By: Jeff Griffiths, FCMC
Did consulting just have its “pond half full” moment?
For those who haven’t been paying attention, ChatGPT is an AI tool that is currently available in beta for free on OpenAI’s web servers.
Ask it a question, and it comes up with an answer, well written, and often, eerily correct. AI chatbots aren’t all that new – you’ve no doubt engaged with one via the “chat with us” feature of a consumer website. But they haven’t been very sophisticated, and it was usually pretty easy to tell when you were talking to a ‘bot’ rather than an actual human.
However, this changed when ChatGPT passed a Wharton MBA exam – and I think a lot of consultants (and other professionals, and probably “knowledge workers” in general) suddenly became very worried.
What does this have to do with lily pads?
There’s a story I remember hearing at a climate conference some years ago about ‘exponential growth’ that went something like this: A village had a large pond, the surface of which was pretty much clear, except for a single lily pad. Nobody really noticed, because it was a pretty big pond, and it was only one lily pad, after all.
But in this story, the growth of lily pads was exponential month over month – and would grow to cover the entire pond in five years – 60 months. So, in one month, there would be two lily pads on the pond, after two months there would be four, etc… and this would continue until the surface of the pond was completely covered.
None of the villagers pay much attention, because for the longest time there really doesn't seem to be anything happening. Until “suddenly”, at 59 months, the pond is half full of lily pads. And then the next month later, the surface is choked.
Until now, the ’bots’ and algorithms only seemed to be taking the jobs of lower skilled workers. ‘Knowledge workers” – because our jobs require higher levels of education and learning – thought we were immune to this sort of tech-driven obsolescence. That is, until we woke up last week and found out that our “pond” is only one or two iterations away from being completely choked.
Go to a party with a bunch of consultants (seriously, we DO have lives…) and you’ll probably hear someone complaining about having to compete with “Dr. Google” – because knowledge (which used to be our value) is available to anyone who can type a query into a search engine.
ChatGPT has the potential to be Dr. Google, on steroids. All of a sudden, consultants may not be the “smartest people in the room” anymore – if we ever were – and that should scare anyone whose main value comes from having “the answer”. But is “having the answer” really how we add value?
Peter Block discusses this in Flawless Consulting (first edition published in 1999) where he examines the shortcomings of the “diagnosis and prescription” (expert with superior knowledge) approach to a consulting engagement:
“… for strictly technical problems, such as equipment that doesn’t work or software that crashes, this might seem reasonable. It is rare, however, that problems originally defined as technical are amenable to strictly technical solutions. Often we are dealing with human systems, and human systems are not amenable to technical solutions. Human systems are complex and require more than mechanical cause-and-effect solutions. Equipment and software most often break down because people run them, people maintain them, and people ask them to do things they were not designed to do. The resolution of the problem most often requires a change in thinking and action on the part of the client, and this is the challenge.”*
Consultants whose practice revolves around the solving of the technical problem for which there is a technical solution probably should be worried. In my work with Janet Lane at the Canada West Foundation, we’ve long been banging the drum that the skills that make a person valuable are the skills that make you human.
The value that we bring as CMCs ISN’T the technical solution – in fact, that’s usually the easy part – it’s in taking what we know about the technical solution and then getting outside the process to engage with the human side of a problem, and then to create solutions that are uniquely tailored to the specific circumstances of the messy, organic world where it will need to live.
That’s not a cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all approach – it requires a great deal of proficiency and mental yoga to do this, on the fly, inside of an organization where you as the consultant have to exert influence without having actual authority. That’s something that the machines can’t do (at least not yet). For you Start Trek fans, remember that in the 24th century, it was the doctors they replaced with medical holograms, not the nurses. Knowing stuff isn’t enough.
Our certification program for CMCs includes a lot of technical training, but it also has 2 courses on Personal and Interpersonal Skills, which, let’s face it, we don’t take seriously enough.
Going forward, maybe it’s time to start paying more than lip service to this type of training?
As professional consultants, we need to embrace the technical tools that allow us to get to the bottom of the technical problem faster – and the latest machine learning and AI tools will certainly help – but we can’t stop there.
Our focus needs to shift to using that information in the context of our human skills, and our interactions with those problematic “organics” that populate our clients’ businesses, in order to deliver lasting change. That’s the real value that a professional consultant – a CMC – should be bringing to the problem, and to the extent that we do that, I don’t think we need to fear the ‘bots’ just yet.
About the Author
Jeff Griffiths is the co-founder and Managing Director of WorkForce Strategies International, a leading workforce and organizational development consultancy based in Calgary AB, whose practice focuses on helping executives understand and release the human potential in their organizations.
He is a member of the Workforce Forum for the North American Strategy for Competitiveness (NASCO) and a member of the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation Talent Pipeline Management National Learning Network of TPM practitioners, and has written extensively on individual and collective competency and the vital role it plays in driving organizational performance.A version of this article was first posted here. Learn More.
A version of this article was first posted here.
*Block, Peter. Flawless Consulting, Enhanced Edition: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used (pp. 162-163). Wiley. Kindle Edition.