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Exploring discourse strategies within social contextual boundaries: How do consultants use discourse to shape the client-consultant relationship?

Author: Boris Schoenmaker Business administration: MC Student number: 2569915 Supervisor: S. Heusinkveld 30-06-2016


Preface This study originates from a previous paper during the students’ pre-master period. During this period the student became familiar on with literature regarding client-consultant relationships and the underlying social dynamics of the interaction. This spawned an interest in the variety of relationships in terms of dependency between client and consultant. As a result, the student chose to further explore the concept of dependency by selecting this subject for the master thesis.

The student (from here on the researcher) wants to thank his supervisor for continuously providing feedback during the thesis project. This has helped the researcher to become more attuned to doing rigorous research in management science.

All copyright rests with the author, who is solely responsible for the contents of the thesis including mistakes and correct referencing to other scholarly work. The MC group cannot be held reliable for the contents of the author’s thesis.


Abstract To contribute to our understanding how consultants shape the client-consultant relationship, this study researches how consultants employ discourse strategies during the interaction to influence, educate or persuade clients. Despite the recognition that consultants adopt various strategies in order to shape the relationship, research has not considered to explore how discourse strategies are defined or limited by the social context in which they take effect. The researcher advances a new perspective that combines two main perspectives in the management consulting literature. This integrated perspective explores how strategic and structural elements combined are significantly influencing the level of dependency in a client-consultant relationship.

Drawing on a critical discursive lens, this study describes how consultants use different types of discourses during the interaction to shape the relationship, while also relating these types of discourse to social contextual condition. Using interview data from 10 consultants with relationships that were established in various social contexts, the researcher identified 14 types of discourse strategies that were employed by consultants. The results describe how consultants use preliminary discourse strategies as a response to various social contexts, how discourse strategies can shape the cooperation towards consultant dependency and client autonomy, and how other strategies are related to maintaining dependency or steering towards cooperation after providing knowledge to the client. This provides a clear picture as to how consultants respond to social conditions and how they subsequently adopt discourse strategies to shape the relationship.

The researcher argues that by combining a strategic and structural perspective this study deepens our understanding of the interaction process between client and consultant. This explorative research also opens up fruitful directions for future research since adopting an integrated perspective with other research methods can provide a more parsimonious account of discourse strategies that are adopted by consultants prior to and during the interaction.


Introduction In recent years multiple streams in management literature have researched the interaction between client and consultant. Previous efforts to address the heterogeneity in client-consultant relationships has resulted in two different streams in the consulting literature. Both streams and their different conceptualizations have been much debated and offer contrasting views of the consultant profession. Theorists using a strategic perspective have placed an emphasis on persuasive strategies produced by the consultant during the interaction, while theorists using a structural perspective have placed an emphasis on the broader context in which consultancy is located rather than the consultant’s communication per se (Fincham, 1999). This contrast in streams has developed into two separate accounts that describe various levels of dependency in a client-consultant relationship.

Previous studies with a strategic perspective argue that consultants strategically use discourse strategies to characterize and evaluate actions, events and actors in the context of interaction (Potter and Wetherell, 1987). This perspective emphasizes how consultants construct client dependency through a range of strategies, seeking to characterize their relationship with the client as ‘the indispensable’ (Bloomfield and Danieli, 1995: 27) and securing a sense of control over the environment (Sturdy, 1997). In this perspective consultants are viewed as a ‘powerful system of persuasion’ (Fincham, 1999: 335), while clients are viewed as powerless and dependent (Armbruster, cited by Nikolova & Devinney, 2009). The emphasis of this perspective is regarding the consultants’ strategies which they use for ‘precisely those areas where clients have to rely on indicators of expertise’ (Clark, 1995: 118). Such strategies are comprised of ‘stories, rhetoric and images to impress clients and sell their services’ (Wright and Kitay, 2004: 283) in order to shape client perceptions, experiences, knowledge, expectations and feelings (Nikolova and Devinney, 2009).

In contrast, the structural perspective emphasizes that the context of the relationship can limit consultancy services, since organizations have differing needs for ‘consultants with different levels of confidence and operational knowledge’ (Fincham, 1999: 343). Although consultants are viewed as the main source of supply of ideas, their ideas are constrained through the clients’ political agendas (Sturdy, 1997). This limits the consultants’ ability to provide explanations, knowledge claims and intervention approaches in different contexts (Werr and Styhre, 2003). Moreover, consultants are viewed as actors that operate within power structures (ibid.) through which they are manipulated (Williams, 2001). They are pressured by various macro/external forces (Fincham, 1999) and expected to provide politically acceptable solutions (Sturdy, 1997).

The debate between these two streams continues because of the highly complex and multidimensional nature of the relationship (Nikolova & Devinney, 2009), as theorists either used a strategic or structural perspective to describe the client-consultant interaction. As a result, significant gaps in our


understanding remain on how strategic and structural elements combined relate to the level of dependency between client and consultant. This is a primary concern since an integration of the two perspectives can provide a better informed account of the role of consultancy in management processes (Fincham, 1999). This concern is also voiced in the extant literature that suggests that ‘some form of integration among the different perspectives remains underdeveloped’ (Nikolova and Devinney, 2012: 15). These authors suggest that future research can focus on creating such a framework by integrating the two perspectives into a common theoretical background (ibid.). Although a fully integrated account of these perspectives is unlikely due to contrasting underlying assumptions, it is theoretically relevant to explore how these accounts can complement each other in their view regarding dependency in a clientconsultant relationship.

There is one study by Pozzebon and Pinsonneault that has made an effort to research client-consultant dynamics with an integrated perspective. They emphasize that both elements – the strategic discourse of the consultant and the social context of the relationship – influence the level of dependency in a clientconsultant relationship. Although this study contributes to our understanding regarding the interplay of power and knowledge between client and consultant, the authors solely focused on technical clientconsultant relationships. Regardless of the limitations of their research, their approach is novel in terms of taking into account both strategic and structural factors.

To advance our understanding of the client-consultant interaction I adopt an integrated perspective that focuses on how the social setting relates to the nature and effect of discourse and how it influences the social setting as well (Saunders et al., 2015). I draw on a critical discourse lens because I want to examine how the consultant is shaping the relationship through strategic elements as a response to structural conditions that arise during the interaction. My focus is on the role of discourse on establishment and development of the level of dependency in terms of power relationships (Vaara & Monin, 2010). Moreover, I examine how discursive statements are used as a strategic resource to promote or resist change and how it influences the social setting of the relationship. (Vaara et al., 2013). Finally, my aim is to take into account strategic and social factors to outline how consultants in varying contexts employ discourse strategies in response to social conditions that arise during the interaction.

By adopting an integrated perspective, I can explore how strategic and structural elements combined shape the client-consultant relationship. Researching this gap can deepen our understanding of the social dynamics of the relationship and how these two elements together are significant determinants in the level dependency (Nikolova & Devinney, 2012). The research question therefore is: How do consultants use discourse to shape the client-consultant relationship?


This type of research is theoretically relevant since it takes a novel approach in researching the clientconsultant relationship. I aim to explore how discourse strategies are employed by the consultant as a result of social contextual conditions that arise during the interaction (Whittle, 2008). In line with previously suggested directions for future research, this type of research not only provides insight into what type of discourse strategies consultants use but also how they employ these strategies within the established social context of the relationship to re-shape power relations (Nikolova and Devinney, 2009). This can ultimately contribute to a more thorough understanding of the varying levels of dependency in client-consultant relationships.

Using 10 interviews with consultants that have established relationships in different social contexts, I identified 14 types of discourse strategies that were used by consultants and show how these strategies are employed during various stages during the relationship. These discourse strategies are comprised of various types of discursive statements, which are formulated by the consultant as a result of a social conditions that arises during the interaction. I argue that this variety of strategies develops our understanding of the interaction process between client and consultant (Nikolova, 2009).

This research makes two significant contributions to research. Prior studies with a strategic perspective demonstrate that the consultant adopts discourse strategies to construct consultant dependency. Other studies with a structural perspective demonstrate that there are contextual factors that can significantly limit the extent to which consultants can make use of these strategies. Our study contributes to this research by demonstrating how consultants shape the relationship with discourse strategies while also describing the structural element - the social condition to which the discourse strategy is adopted as a response. This contribution differs from extant literature in the sense that it takes into account how both elements combined shape the relationship through knowledge transfer or the re-shaping of power relations. Moreover, the findings broaden our understanding of the interaction process between client and consultant by demonstrating how preliminary discourse strategies are employed as a response to various social contexts, how specific discourse strategies can shape the cooperation towards consultant dependency or client autonomy and how strategies are related to maintaining dependency or steering towards cooperation.

The second contribution lies in the approach of combining the strategic and structural perspective into a common theoretical background by using a continuum. Although both streams offer contrasting views of the consultant profession, this study develops an integrated perspective that demonstrates how the client-consultant relationship is subjected to shifting levels of dependency between client and consultant, while relating both strategic and structural elements to these changes in dependency. The results demonstrate that a changing levels in dependency also changed the type of discourse that consultant’s adopted to shape the relationship.


The practical relevance of this study is that it broadens our understanding on how consultants adopt a specific discourse strategy as a response to social conditions that arise prior or during the relationship. This type of insight provides practitioners with more ‘critical language awareness and insight in their own social behavior’ that in turn takes part in shaping and changing their own relationships (Jorgensen and Phillips, 2002: 88).

In the next section the researcher outlines three perspectives on the client-consultant relationship and interaction. After also outlining the critical discursive lens the researcher adopted, the research method is described. Subsequently, theoretical implications for future research including the limitations of this study are discussed.


Theoretical background The theoretical background is divided in four sections. First and second, the researcher outlines the strategic and the structural perspective based on extant literature.

Third, the integrated perspective is described based on the interplay theory by Pozzebon and Pinsonneault. A continuum is provided that displays various level of dependency between client and consultant.

Fourth, the theoretical lens and discourse approach for this study are outlined by describing how the consultant’s discourse is analyzed and how discourse is related to changes in the wider social practice of the relationships under study.


The strategic perspective The strategic perspective views the consultant as a powerful persuader that makes the client dependent on management concepts, expertise or confirmation. The consultants employs various strategies in terms of rhetorical techniques, ways of controlling the image that the client receives and the legitimizing image of their expertise and claims to knowledge (Fincham, 1999). These strategies are exercised by consultants through maneuvers, techniques, activities to acquire relational control and to have a sense of control over their environment (Sturdy, 1997). Other accounts mention that the origin of the consultants’ rhetorical power is rooted in the superiority of their knowledge and in the rhetoric and faddishness of consultant language and concepts (Nikolova & Devinney, 2012). Their rhetorical power is not pre-determined but emerges ‘in the way meaning of information is presented, understood and interpreted by the client’ (2012: 8). This type of power is ‘based on arguments, appeals and reasons that are presented to the client’ through consultant discourse to re-shape power relations during the interaction (2012: 9).

In terms of dependency on management concepts, consultants can also create demand for their services by creating management fashions, and make managers dependent on them' (Kieser, 2002) or by manipulating ‘the client into new problems and pre-defined solutions' (Fincham, 1999: 339). Their concepts are offered with interpretative ambiguity, making the client dependent on the consultant for implementation of these concepts (Nikolova et al., 2009). Consultants adhere to the client’s need for implementation of the ‘fashion’ and that 'as soon as consultants secure one contract, they are thinking about the next one' (Bloch, 1999: 115, cited by Kakabadse et al., 2006).

In terms of dependency on expertise the client seeks consultants with technical or business knowledge (Sturdy, 1997). The consultants are seen as experts or doctors, they hold technical control while clients take on a passive role. Clients become information providers of local knowledge. Expert knowledge is one of the instruments of the consultant that allows control over certain resources and provides a high level of involvement in the project. In terms of dependency on confirmation, clients not dependent on the consultants’ expertise per se, but rather the promise of the consultant to adhere to the need of expertise (Kieser, 2002). This need for expertise stems from the insecure feeling of the managers to lose control, called managerial anxiety (Sturdy, 1997). This type of relationship thus creates the need to seek legitimization during the interaction (ibid.).


Prior studies clearly describe how the consultant employs strategies to obtain control in various contexts and make the client dependent on management concepts, expertise or confirmation. However, the limitation of this perspective is that it does not take into account structural factors that consultants have to overcome to obtain more control and push towards consultant dependency. In addition, it is unclear how consultants employ discourse strategies in order to sustain a dependency situation and how these strategies differ from making clients dependent in the first place. Moreover, less is known about how consultant experience is a mediating factor in convincing clients regarding the consultants’ legitimacy.

To address these limitations I propose that more should be known about which discourse strategies consultants adopt to overcome client control, how they sustain dependency through a change in discourse strategy and how experience is related to priming the client for expertise.


The structural perspective The structural perspective views the client as holder of positional power. This type of power is based on resources, which include the control of decision-making processes (Nikolova & Devinney, 2012). Economic power is grounded in the capacity to punish or reward actors in terms of money, credit, access or projects while legitimate power is grounded in the hierarchical position of the individual. Clients with positional power are in a favorable position to re-produce existing configurations of discourse, which means that the consultant is unable to significantly influence the relationship through discourse strategies. According to this perspective consultancy is described as a ‘limited activity, defined much more by client demands' (Fincham, 1999: 340). Prior studies indicate that consultants can be ‘constrained by their clients' political agendas and the expectation of managers to provide rational and objective solutions' (Jackall, 1988, pp. 142, 144, cited by Sturdy, 1997). In this case, consultants experience anxieties through the executives need for fresh new approaches and solutions to manage/control the organization (Sturdy, 1997).

In other cases, the client only relies on the consultants' knowledge as an additional service. Clients themselves assume an active role see the consultant as 'an extra pair of hands', providing complementary advice in a particular area of expertise (Pozzebon and Pinsonneault 2012). Clients own resources in this particular type of relationship and consider it very important that the consultant is viewed as giving value or knowledge for money and that consultancy is requested rather than imposed (Fullerton & West, 1996).

Other studies emphasize that the consultant is predominantly being used to 'alleviate the manager's uncertainty and the ability to mirror the managers' values and identity' (Williams, 2001: 520). As a symbol of 'change to come' the consultant can also serve the purpose to fulfill a client's ulterior motive Kaarst-Brown (1999). Prior studies clearly describe how the clients’ positional power prevents consultants from constructing a consultant dependent situation. However, this perspective does not describe what type of discourse strategies consultants employ to cope with dominant clients during the establishment of the relationship. Moreover, less is known about what structural factors re-enforce certain discourse strategies to shape the relationship towards client autonomy. To address this limitation I propose that more should be known about how consultants align themselves with client preferences and how they willingly or unwillingly shape the relationship towards a client that is independent of the consultant.


The integrated perspective The prior study by Pozzebon and Pinsonneault suggests that two dimensions that define the level of dependency. An important notion in their theory is that consultant strategies are limited by the initial set-up of two dimensions – power and knowledge - that ‘seem to create conditions that are likely to be reinforced over time’ (Pozzebon and Pinsonneault, 2012: 54). The power dimension is viewed as a complex set of relationships, embodied in a person (Pozzebon & Pinsonneault, 2012: 38). It is not necessarily ‘distributed’ between client and consultant but something that resides between individuals, actors and organizations which can create relational dependencies. The knowledge dimension is viewed as a dynamic, provisional, negotiated and socially situated process in particular settings (Cook and Brown, 1999). It is defined by the organization and operational knowledge of the manager .vs. the reputational and the prior knowledge of the consultant (Fincham, 1999: 350).

In terms of the development of dependency in the relationship, the relationship itself should not be seen as a fixed set of dependencies but rather as something that arises out of the interaction (Fincham, 1999). Thus, an integrated perspective should take into account that in a relationship a mutual dependency exists between client and consultant that develops during the interaction (Nikolova & Devinney, 2012).

The dependency continuum The authors have integrated both the strategic as well as the structural perspective by outlining them as extremes on a continuum, displayed in figure 1 below. On the left end of the continuum the client has a high level of dependency on the consultant in which rhetorical power is emphasized. On the right end of the continuum the client has a high level of autonomy due to structural factors in the relationship that limit the consultants’ dominance. Figure 1.


In the middle is a cooperation relationship in which all parties assume active roles as partners in the project (Pozzebon and Pinsonneault, 2012). This type of cooperation is built on the idea 'there is a balance of two dimensions, respectively power-related and knowledge-related' (2012: 37). Although power and knowledge dimensions are balanced in such a relationship, they do not have to be equal. The client and consultant can also emphasize differences in power and knowledge dimensions by giving ‘special attention to what balance or imbalance exists in terms of control, knowledge and roles played’ (2012: 54). During this type of cooperation, both parties strive for a relationship that is against any tendency to ascend or depend on each other.

Other studies inform the researcher with more detail regarding an effective cooperation in a clientconsultant relationship. One study suggests that an effective cooperation is based on ‘a mutual understanding between client and consultant on negotiated roles and on knowledge sharing' (Sturdy et al., 2006). This mutual understanding places an emphasis on the client and consultant working together on a project by sharing responsibility and accountability over the results. In terms of cooperation, consultants place high priority on the interpersonal fit with a client and the importance of establishing ground rules with the client for the consulting process, while providing tailor-made solutions for the client. The client on the other hand places a high priority on having a clear picture of the desired results and tends to own their own problems and have clear questions for the consultant (Fullerton & West, 1996).

Prior studies clearly describe how a cooperation between client and consultant is comprised of shared responsibilities and clear tasks for each individual in which power and knowledge dimensions may or may not be equal. However, less is known about how consultants adjust their discourse based on differences in power and knowledge during the establishment of the relationship. Moreover, what is also unclear is how consultants employ strategies to deal with structural factors set forth by the client to limit consultant dominance. Additionally, it is unclear how the consultant establishes an effective cooperation after the client has become dependent on consultant knowledge. Especially important in this gap is that it is unclear how knowledge transfer mediates this process, since when ‘clients become more knowledgeable they start to assume more control over the project, decreasing the legitimacy of the consultant as a result’ (Pozzebon and Pinsonneault, 2012: 48). In other words, knowledge transfer is related to the development of dependency since it mediates ‘the development of power relations between the two parties’ (Nikolova & Devinney, 2012: 4). To address these limitations I propose that more should be known about how consultants shape the preliminary relationship as response to client conditions, how consultants use discourse strategies to steer clients towards cooperation after being in a dependency situation and how knowledge transfer is related to this process.


Client-consultant relationships on the continuum of dependency Various conceptualizations of dependency and autonomy have been found in the extant literature. The researcher has described three types of perspectives regarding the client-consultant relationship. The integrated perspective includes the strategic and structural perspective by displaying these perspectives as extremes on a continuum. Based on the integrated perspective, the researcher has outlined a total of nine sub-relationships that display various facets of dependency in a relationship. This outline – used as a sense-making tool during this study - provides the researcher with second order codes that indicate the level of dependency in the relationship. In this sense, the second order codes serve ‘as an orienting map . . . to highlight important features [the level of dependency in the relationship] . . . defined by the researchers’ theoretical perspective (Handley et al., 2007: 4 – words added).

For example, a coaching relationship can start as an imbalanced relationship since the client is missing knowledge. This can result in a consultant dependent situation on expertise. After providing knowledge the consultant steers the relationship to a mutual understanding on cooperation, which reduces the imbalance in the relationship in terms of knowledge. This example displays how the relationship can develop through various sub-relationships during the interaction.

Table 1. Type of relationship

Sub-relationships

Conceptual relationship #1

1. Dependency on management concepts/implementation

Consultant dependency

2. Dependency on expertise 3. Dependency on confirmation

Conceptual relationship #2

4. Constrained consultancy

Client Autonomy

5. Symbolic consultancy 6. Pure consultancy

Conceptual relationship #3

7. Mutual understanding on cooperation

Cooperation

8. Imbalanced cooperation 9. Equal partnership cooperation


Theoretical lens and discourse approach First the researcher describes how prior accounts have conceptualized discourse. Second, the researcher explains how discourse is analyzed in this study. Discourse can be conceptualized as a tool that is shaped by its own expression, being ‘language . . . reflecting social order but also language shaping social order, and shaping individuals’ interaction with society’ (Coupland, 1999: 3, cited by Thomas, 2003: 776). Similarly, Mantere and Vaara argue that discourse is ‘socially conditioned and socially constitutive’ (2008: 7). This means that discourse not only reflects the social reality of that particular relationship, but can also reproduce, strengthen or recast power relations (Fairclough, 2003). Discourse has been often researched in light of the ‘social construction of power relationships and social order’ (Philips and Hardy, 2002, Fairclough, 2003, cited by Vaara & Monin, 2012: 7). A well-known approach is the CDA approach that can be used to see how discursive strategizing is part of organizational politics and power play (Vaara & Monin, 2010: 2). The CDA approach assumes that if the relationship is maintained, the actors draw on a system of discourse that is based on a relatively autonomous social domain obeying a specific logic while drawing on different types of discourses is related to changing levels within that social domain (Jorgensen and Phillips, 2002: 72). This type of approach has been widely used by scholars to research the discursive construction of power relations in relationships (Mantere & Vaara, 2008).

This study is interested in how power relations can provide actors with access to different discourses to shape the relationship (Jorgensen and Phillips, 2002). I adopt a CDA approach for the analysis of discourse because I want to analyze the consultants’ use of different discourses throughout the relationship and link these discourses to changes in the social practice. I posit that I can theorize on how these statements relate to changes in the level of dependency in that particular relationship while also describing structural elements of the relationship. In order to do so I must focus on placing discourses outlined in interview situations to the societal and cultural context’ in which they are articulated (Merilainen et al., 2004). This way I can explore how that particular type of discourse is used in response to a social condition that arises during the interaction.

Second, by using the CDA approach I can deduce overarching categories of discourse strategies, used in various relationships. First, I can identify discursive practices used by consultants and group them into discursive categories. Then I can compare these categories with the development of each relationship by comparing the categories with the second order codes that indicate how each relationship under study has developed. After comparing these two elements I can relate the discourse of the consultant to changes in the level of dependency by demonstrating how consultants use these practices as ‘strategies’ to overcome social conditions that arise prior to or during the interaction.


Research design Interview study To determine how consultant shape the relationship with their discourse, the researcher conducted an interview study with 10 consultants. An interview study has two main benefits in relation to the research question. First, an interview study allows the researcher to ask direct questions to consultants in various contexts. Since it is important to consider the context in which the consultant’s discourse is situated, an interview study provides a suitable method to understand decisions and actions ‘within multiple contexts that are under research’ (Myers, 2013: 5). The second benefit of interviewing is that the data can contain different responses from different perspectives. Since the researcher is interested in various relationships within social differing contexts, different responses from different perspectives can provide a rich data set and increases the comprehensiveness of the data as well (Patton, 2002). Thus, with interviews the researcher can select multiple relationships to obtain unique data patterns on how discourse is used within the social context of the relationship.

If the research would be interested in a detailed and rich description of one specific relationship the researchers would opt for a longitudinal study to observe the consultants’ behavior during the interaction. However, case studies are extensive and time consuming for 10 different relationships. Therefore, interviews provide a more effective and less time consuming method than a longitudinal case study to compare multiple relationships with each other.

With regard to understanding the social context, interviews are limited in terms of objectivity since the collected data contains experiences and subjective situations, described by the consultants of how they experienced the establishment and development of the relationship. Although these consultants describe their relationship according to their perspective, this should not be seen as a source of bias for this study. Rather, this type of interview can shed light on how consultant’s themselves think and act in certain situations and how they respond to structural factors that ultimately influence how they use strategic discourse to shape the relationship.


Research context and sampling method The unit of analysis are consultants that can describe the social context of the relationship, the establishment and development of the level of dependency while providing examples of discursive statements. By using a selective sampling method the researcher can interview consultants that can offer a diversity in perspectives to provide a rich data set (Boeije, 2009). In terms of the sampling strategy, the researcher has adopted a maximum variation approach by selecting different consultants who have a relationship that is established in varying social contexts. The researcher used the snowball method to ask interviewed consultants if they knew a consultant in a different knowledge sector and social context who was also willing to be interviewed by the researcher. By maximizing this variety of different social settings, the researcher created a fertile ground for exploring relevant categories of discourse strategies used in various social contexts. Figure 1 displays the relationships of 10 different consultants. Figure 1.

Maximum variation is achieved by collecting data on various types of relationships while also providing variation within that category (differences in the social context of each relationship in that particular category). The social context of each relationship describes how the client can be in need of coaching (with or without knowledge transfer), in need for autonomy, in need for technical expertise or in need for management concept expertise.

Data collection To increase the comprehensiveness of the data the researcher approached the interview in a specific sequence of topics by using an interview guide (appendix I). At the start of the interview, the researcher asked the consultant to describe their relationship as a narrative, which provided the researcher with a chronological story. The applied method of this study is not a narrative analysis, it is however used to chronologically gather specific data on two elements central in this study: the sequence of discursive statements throughout the relationship and the changes in the level of dependency. During this


narrative the researcher emphasized to the consultant to provide examples of discourse that were used during the interaction with the client. First, consultants were questioned regarding the acquisition and the social context of the relationship to obtain contextual information. Subsequently, the researcher asked questions regarding the establishment and development in power and knowledge dimensions in the relationship. While asking these questions the researcher kept in mind how consultants used discursive statements during the interaction, resulting in the re-shaping of power relations or knowledge transfer in the relationship.

Data analysis In the analysis of the data the researcher focused on how the consultant’s discourse was framed within the social context and how this influenced the level of dependency. After collecting data, the researcher started the analysis by ascribing informant-centric first order codes to initial segments of the data (Miles et al., 2014). Codes were ascribed to segments of the data that were regarding social contextual factors, relationship changes and examples of discourse. After coding the transcripts the researcher used an iterative approach to link these first-order codes to second order codes by moving back and forth between the data and the theoretical background (Gioia et al., 2012: 18). This provided an initial sketch of how the relationship was established and developed in terms of dependency. An example of a relationship is outlined below.

Subsequently, the researcher complemented this graph by adding how changes in power and knowledge dimensions were responsible for changes in the level of dependency in the relationship. Power dynamics and knowledge transfer thus mediated the development of dependency.


In the third phase of the data analysis the researcher started the critical discourse analysis in order to show the link between discursive practices and the broader social and cultural developments and structures by complementing the graphical display with discursive statements made by the consultant during the interaction (Jorgensen and Phillips, 2002). The researcher was less focused on providing a detailed micro-linguistic analysis of discourse while focusing more on discursive practices and the relation to the wider social context of the relationship. Therefore, the researcher has excluded the textual dimension of the CDA framework so the analysis is ‘tailored to match the special characteristics of the study’ (2002: 76).

The first step in the CDA analysis was identifying discursive statements and group them into categories of discursive practices. The discursive practice dimension analysis of each relationship focused on the nature of the discourse (who, what, where, when). A high level of inter-discursivity (what discourse the consultant draws on) can be found in the graph below, which indicates that the relationship is changing in terms of dependency. Analysis of inter-textual chains of texts focused on the change in discourse structures that consultants employed during the interaction. After outlining the different discursive practices that were used by the consultant in each respective relationship, the researcher focused on the effect of these sequences of discourse in relation to changes in the wider social practice dimension. The researcher complemented the graph by outlining how the discursive statements of the consultant were re-shaping power relations or transferring knowledge during the interaction, ultimately influencing the development of the level of dependency. After analyzing all relationships under study the researcher synthesized overarching categories of discourse strategies that were used by consultants.


Results Using a critical discursive lens, the researcher details how the initial social context and other social conditions that arise during the interaction are significant determinants in the strategies consultants adopt. The researcher identified 14 discourse strategies that were used in various social contexts prior or during the interaction. Table 1 provides an overview of the various discourse strategies that consultants employ. Table 1. Discourse strategies (prior to cooperation) Sense-making

Conception of discourse strategy

Social contextual condition (if)

Define problem statement

Unknown problem statement

Deflecting Alignment Provision

Resist initial client control Drive client control Provide additional value or knowledge to the client

Client preferences Client preferences Client willingness to receive additional knowledge

Discourse strategies (during cooperation) Hooking Imposing

Conception of discourse strategy

Social contextual condition (if)

Create consultant legitimacy Pressure the client regarding strategy and allocation of resources / decision making prerogatives Steer the client towards autonomy by asking questions Steer the client towards autonomy by providing control Steer the client towards consultant dependency

Client need for consultant legitimacy Client reluctance to listen / provide control

Conception of discourse strategy

Social contextual condition (if)

Employed to inform the client and transfer knowledge Employed to increase client responsibilities and capabilities Employed to establish an interpersonal fit with the client Employed to sustain dependency on expertise

The client is dependent on knowledge

Mirroring Allocation Expert

Discourse strategies (during dependency) Educating Empowering Personalizing Maintaining Transforming

Employed to transform the relationship in terms of dependency

Client need for autonomy Consultant willingness to provide autonomy Client willingness to act on the recommendations / advice

The client is insecure regarding personal capabilities / readiness to change The client is seeking additional knowledge / in need of a personal soundboard The client is not interested in the transfer of knowledge / not able to absorb knowledge The client is dependent on the subsequent implementation of a management concept


Discourse strategies prior to the establishment of the relationship The researcher identified four types of discourse strategies that were used by consultants prior to the establishment of the relationship. During this stage of the relationship, the social context is a significant determinant for the type of discourse strategy consultants adopt. For each strategy, the researcher describes the social situation in which the consultants adopts a specific type of discourse to establish the relationship.

Sense-making Sense-making strategies are employed to understand the client’s problem when the problem of the client is unknown. This type of strategy is focused on increasing the power dimension of the consultant through the obtainment of local knowledge.

In coaching relationship #1 the social context indicates that the client lost her initial position as a linemanager in the organization. In her new function within the company her ways of working did not fit her new job description. As a result, she lost confidence in her fulfillment of the position. Someone advised her to talk to the consultant about her problems. This led to the consultant adopting questioning discourse to understand her insecurities and her problem: “What do you expect from me as your coach and with what do you require assistance?” (#1)

Similarly, in coaching relationship #2 the relationship came about when another organization recommended the consultant from a previous assignment. The previous assignment was also regarding information and IT management. The consultant did not actively acquire the assignment but was invited to have a meeting with the CIO. After talking about his problems the consultant realized the imbalance in the relationship: “I noticed that he did not know what I was talking about, the knowledge gap was very big.” As a result, he used questioning discourse to understand what type of knowledge the client required: “I asked him how he would approach things, to understand what his situation is” (#2).


Deflecting Deflecting strategies are employed to resist initial client control when the client displays preliminary preferences. This type of strategy is focused on re-shaping power relations through consultant power play and resistance of client control.

In expertise relationship #1 the relationship was established after a jurist recommended the consultant to the client after hearing that the organization was in need of a consultant in information security. The organization was looking for a consultant to obtain an ISO certificate in information security. In the first meeting the client was testing the consultant financially because the client did not want to invest a lot of money. This led to the consultant adopting bluffing discourse to resist initial client control: “I can find a lunatic for you that is willing to risk his reputation for that, but it isn’t me” (#1) “You will have to invest anyways. Getting that certificate against minimum effort is going to cost you 50 to 60 grand. What you get back for it is a piece of paper and a big sticker on your forehead. When you invest 80 grand in this certificate you could get effective information security and you could render the first 50k as well. In your field of business the risk of privacy is extremely high, I foresee big risks so I think it is wise that you sleep on this for one more night.” (#1) “Congratulations sir, I can only congratulate you because I won’t even do it for double the price. Goodbye” (#1)

Similarly, but in a different type of relationship (organizational change relationship #2) the organization invited the consultant for a twofold problem: “They wanted to spend less money and change the management of the organization.” Their solution: “They wanted to work towards self-steering teams that required less management.” The consultant was selected for this assignment through the ministry who went to look who could help this organization. A solution was already provided by the client organization to be implemented. This also led to the consultant resisting initial client control by taking on a critical stance regarding the pre-defined solution, which led to the consultant adopting direct discourse to gauge the solution: “What is really going on? Is that really the problem?” (#2) “Did you go deep enough into your analyses and are you making the right diagnosis?” (#2) “Ask them directly, crystal and clear what the meaning is and what is required.” (#2)


Alignment Alignment strategies are employed to drive client control when the client displays preliminary preferences. This type of strategy is focused on re-shaping power relations by providing client control.

In organizational change relationship #2 the organization invited the consultant for a meeting after he was recommended by the project manager who knew the consultant from a previous assignment. The reason the organization wanted to fuse was that it saw an opportunity in reducing costs. In addition, the quality of the service could also be improved by selecting a new ECD. However, the client organization was having trouble with the battle between the two blood types: “She was missing the expertise in IT to do something with this” This led to the consultant adopting fitting discourse to focus on the fit between his expertise and the organization’s needs: “I have sat down with the board and the client and met up with two managers to come to a decision for both organizations.” (#1) “I think I can advise you, let’s see what the points are between the issues you have and the expertise I can offer.” (#1)

Similarly, but in a different type of relationship (project management relationship #1) the preliminary phase of the project was already discussed by another consultant who acquired the assignment: “We already knew what we had to do. Our partner had already discussed the project” “The roles in the project were already clear.”

As a result, the consultant used optionality discourse to sketch the situation for the client and how they thought about approaching things, asking the client for input as well to align their interests: “We have a few options, we can do this but then we have that. Or we do this. What do you think?”

In a different project management relationship (#2) the client already had a competing organization to execute the build of a new reactor: “He said that it was already decided that it would be somebody else to build the plant. He said no point in talking about it. You’ve wasted your time.” The social context put the client in a position with choices regarding the execution of the project. As a result, consultant used sales discourse to convince the client to hear them out: “Since we have come all the way, please listen to us. Then you can still decide.”

During this meeting the consultant wanted to align their working method with the preliminary preferences of the client: “Together we made a presentation in which we highlighted about that particular technology and plant, what the problems are that many clients have faced and how what we do overcomes those things.”


Provision This type of strategy is employed to provide additional value or information to the client when the client is open to receiving additional knowledge. This type of strategy is focused on increasing the knowledge dimension of the client by sharing consultant experiences. In expertise relationship #2 the relationship was established through a network: “The client asked around who he could use for his assignment, I was somewhere on the shortlist.” During the first meeting the client was looking for expertise on a particular subject: “A part of his business started with mobile phones, SIM cards and product management, set up a portfolio and technically specify and develop the mobile network.” After providing value to the client: “We looked at what he needed and what else I had to offer.” This resulted in the consultant adopting value adding discourse during this period to provide the client with advice on a broader range of knowledge topics, discussing other aspects of the relationship as well: “We discussed about other conditions that are important for the company besides the business aspect.” (#2) “I asked him if he had any other roles for me to which I could conform myself as a person. As in I would like to work for that company.” (#2) He also already tried to give value in the form of free advice regarding the clients’ plan in Africa, based on previous experience. “They don’t have money there, you need to set up social projects to gain support.” (#2) “Wanting to add value makes you interesting for such a party by talking about it.” (#2)

In a different type of relationship (coaching #3) the relationship was established through an organization who linked the consultant to the client for services: “He came to through an organization helping people look for work.” The client had to provide a lot of preliminary information regarding his life and job experiences: “I already have information about him from the organization. He came to me with questions about his career path.” The social context provided the consultant with a lot of information regarding the client’s history and job experiences through an intermediary organization, which made him use personal storytelling discourse to even the gap in terms of knowledge regarding each other: “I introduce myself thoroughly with a story in which I tell about my development.” (#3)


Discourse strategies during a cooperation relationship The researcher identified five types of discourse strategies that were used by consultants during a cooperation relationship. During this stage of the relationship, the social situation and the type of discourse that consultants used determined whether the relationship moved towards consultant dependency or client autonomy.

Hooking Hooking strategies are employed to create consultant legitimacy when the client indicates a need for the consultant to provide tailor-made solutions. This type of strategy is focused on priming the client to receive expertise or by creating a common future image:

In coaching relationship #1 and #2 the consultants used interpretation / experience discourse to clarify the client’s problem, based on previous experience and local knowledge provided by the client: “To give you back my words, this is how I understood your problem, but read it critically” (#1) “I want to make sure and clear that I understand your situation” (#1) “I wrote him a letter in which I tried to make order in his chaos. I told him what they were supposed to be doing” (#2) “I convinced him of my personality in terms of organizational sensitivity, being able to assess what the organization needs, how to guide such an organization towards a solution. As a consultant you have to place yourself in the psyche of the client.” (#2)

The consultant in organizational change relationship #2 used sensitivity discourse in the organization to create readiness for change in a certain direction. By making them consciously incompetent he also created consultant legitimacy. By asking upper management questions he tried to make sure that they had the same future image of the organizational change: “What I do, is make them consciously incompetent, only then I can provide direction. Providing knowledge and skills is only successful when someone is looking for it.”(#2) “You can originate, for which you need to ask questions. Ask them what if, without any obstruction, what would the preferred result be?”(#2)

In a different relationship (expertise #2), the consultant used inquiry discourse to obtain more information on the activities of the clients’ organization, asking additional questions about issues that he thought was important in order to create a common future image as well: “He told me what I wanted to know, the market, the way he saw his company develop, what he wanted to achieve.” (#2) “I wanted to know about corporate social activities, environmental issues, due to a broader interest after my experience in Africa.” (#2)


Imposing Imposing strategies are employed to pressure the client regarding strategy and allocation of resources / decision making prerogatives when the client is reluctant to listen / provide control to the consultant. This type of strategy is focused on re-shaping power relations through consultant power play.

In organizational change relationship #1 the consultant used critical discourse to steer the client through the selection process of a new ECD. The consultant focused on the reason and goal of the fusion to make the client listen to the consultant: “What are your wishes and means? Regarding IT but also in terms of organizational strategy?” (#1) “Why are you going together? What do you want to achieve as a fused organization?” (#1)

In a similar relationship (organizational change #2) the consultant used to colored discourse by adjusting his words to the color of the management so they would listen. The board as his direct client was mainly orange, a color he knew how to satisfy during a change process: “When I knew their drive/incentive I also knew the vocabulary to tell them a logical story from their perspective.” (#2) “The orange color, most seen in the board, is not interested in how you do it but what it delivers. By putting KPI’s in my approach, measuring, monitoring, that you achieve the preferred result is for that color very important.” (#2)

In expertise relationship #1, the consultant pressed the CEO in private regarding the availability of resources for the project in order to obtain more control: “This way you are not getting there. You need to shift gears. Either you will add resources or we will have to quit.” (#1)

Still being reluctant, the CEO ignored the consultant who then subsequently switched to pressing discourse during a TMT meeting to strong-arm the client into providing more power to the consultant: “I have indicated to you that we could do this, given some conditions that are currently not fulfilled. It’s really simple, if you do this right the certificate is going to earn you a lot of money. If you don’t, you won’t be on the shortlist of big corporates within two years. Getting this certificate is going to cause you pain and cost you money. You won’t be able to sleep because of it. But you are going to do it and if you do I will promise you that in the big corporate segment this certificate will become your unique selling point” (#1)


In a different type of relationship (project management #1) the consultant used conflict discourse to pressure the client regarding the strategy: “I don’t think we should do that. I think that is counterproductive to what we are doing.” “I told her this wasn’t right, this will give the wrong message.” (#1)

Similarly, the consultant in expertise relationship #2 also used conflict discourse as the consultant felt involved in the wellbeing and direction the organization was moving in: “I told him that I really didn’t agree.” (#2) “I had a lot of discussions with him about his strategy and how he wanted to implement that.” (#2)

Mirroring Mirroring strategies are employed to steer the client towards autonomy by asking questions when the client is in need of acquiring knowledge through self-learning. By asking question that the client is answering the consultant is providing knowledge in context and self-knowledge to the client. This type of strategy is focused on increasing the knowledge dimension of the client.

In coaching relationship #1 the consultant used independent thinking discourse to let the client answer her own questions and improve her independent ways of working: “I can give you answers all the time but it’s time you find the answers yourself” (#1) “If you are in a conversation with a manager and he reacts like this, what do you say?” (#1)

In another coaching relationship (#3) the consultant used guiding and spiritual discourse to guide the client to look for things that are important to the client in terms of being happy and contend: “Who are you, what can you do and what do you want to do?” (#3) “What makes you get up in the morning to do something in the world?” (#3) “What is your ideal job?” (#3) “I don’t have any other leads, at least not in this life. Could it be that it is something from another life?” (#3)


Allocation Releasing strategies are employed to steer the client towards autonomy by relinquishing control when the consultant is seeking to provide independency to the client. This type of strategy is focused on reshaping power relations by providing client control.

In project management relationship #1 the consultant began to ask independency on the client in terms of project management by using autonomy discourse: “I told the client to put project management in their hands.” “I would like you to handle project management. We can support you but it is your company. I would appreciate it if you could take on a more active role.”

The consultant was habituated to use this type of discourse since the motto of the consultancy company is: “Show it ourselves, do it together, do it yourself.”

Similarly, in project management relationship #2 the consultant adopted flexibility and solution discourse to emphasize the benefits of working with his organization and to adhere to the clients’ needs by relinquishing control: “What you want to put in it and we will do it for you”. (#1) “If you deal with us, we were not that big and rigid so it would be easier for you to get it executed through us.” (#1) “We said we will work out a way that the similar quality is provided. We will put efforts to qualify that organization, to train that manager to understand the needs of this equipment and thus lower the price.” (#1)

In a different type of relationship (expertise #2) the consultant used stakeholder and helping discourse to support the client while providing independency: “I am available for calls and I am now an investor so I have my interests.” (#2) “All the theory is worked out, this is what we are going to do” (#2) “I am showing my good will with this and that I believe in this company, I am here to support you.” (#2) “I show my good faith in the company. If there is any need for expertise, call me.” (#2)


Expert This strategy is employed to steer the client towards consultant dependency when the client is willing to act on the recommendations / advice of the consultant. This type of strategy is focused on re-shaping power relations through consultant power play.

In coaching relationship #1 #2 the consultants used expert discourse. Consultant #1 used expert discourse by telling how the client should fulfill her activities in her new position while consultant #2 switched to expert discourse to tell the client regarding how he would help him: “I am going to tell you how you should behave in your new project situation”. (#1) “I said to him I would help him how to manage the IT structure, work out parts of the plan and organize workshops. From organizing to execution” (#2)

In another relationship (organizational change #1) the consultant used expert discourse to influence the organizations’ choice on how to select a new ECD: “That’s when I said do you think that is wise? The question we have is we are looking for an ECD that fits our needs.” (#1) “The new IT structure has to fit the fused organization and not only blood type A or B by creating a synergy between different forms to support your primary process.” (#1) “I think it would be wise to select a solution that supports one organization and is willing to develop a solution for the other and vice versa. Look for that.” (#1)

In expertise relationship #2 and #3 the consultants also used expert discourse to exercise influence in the steps the organization would take (#2) and in a private conversation with the client after the presentation at the congress (#3): “We talked about the technical conditions for some time, how to tackle the issue.” (#2) “We talked about the strategy, what direction the company wants to go to.” (#2) “We talked to him about the presentation and the management drives.” (#3) “I had some sessions with his team to see if we could improve the team-functioning and after that he said I want to do this with my team leaders as well, going for the third and fourth session.” (#3)

In project management relationship #1 the consultant also used expert discourse by taking the leading role: “We took the client through what we did by discussing the pilot and presenting ourselves as experts.” “We told her step by step what we did, were planning to do and what the bigger picture was. We took the leading role.”


Discourse strategies during a consultant dependent relationship The researcher identified five types of discourse strategies that were used by consultants during a consultant dependent relationship. During this stage of the relationship, the type of discourse strategy that is used by the consultant can be focused on steering the client towards autonomy, establishing a new cooperation or maintaining a consultant dependent situation.

Educating This strategy is employed to inform the client and transfer knowledge when the client is dependent on consultant knowledge. This type of strategy is focused on increasing the knowledge dimension of the client through knowledge transfer.

In coaching relationship #1 the consultant used educational discourse to explain to the client how a project situation is handled in her new position. The consultant in relationship #2 also began giving the client advice on topics he was not hired for: “You have to understand that you are talking to directors of the board. You have to make sure he becomes your ‘friend’ and that he sees you as a valuable advisor that gives him information so he can do his job better”. (#1) “I told him things outside of my area of expertise, but you think this is not my specialty” (#2) “The nature of advice changed towards advice on behavior and positional play” (#2)

In organizational change relationship #1 and #2 the consultants also used educational discourse to provide knowledge to employees of the organization. Consultant #1 provided knowledge to employees regarding changes in the primary process on a group and personal level while consultant #2 coached middle management and team-leaders in change management: “Organize an information session in which everyone gets a presentation about the new organization.” (#1) “I want to meet up with each team to have a conversation about the program and so that they can ask questions.” (#1) “What I did was coach middle management and those team leaders, each their own role, through the process by using inventions and master classes change management.” (#2) “I told them about sharing knowledge and experiences and collective learning, about individual development about how change management processes are made up, how to tackle them and how you do that with your own color profile. How to make the right steps.” (#2)

Similarly, the consultant in expertise relationship #1 and #3 also used educational discourse to steer the client towards autonomy. In relationship #1 a new CIO was hired which led to a different knowledge sharing trajectory in the relationship as knowledge was now transferable:


“With knowledge transfer I answered her questions, let her understand. I explained to her where an auditor looks for, where the priorities are” (#1)

Consultant #3 also switched to educational discourse to steer the client towards autonomy for that particular management concept. By anchoring the knowledge in the organization the client would be able to use the knowledge more effectively: “At one time I said, I bring you management drives knowledge but you should be able to do that.” (#3) “I told him it should fit his business model, anchor it and make sure the knowledge comes into the organization.” (#3) “You should take the educational sessions that could educate people in his organization.” (#3)

Empowering This strategy is employed to increase client responsibilities and capabilities when the client is insecure regarding personal capabilities or readiness for change. This type of strategy is focused on re-shaping power relations by providing client control.

In coaching relationship #1 the consultant used personal quality discourse to steer the client in how she had to behave project wise. He provided her with knowledge and confidence regarding herself, which is an important factor in an imbalanced relationship: “If you think you know what is happening here you should get yourself access to the management board of directors to tell them what you think about this specific project” (#1) “Formally, you are a project leader. This is your legitimation. You can move through the entire organization have the right to provide strategic advice. You must show you take responsibility and show them what you have learned” (#1)

In organizational change relationship #1 and #2 the consultants used personal discourse (#1) and storytelling discourse (#2) to diffuse knowledge throughout the organization. The focus on the personal aspect is visible in both relationships, as consultant #1 switched to personal discourse to provide information to the employees what the change would mean for them: “I told them what does this mean to you? You will get the feeling you are incompetent, not a good feeling. You must start over and learn to work again.” (#1)

Similarly, consultant #2 switched to storytelling discourse as a diffusion technique to send messages in the organization. This type of discourse focuses on empowering the client, emphasizing their responsibilities and provide an image that they are cooperating to work towards independency:


“If you are capable to send a message through a story, the story gets passed on to places in the organization you cannot reach.” (#2) “In my stories are dilemmas the employee’s experience. The story contains a hero that cannot do it alone. My hero finds the solution and I translate that to the person, what this means for them, how they are affected by it. Making it personal.” (#2) “It is important to set up the change by outlining the responsibilities of everyone.” (#2)

Personalizing This strategy is employed establish an interpersonal fit with the client when the client is seeking additional knowledge / is in need of a personal soundboard. This type of strategy is focused on increasing the knowledge dimension of the client by providing knowledge on miscellaneous topics outside the scope of the consulting assignment. In expertise relationship #2 the client was impressed by the consultants’ involvement in the project and invited him to a personal meeting with the client regarding the business plan at his home as a sign of trust. The consultant then switched to partnership discourse to provide additional knowledge: “He said this is the game, not withholding any cards to his chest.” (#2) “I constantly made an additional link, have you thought of this and that?” (#2)

Similarly, consultant #3 switched to trusting discourse as he was contacted by the client of the organization for advice regarding a deputy. This advice was not related to management concept expertise: “I told him in the first instance, she is the deputy for a reason so she should be able to do it. But Frans, I am very open to you know. You are my client. She already called me but I’m telling you this because you are my client. I also assume that you keep this in front of you because we have a trusting relationship.” “What he needs now is the critical and independent mind I have.”

Maintaining This strategy is employed to sustain dependency on expertise when the client is not interested in the transfer of knowledge / not able to absorb knowledge. This type of strategy is focused on maintaining a consultant dependent relationship while providing knowledge to the client.

In project management relationship #1 the consultant used directive discourse to sustain the consultant dependent situation since the client was not seeking to obtain knowledge: “I am more directive in my communication with project employees. I say I need this from you. Can you get me that? I see this and I would do that.”


In a different relationship (coaching #2) the consultant did not try to empower the client after providing knowledge, but rather state that his expertise would not guarantee that the client could remain in his position. This consultant already foresaw a big knowledge gap during the establishment of the relationship which explains the lack of personal quality discourse in this relationship. The consultant used disclaimer discourse to make clear the client that: “I can advise you on areas of expertise and that we can make progress, however, it does not guarantee that you can stay in your current position” (#2)

Transforming This strategy is employed to transform the relationship in terms of dependency when the client is dependent on the subsequent implementation of a management concept. This type of strategy is focused on re-shaping power relations through consultant power play.

In organizational change relationship #1 the consultant used objectivity discourse to remain independent and neutral between the two organizations during the final decision making process. The project team scored the two options and the consultant provided his response. After the choice was made the organization became dependent on the consultant for the implementation of this new ECD “You don’t have to make a choice now, put up a selection process and compare the offer of the parties. Write your criteria on paper and invite these parties to give presentations.” (#1) “I tried to explain what the ups and downs are for each option, so they could make their own decision.” (#1) “These were the answers, these were the criteria. If we objectively sum up the scores it is 100 against 80. Going for 100 is most suitable based on the criteria we stated.” (#1) “I am now project leader of 4 projects, everything to 1” (#1)

In a different type of relationship (expertise #1) the consultant used critical discourse to state his dissatisfaction regarding the progress and implementation of the new security certificate: “Who are you trying to fool? If you want to keep this certificate then a lot has to happen. How are you going to control this? How do you allocate responsibilities? How do you measure progress?” (#1)

After the meeting with the CEO a new management approach was chosen to be implemented in the entire organization, which made the client dependent on the consultant for the implementation: “This meeting has initiated a lot of changes in the organization. A new model has been implemented for the 2701 ISO certificate. The client also want to apply this model in the rest of the organization” (#1) “After the recertification I stayed on to provide help with the new management model”.


Discussion and Conclusion The researcher has explored how consultants respond to social conditions prior to and during the interaction by using discourse to shape the relationship. These discursive statements have been grouped into categories and subsequently into overarching categories of discourse strategies. By identifying 14 types of discourse strategies that are employed by consultants, the researcher develops a broader theoretical understanding of how and why discourse strategies are employed. These findings contribute to interpretations regarding the client-consultant relationship by describing discourse strategies of the consultant (how) as well as the defining or limiting context in which their strategies take effect (why). This study offers implications for all three perspectives regarding the client-consultant relationship. Figure 2 displays the directional effect of each strategy on the continuum of dependency.

Figure 2.


Implications for the strategic perspective (2 and 4) The main implication for this perspective is the addition of structural elements that explains how consultants adapt their discourse strategies in response to various client attitudes or capabilities.

Prior studies with a strategic perspective show that clients seeks consultants with technical or business knowledge (Sturdy, 1997) to which the consultants employs various strategies in terms of rhetorical techniques, ways of controlling the image that the client receives and the legitimizing image of their expertise and claims to knowledge (Fincham, 1999). This perspective emphasizes that discourse is rooted in the superiority of their knowledge and in the rhetoric and faddishness of consultant language and concepts which is based on arguments, appeals and reasons that are presented to the client (Nikolova & Devinney, 2012). However, no description is provided that explains how the consultant is adopting discourse strategies to overcome structural conditions such as client dominance.

Moreover, prior studies describe the consultant making the client dependent on management fashions and manipulating the clients into new problems and predefined solutions (Kieser, 2002; Fincham, 1999). What is missing from prior literature is a description of the clients’ attitude and preference towards dependency that explains why consultants adopt discourse strategies to remain in a consultant dependent situation.

Our study extends the literature by describing the social contextual conditions to which the consultant adopts a specific discourse strategies. In terms of steering towards dependency, clients might want to let the consultant first prove his legitimacy. As a response, consultants employ hooking strategies to legitimize their expertise and claims to knowledge. Hooking strategies focus on priming the client for dependency (e.g. by providing local knowledge / previous experience to the client or by creating a common future image).

If consultant legitimacy is established, the client might want to act on the recommendations / advice. As a response, the consultant employs an expert strategy to steer the relationship towards dependency (e.g. by stating how the client is going to be provided with expertise, by presenting an expert image or by exercising influence over strategy processes).

In contrast, clients might be reluctant to listen or provide control. As a response, the consultant employs an imposing strategy to pressure the client for more control (e.g. by taking on a critical stance regarding strategy, by adopting a specific vocabulary to manipulate clients or by pressuring the client during individual and collective meetings to gain more control).


In terms of maintaining or transforming a consultant dependent relationship, clients might be in need for the subsequent implementation of a management concept. As a response, consultants adopt transforming strategies to steer the relationship from dependency on expertise / confirmation to dependency on implementation. Transforming strategies focus on the continuity of dependency on expertise by stating the need for implementation (e.g. after a selection process or by stating the dissatisfaction regarding the progress of a certificate). In other cases the clients’ capabilities might not be sufficient and thus a consultant dependency is maintained. Clients might not able / don’t want to obtain knowledge. As a response, the consultant employs a maintaining strategy to adhere to the need of expertise.

Implications for the structural perspective (3) Our study extends the structural perspective by outlining how consultants use discourse to align themselves with client preferences to shape the relationship towards client autonomy.

Prior studies with a structural perspective describe how clients possess positional power based on resources and control of decision-making processes, viewing consultancy additional service defined by client demands in which consultants are constrained (Nikolova & Devinney, 2012; Fincham 1999; Sturdy 1997). These studies only describe the extent to which consultants are limited by the positional power of the client, but not how consultants cope with limitations during consulting projects.

Our study contributes to this perspective by describing the strategic discourse of the consultants in response to structural factors, such as coping with dominant clients during the interaction. In cases where the client might display preliminary preferences that pressure the consultant, the consultant can adopt an alignment strategy to drive the client’s need for control as a response (e.g. by providing options or by highlighting the fit between the consultant’s expertise and client wishes).

In contrast, one prior study emphasizes that consultants alleviate the client's uncertainty and mirror the clients' values and identity (Williams, 2001). This study demonstrates that as a response, consultants might use mirroring strategies by asking questions (e.g. improving the clients’ independent ways of working or by guiding the client to find answers of their own). In other cases, when consultants are willingly giving autonomy to clients they might use allocation strategies to provide control or empower the client (e.g. adhering to the clients’ needs and preferences or by asking independency from the client).


Implications for the integrated perspective The integrated perspective by Pozzebon and Pinsonneault argues that the social context of the relationship is a determinant in the initial establishment of the level of dependency. The subsequent development of the level of dependency is determined by the interaction itself. For both relationship stages the implications are discussed.

Preliminary discourse strategies The integrated perspective describes how consultant strategies are limited by the initial set-up of two dimensions – power and knowledge - that ‘seem to create conditions that are likely to be reinforced over time’ (Pozzebon and Pinsonneault, 2012: 54). Our study extend this notion by demonstrating that discourse strategies prior to the establishment of the relationship greatly influence the development of dependency client-consultant relationships.

For example, in relationships where clients might display preliminary preferences, consultants can either choose to align themselves with these preferences or deflect from them. Consultants can adopt alignment strategies to drive client control (e.g. providing options to the client or highlighting the fit between the consultants’ expertise and the clients’ wishes). In contrast, they can also adopt deflecting strategies to resist client control (e.g. using dominant arguments or critical appeals in response to the client’s need for control).

Another account stresses that establishing an effective cooperation between client and consultant is based on ‘a mutual understanding on negotiated roles and on knowledge sharing' (Sturdy et al., 2006). Our study contributes to this notion by demonstrating that when the problem definition is unknown, consultants use sense-making strategies to gain understanding of the clients’ problem (e.g. understanding the insecurities clients experience and by assessing what type of knowledge is required by the client).

In terms of knowledge sharing, this study demonstrates that if the client is seeking knowledge outside the scope of the consulting assignment, the consultant can use a provision strategy to provide value to the client (e.g. by providing experience on a broader range of topics outside the scope of the consulting assignment, or by providing personal knowledge to even the gap in terms of knowledge regarding each other).


Discourse strategies steering towards cooperation The study by Pozzebon and Pinsonneault states that a requirement for a cooperation relationship is that all parties assume active roles as partners in the project (Pozzebon and Pinsonneault, 2012). In this type of cooperation the client and consultant give special attention to what balance or imbalance exists in terms of control, knowledge and roles played while both parties strive for a relationship that is against ‘any tendency to ascend or depend on each other’ (Pozzebon and Pinsonneault, 2012: 54). Our study contributes to this perspective by describing how consultants give attention to imbalances in the relationship and how they contribute to active partnership. Another account stresses that during a relationship, consultant place high priority on the interpersonal fit with a client (Fullerton & West, 1996). Our study extends this notion by describing how consultants establish an interpersonal fit with the client.

For example, when clients are dependent on consultants in an imbalanced relationship, consultants can use educating strategies to transfer knowledge to the client to steer towards cooperation (e.g. explaining how business situations are handled, coaching middle managers, team-leaders and other employees in change management or by anchoring management concept knowledge in the organization to use that knowledge more effectively).

After transferring knowledge, clients may be insecure regarding their personal capabilities or their ability to change. Consultants can use empowering strategies to increase client responsibilities and capabilities (e.g. providing confidence to clients, providing a feeling of safety in change projects or by emphasizing the clients’ responsibilities to work towards independency).

In other cases, if the client might be seeking additional knowledge / in need of a personal soundboard, consultants can use personalizing strategies to establish an interpersonal fit with the client (e.g. providing personal feedback on miscellaneous topics outside the scope of the consulting assignment).


Limitations and further research directions In the identification of discourse strategies, this study offers a first step toward developing an integrated account of strategic and structural factors influence the client-consultant relationship. Due to choices regarding the subject of the thesis and the research design the researcher now outlines the limitations of this research.

The first limitation of this study is the subject of power and change. Interviews are mainly subjective since an interview with the consultant is based on his or her interpretation of the situation. By switching to other research methods researchers can bypass the subjectivity factor because these methods are less biased than an interview study in which the interviewee shares a subjective experience regarding their relationship. Another possible research design is to interview both the client and consultant of one relationship to compare their subjective experience regarding the establishment and development of the relationship. Moreover, other studies could use other research methods that are less subjective such as ethnography approaches and longitudinal case studies. These might provide additional knowledge on how discourse strategies relate to structural factors in the client-consultant relationship.

The second limitation is the analytical generalizability of the study. The researcher identified strategies that were used during various stages of the relationship within different social contexts. However, the generalizability of this study is limited to situations that are similar to the relationships researched in this study. In order to maximize the theoretical relevance for this study the researcher therefore adopted a maximum variation approach as a response. However, other studies can include relationships that have not been researched or include ‘extreme’ types in order to maximize analytical generalizability.

These limitations point to future research directions for other scholars. Research adopting an integrated can provide more insight into how these two elements combined relate to the development of dependency in client-consultant relationships. The management science field can benefit from such studies in order to resolve the feud between the two main perspectives in the literature regarding management consultancy.


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