiating imitation”

Article title: Negotiating imitation: Examining the interactions of consultants and their clients to understand institutionalization as translation

Publication details: 2020. British Journal of Management, 31(3), pp.470-486.

Authors: Gill, Michael J.; McGivern, Gerry; Sturdy, Andrew; Pereira, Sandra; Gill, David J.; Dopson, Sue (Universities of Oxford, Warwick, Bristol, and Nottingham)

The relevance of the research to management consultancy

This research study examined interactions between management consultants and their clients in two different consulting project settings. These projects focused on embedding the practice of ‘lean’ in a Portuguese firm and developing a ‘quality improvement framework’ in a British organization. Through interviews, observations, and document analyses, the study provides insights into the processes by which such practices are imported into an organization through different stages of translation and negotiation between consultants and clients. Given this setting and focus, the research publication is directly relevant to management consultancy.

The potential value of the research to those involved in management consultancy

This research is valuable to management consultants in two regards. First, the study reveals how best or standardized practices are still translated by client organizations to ensure they ‘fit’ local settings. The successful translation of a new practice unfolds through a range of distinctive social processes associated with the negotiation of a problem, solution, or implementation. For instance, in the first stage, our study reveals how consultants and clients translate a particular client’s problem—through iterative cycles of discussion—by de-contextualizing (making a problem universal) and re-contextualizing (making a problem specific). When a shared understanding and compromise is reached, the negotiation moves on to the next stage, whereby consultants and clients gradually identify a shared understanding of the appropriate solution through processes of justifying and rationalizing. We suggest consultants can consider these processes to support their clients’ understanding the value of new practices.

Second, our study demonstrates that management practices are not imported into organizations in isolation. Instead, new practices are often accompanied by associated practices, yet these are often overlooked or taken for granted. For instance, we highlight how the practice of benchmarking, in both cases, was also adopted into organizations following their interactions with consultants. Benchmarking continued within the organizations even after the end of the consulting projects. Thus, we believe there is the potential for consultants to promote new practices to their clients more effectively by positioning them, judiciously, in a constellation of other practices. We seek to stress that clients can adopt a variety of new practices from consultants, beyond the pre-determined parameters of a project.

The potential or actual impact of the research

We believe that the two main findings of our research—(1) the negotiated stages of translating best practices such that they fit a local setting and (2) the importance of associated practices—have the potential to improve consultant and client interactions in the future. If both parties were to apply, adapt or develop our insights, they could actively engage in specific social processes to ensure a closer fit between solutions and problems. This can help consultants to convey the value of new practices. Clients may also achieve a richer appreciation of how consultants sell their expertise. Furthermore, both parties may gain further insights into the value of everyday interactions in enabling the adoption of associated practices, which are often taken for granted but that support the delivery of a project.


Monday 6th December 2021
Magnifying glass