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#106: Scientific Literacy is Critical to Management Consultants

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Sunday, August 09, 2009
Sometimes when I try to explain to a client that the underlying premise of all consulting is to propose interventions based on diagnosis followed by a hypothesis driven recommendation that can be tested, I get blank stares. How important is it for a client to have knowledge of scientific methods?

Scientific literacy is increasingly important for effective management, as well as for being an informed citizen. A basic knowledge of scientific principles and history is essential to being able to work with and make decisions about business operations and technologies. This is not just for technology companies. Decisions about regulation and policy affecting every business are grounded in understanding of scientific principles. How your company (or you advise your client) deals with topics like corporate response to climate change legislation, decisions about facility siting, selecting effective training technologies, mitigating airborne pathogens in sealed buildings, or HIV testing of staff all require scientific knowledge.

This is not an esoteric issue, nor is scientific literacy about specialized jargon. It is understanding the fundamental principles of evidence-driven inquiry , hypothesis testing and confirmation processes every consultant is obligated to follow when proposing changes to a client's enterprise. Yet, most people are profoundly lacking in these skills. Only 7% of American adults overall, and only one in four with graduate degrees, is scientifically literate. For example, one-fifth of American adults believes the sun revolves around the Earth (something disproved centuries ago), and only half of the remainder know how long it takes the Earth to revolve around the sun. Less than half understand the principles of evolution and can apply them to explain how it works in either natural or business settings. The above examples are about basic scientific knowledge. It is unclear how many actually use scientific processes to make management decisions or provide consulting advice.

Tip: Part of your effectiveness as a consultant (beyond being scientifically literate) is to be able to assess the literacy and understanding of scientific principles of your client decision makers. If they do not fully appreciate the science and technological underpinnings of business decisions, then you are obligated to raise these. Otherwise, you are letting your clients make decisions with incomplete information. If you want to read more try Why You Should Be Scientifically Literate for an overview, or The Salience of Secular Values and Scientific Literacy for American Democracy for a more wonkish look at the impact on scientific literacy on being an informed citizen in the 21st century.

© 2009 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  client service  consultant role  consulting process  customer understanding  process  professional development 

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David Taber says...
Posted Friday, April 23, 2010
Hi-- thanks for writing this. It raises a very important issue.

Your answer was right, but in my view it really missed the point. YES, the consultant needs to be scientifically literate. But NO, it's unrealistic to expect the same level of literacy in the client. That's not who they are, and it's not what they pay you for. It is absolutely essential to find a way to translate the scientific principles, facts, and statistics in a way that they client can understand. You've got to "start with where they are," rather than assuming that they are interested in (or even capable of) truly understanding the science. They don't have the time or energy to "get up to your level" -- the consultant needs to communicate in whatever way is most effective from the client's perspective, NOT the way that is most erudite or technically pure.

To persuade the client is to convince them on their terms, not yours.
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