Draft magazine piece. Comments welcome.
In the late 1950s, a young engineer by the name of Douglas Engelbart made a decision that was to have a immense effect on all of our lives. Engelbart realised that the massive challenges faced by humanity, such as hunger or nuclear war, would place unprecedented demands on our thinking capacities – indeed, they may be so complex that our finite human brains may be unable to find solutions. With youthful idealism, he wondered how he could fix this problem.
As an engineer, his natural inclination was to build something – in this case, something that could expand our innate thinking capacities, much as a shovel or an excavator can greatly extend our digging capacities. In short, his mission in life became building tools which augment human intelligence. Over the following decades, he and his co-workers developed the key aspects of the personal computer, including innovations such as the mouse, hyper-linking and videoconferencing. Via Apple and Microsoft, these innovations rapidly became a standard part of every office worker’s equipment.
These days it seems hard to imagine how a management consultant could function without spreadsheets, presentation software, email, and so forth, all incorporating the basic functionality developed by Engelbart. These tools obviously help speed up various activities, thereby helping us get more done. An email or an instant message is immensely faster than “snail mail,” so turnaround is quicker and results can be delivered earlier.
However a focus on speed and convenience obscures the most profound change here. A consultant with a spreadsheet can perform analyses that would have been practically impossible fifty years ago. The spreadsheet magnifies the consultant’s effective thinking capacities. The sum of consultant plus spreadsheet is more intelligent than the consultant – or spreadsheet – alone. This is Engelbart’s dream become reality.
Yet, as profound as the changes to date have been, they are probably only the beginning. There is still plenty of scope for human intelligence, in its diverse manifestations, to be further augmented.
This is of great significance for management consulting, since consulting is, more than any other profession or industry, a matter of applied intelligence.
It is a curious fact that the computer aids or “cognitive prosthetics” used by management consultants are for the most part the same as those used by other knowledge workers. Excel and PowerPoint are found on most office computers, not just those of consultants.
To be sure, management consultants have some distinctive conceptual tools; the McKinsey 7S framework, the BCG matrix, and the Minto Pyramid Principle are well known examples. Yet as useful as these may be, they are not realised in hardware in the way a spreadsheet is and so can’t share the cognitive workload in the same way. Bluntly, they don’t “do” anything. We are now, however, starting to see new thinking tools which dovetail well with consulting work, and which may be adopted earlier in the consulting domain than in most others.
One characteristic intellectual skill of the management consultant is hierarchical structuring. Whether it is building logic trees, issue diagrams, pyramid structures, or any other type of “tree,” hierarchical structuring can bring rigour and depth to thinking, and experienced consultants develop facility with this technique. While hierarchical structuring can to some extent be done in the head, when things get complex it helps to lay them out visually – hence the familiar tree structures on whiteboards, with sticky notes, or on-screen using presentation or drawing tools.
But these aids, while handy, have their limitations. Most importantly, diagrams created by these manual methods are not easily modified. Organising information hierarchically is a process. A good hierarchical analysis typically evolves through a number of drafts; observing one attempt suggests a better way it might be done. The more quickly you can reshape the structure, the more quickly your thinking advances. But with whiteboards, sticky notes and generic drawing tools, this reshaping can be slow and frustrating; thinking is interrupted, and thinking has lost “flow.”
New tools designed specifically for hierarchical structuring largely remove these speedbumps. When you can build and modify a visual tree structure almost as fast as you can think, the visual representation becomes like an extension of your own cognitive equipment – a “mind’s eye” that just happens to be outside the head. A consultant using such a tool produces a logic tree better and faster than a similar consultant working on a whiteboard. The net result is that the former consultant is, for practical purposes, smarter.
Another area where new thinking tools can augment consultants’ high-level thinking is in argument construction. Very often a consultant’s primary task is to provide recommendations backed by compelling arguments. Those arguments consist of information organised in evidential or logical relationships. As with hierarchical structures, when it helps to lay arguments out in diagrams when they become complicated.
Back in 1962, in a landmark report, Engelbart described a system in which a user could, on a screen, organise propositions into complex argument structures. To have envisaged such a system well before computers even had monitors, let alone contemporary graphical user interfaces, was a remarkable achievement. Fast forward to this decade, and research teams at universities and software companies around the world are exploring argument visualisation and developing new software applications for this unique task. Just as spreadsheets support calculation, new commercial-grade “argument mapping” applications are supporting argumentation.
In a consulting context, argument mapping applications can be used to construct, refine, evaluate and present the thinking behind a recommendation. The visual display reduces the cognitive load involved in maintaining a complex argument structure in one’s head alone — freeing up mental resources for the more interesting and valuable thinking tasks involved in improving or critiquing an argument.
You can see for easily yourself how powerful this effect can be. Play a game of tic-tac-toe with a friend or colleague. No problem. But then play again, this time without using pen & paper or anything similar. Each player should hold the state of the board in her mind and call out her move in turn. Played the normal way, the game is trivial. Played without visual aids, it is far more laborious and error prone.
Remarkably, consultants usually carry out one of their most central tasks – the development of clear, compelling arguments – either without a “board” at all (i.e., in their heads), or by making do with generic tools such as word processors and presentation software. It is a bit like a carpenter trying to work without a saw.
The main reason for this is that until recently the “saw” for argument construction had not been developed. Going forward, however, we will see consultants increasingly using argument visualisation to augment their inbuilt reasoning abilities. A particular benefit of argument mapping is that, once an argument has been laid out diagrammatically, simple, almost mechanical checks can uncover hidden assumptions which might be critical weaknesses in the case. Extensive research at the University of Melbourne and elsewhere has shown that practise based on argument mapping can dramatically accelerate critical thinking skill gains in university students. This suggests another role for these new thinking tools.
A major challenge for consulting firms is helping new recruits come to “think like a consultant.” There are many aspects to this, but cultivating the two skills already discussed – hierarchical structuring and argument construction – is at the heart of it. Introducing suitably-designed software tools into training can speed up the process whereby new consultants develop understanding and mastery of these skills. The intuitive visual format promotes comprehension, the interactivity supports “hands on” practice, and inbuilt assistance helps provide guidance.
Finally, using these tools can help consultants collaborate on solving tough thinking problems. Traditionally, each consultant on a team holds in her head her own “take” on the evolving state of the group’s thinking about an issue. The trouble is that each take may be somewhat different, leading to confusion, error and wasted time. A better way is to have the thinking shared in a visual display, on a screen or projected onto a wall, with every contribution immediately and transparently incorporated into the common understanding. Such software can make this happen.
Management consulting has long had a reputation for snapping up the best and the brightest. The raw human intelligence of these young minds is greatly magnified as they come to master consulting’s “tools of the trade”. Despite the kind of inertial and conservative tendencies found in any profession, this toolkit does evolve over time. The latest additions are increasingly aiding consultants in some of the most distinctive of their intellectual tasks.