Opinion

Emanuel Derman

Too Much Meta

By Emanuel Derman
December 12, 2011

I have a friend who, when you tell him about something bad that happened to you (“I fell and scraped my knee”) doesn’t address the problem at hand, but goes one level higher (“Yes, well that’s what happens when you run in the presence of a gravitational field”). I call that going meta, and I’m not crazy about it.

I thought of this when I came across a post by Felix Salmon about consultants. When I worked at Goldman Sachs was when I first met professional management consultants, and what most impressed me (Not!) about the ones I met was that they were meta guys with meta-skills rather than actual skills. Few of them lasted long because they weren’t hands on; they were often mere human multiplexers who told you where to go for information rather than how to actually do something.

To go meta productively, you need skills and experience of a practical nature from which you can abstract. To be a boxing coach, you don’t have to be a great boxer, but you should have boxed. To be a programming consultant, you should have been a reasonably good programmer. To be a management consultant, you should have been a manager, made mistakes, recovered from them. I don’t know what management consultants learn in school but I suspect it’s formulaic, and that’s the problem.

I sneakily suspect that management is somewhat like character, can’t be taught to people in business schools or consultancies, and that there can’t really be effective degrees in it.

 

 

Comments
6 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

I had to look up that post by Felix Salmon (your link is broken), and my impression is, what he is talking about is totally different from what you are referring to.

To be fair to consultants, ideally they should be hired from within large corporations, where they rightfully belong. When you are but a cogwheel in a large system, your margin for error is smaller vs., say, a startup. No need for broad experience in the former case.

Posted by mxpl | Report as abusive
 

You can teach people to play football; it cannot make them a great football player.

Posted by Uburex | Report as abusive
 

This seems to jive with my experience. They come in and stir the pot, more than likely, in the direction that you were incline to do so to begin with. Then they are gone, never having to deal with the repercussions of their meddling. It’s a beautiful thing!

Posted by Boxster550 | Report as abusive
 

Too bad that most politicians are meta and with no experience whatsoever.

Posted by Maciej137 | Report as abusive
 

This is the correct link to Felix Salmon’s post about consultants:

http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/20 11/03/09/mckinseys-corrupted-culture/

Posted by EllieK | Report as abusive
 

totally agree. Consultants seem like pseudo Mercenaries, you feel like the job is almost done and end up paying for it. I guess they are paid for their glibness rather than ‘execution’ skills. No puns intended

Posted by taran.23 | Report as abusive
 

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