Economies of Knowledge

Ten years ago, I was a presenter on a short-lived TV show called Saiko Exciting. It was a two-hour umbrella under which huddled pop videos, games reviews, and two anime tentpoles – Evangelion and Nadesico. Like many organisations, the Sci Fi channel had believed the hype about anime taking the world by storm, and was hence rather surprised when its anime-themed prime-time show failed to attract significantly high ratings.

So they called in a consultant.

He crunched the numbers and evaluated the footage, and delivered his report, which, as far as I could tell, amounted to a suggestion that life would be a lot easier if the channel threw out all that irritating anime crap… from their anime-themed prime-time show.

I am sure that he made other recommendations, too. One of which may well have been that the two young ladies were very easy on the eye, but perhaps that unsmiling nerd spouting anime statistics was best moved to a late-night slot where only anime fans would see him – certainly, that’s where I soon ended up. But the Unhelpful Consultant has always been something of a running gag ever since, particularly after similar encounters in my Manga Max days, with another boffin who recommended to Titan Magazines that the thing that was really holding the title back was all the stuff in it about manga.

After reading The World’s Newest Profession, I have come to regard consultants in a new light. Christopher McKenna’s book goes a long way towards explaining what management consultants actually do, beginning with the shop-floor ‘scientific management’ of the early 20th century, right through the corporate trouble-shooting of modern times. He chronicles the strange admixture of accountancy and engineering that distinguished the early consultants and shows them at work fixing companies all around the world by trumpeting new buzzwords and shaking things up a bit.

I have had to think managerially a lot more these days. Since starting my own company in 2003, I have had to think more commercially about culture and the arts, and parse ideas in terms of monetisation, amortisation and other words I may have just made up. I have long been fascinated by the early 20th century management theorists – Taylor suggesting that workmen be given bigger shovels in order to move more stuff with each heft; the Gilbreths noting that it would really help if the employees were happy; and Mayo realising that he was getting particular answers because he was there asking questions. The Gantt organisational chart, pioneered during the First World War, was soon adopted in the 1920s by numerous industries, not the least animation, where it formed the basis of the ‘dope sheet’ used to plan productions to this day. If you work in a company of any significant size, someone has sat in a room with a Power Point presentation where someone lectures them about ‘hierarchies of needs’ or ‘aristocracies of the capable’, and it has knock-on effects on all sorts of things from where the coffee machine is to what time you start work in the morning.

As readers of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis know, I often work as a consultant myself these days, as institutional memory or advising on storylines for media companies. And I like to think that people get their money’s worth. I remember once being sat in a room with a producer for a Thursday and Friday, hammering out the outline of a computer game. He went off home, and I spent the weekend typing it up. On the Monday, he had a 13,000-word story breakdown, with characters and assets. I mention this because it had been assessed at the company as a job that would have probably been possible to do in-house, but would have taken up nine man-months. Thanks to my freelancer’s blindness to weekends, he had it in two working days. This is what Christopher McKenna calls an ‘economy of knowledge’, wherein a company realises that despite the high cost (and I was not cheap), it will still work out cheaper to bring in outside expertise. It’s easy to see how that might work with writers and artists. It’s easy to see how it works in everyday life – after all, what is a hairdresser if not someone who can do it better than you, for the hour that you need her? The real trick with the management consultants of the 20th century is that they applied to managing itself – whatever your company does, however it works, they can come in and make it work better. Some companies were so sure of this that they even offered to work for nothing if their fee was not justified by the saving.

The World’s Newest Profession talks through numerous incidences of corporate intrigue and subterfuge over the last century, including the rise of NASA, which McKenna provocatively parses as a committee that sub-contracts almost everything to outsiders. He paints a picture of grim-faced men in grey flannel suits, deliberately designed to mark them out as serious players in any corporate face-off, whispering suggestions in the chairman’s ear for loopholes, tax havens and legal wriggles that can help a company shave the bottom line. Although is the profession really that ‘new’? – elements of McKenna’s narrative are uncannily similar to tales of Confucius and Sun Tzu.

Sometimes, management consultants are necessary in a corporate environment for speaking unwelcome truths. Nobody at Sci Fi was going to say that a prime-time anime show would never get a million viewers in a country of only 60 million people, with 100 other channels to choose from. Irritating though the consultant’s comments were, they seem in hindsight to be rather honest. Sci Fi didn’t ask him to fix their anime show; they asked him how to make more people watch their channel. And he pointed out, with unwelcome precision, that the ratings went down every time the anime came on.

That doesn’t tell you that anime is toxic. It tells you that the people who watched Sci Fi were not keen on anime. Someone producing an anime show was never going to like hearing that, but they got the answer they needed to hear. Of course, he would have been more useful to me if he’d offered advice on how to sell what we already had, rather than giving what was, to a certain extent, the easy answer, that we should be selling something else.

I am not sure who advised them to change their name to SyFy, though. Sometimes management consultancy really is just bollocks.

The World’s Newest Profession: Management Consulting in the Twentieth Century is published by Cambridge University Press.

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4 thoughts on “Economies of Knowledge

  1. Judging by Sy Fy’s recent standards the Saiko Exciting days were the end of the channels golden age…..sigh I remember watching classic Tenchi Muyo, Armitage III and so many other spectacular Anime releases back in the late 90s early 00s with my brother. I can’t remember the last time I watched it all it has now is repeats, a couple of B class shows and really crappy made for TV SF and fantasy movies and when I say that I mean really crappy Lord Of The Rings and Stargate knock offs

  2. apparently having a badly spelled and nonsensical name was better than being associated with those icky sci-fi nerds.

    To paraphrase Linkara, ‘poor literacy is kewl!’

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