McKinsey’s corrupted culture

By Felix Salmon
March 10, 2011
John Gapper makes a good point: management consultants in general, and McKinsey consultants in particular, have made their entire business out of exploiting the moral grey zone surrounding confidential information.

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John Gapper makes a good point: management consultants in general, and McKinsey consultants in particular, have made their entire business out of exploiting the moral grey zone surrounding confidential information.

The reason you hire McKinsey is that its consultants have seen strategic business issues like yours before, and therefore might have developed good insights into how to approach them. But the reason they’re familiar with those issues is that they’ve been given highly confidential information about your competitors. So when you hire McKinsey you’re essentially trying to acquire, for a very high hourly fee, the kind of corporate intelligence that can only be built up through long exposure to highly-sensitive commercial information.

Here’s Gapper on McKinsey:

The accumulation and sharing of privileged knowledge is integral to how it works…

The calculation every client makes is, in the words of Christopher McKenna, a professor at the Oxford university’s Saïd Business School who studies professional services firms, that “consultants will carry information in and information out. The client has to decide which of those flows is worth more.”

Indeed, one of the main reasons companies hire consultants is to make sure they do not fall behind what their competitors are doing – in return for parting with their own secrets, they gain access to their rivals’ suitably disguised “best practices”. The consultant is a broker who attempts to amass so much knowledge that each company has to hire him, no matter how uncomfortable that feels.

In this sense, a management consultant is a bit like an art dealer, or anybody else who traffics in valuable information asymmetries. The consultant knows more than the client, when it comes to strategic issues within the industry in question. If the client wants access to that knowledge, he has to open his own kimono to get it, thereby putting the consultant at yet more of an information advantage.

For pretty much Rajat Gupta’s entire career, then, he was trading in information that he obtained in confidence by dint of his position. When it comes to corporate intelligence, management consultants are pretty much unique in this regard: while other professionals like lawyers and accountants certainly encounter a great deal of confidential corporate information, they don’t trade in it in the same way — no one ever feels the need to hire Ernst & Young just because they audit a major competitor. The only profession which might come close to consultants, in this regard, is M&A bankers, and maybe a handful of extremely senior lawyers like Rodge Cohen.

None of this remotely explains or excuses what Gupta is accused of doing, of course. But as Gapper notes, there’s a long history of management consultants violating the spirit of the confidentiality agreements they enter into — he tells the tale of Booz Allen Hamilton’s John Burns taking lots of IBM knowledge with him when he took a job as president of the computer maker’s fiercest rival.

In any case, McKinsey can and should find itself in serious reputational jeopardy here. Gapper concludes his column portentiously, saying that “McKinsey must devoutly hope that there is no third man” in addition to Gupta and Anil Kumar, the McKinsey partner who has already admitted giving confidential information to Raj Rajaratnam.

And, predictably, it now looks as though there is just such a third man after all. Three McKinsey consultants all channeling confidential information to a single hedge-fund manager who wasn’t even a client? That’s not bad apples, it’s a culture of corruption. At this point it’s unimaginable that it wasn’t happening elsewhere as well.

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