- Angels of Efficiency: A Media History of Consulting by Florian Hoof
Angels of Efficiency deals with one of the most intriguing questions of the knowledge economy: the worldwide rise and growing influence of corporate consulting. A professor of Media Studies at the University of Lüneburg in Germany, author Florian Hoof traces the parallel development of visual media and corporate consulting between 1880 and 1930, showing how a new form of visual knowledge became integrated [End Page 264] into management optimization practices. Visual management, exemplified by the 7-S Framework that McKinsey developed, would learn from, compete against, and complement Scientific Management, the theory pioneered by American engineer Frederick Taylor. The core of Hoof's research examines the consulting firm founded by Frank Gilbreth and his wife Lillian in the early twentieth century. Their family life alongside some of their most successful contributions, such as the Wheel of Motion and the One Best Way, became popular through the book and movie Cheaper by the Dozen (1948 and 1950). Drawing on extensive archival sources, the book explains how Frank's practical experience and innate marketing skills combined with Lillian's academic background in industrial psychology to challenge the consulting industry with strikingly lasting effects. Particularly insightful is Gilbreth's failed consulting activity for the Berlin firm Auergesellshaft (Osram's forerunner) during World War I.
This is not an easy book. First, it preserves the form and content of the doctoral dissertation published in German in 2015 from which it comes. And second, Hoof's truly interdisciplinary research will challenge those readers primarily interested in either the history of media or the history of consulting. Those who do not give up reading will be rewarded with a splendid concluding chapter, plus the certainty of having gone through an outstanding intellectual piece of work. This consists of five chapters, the first two focused on the rise of graphic media and visual consulting and the remaining three devoted to the Gilbreth's contribution and long-term effects.
Consulting knowledge, states Hoof, is a fragile commodity that needs to be scientifically grounded but also easily communicated (p. 245). The self-made consultant Gilbreth seemed to understand this from the beginning, hence his efforts to develop a scientific method to study and improve industrial efficiency and to differentiate it from Taylorism. Unlike Taylor, with whom he kept a conflicting relationship, and other efficiency engineers who worked primarily at manufacturing plants, Gilbreth moved his research from the workshop to the laboratory and insisted on keeping the managers as far as possible from the workers, anticipating future trends in the consulting industry. Moreover, Gilbreth sought to apply the latest film innovations to his own motion studies, which served to create his own method and brand. This method owed much to his wife's scientific training and research in industrial psychology, and Gilbreth promoted his brand relentlessly, for example in his Berlin project. But the most admirable thing about Gilbreth was his search for legitimacy. Hiring an external consultant met with resistance among managers, at a time when corporate control was in a state of crisis.
The consulting industry has received considerable attention from business history and organizational studies over the past three decades or so. Hoof's study does not only provide new empirical evidence but makes a strong conceptual contribution. He argues that visual management constituted [End Page 265] a new form of knowledge and management legitimization, a fact Gilbreth was aware of. Over time—through the dramatically different contexts of Keynesianism and monetarism—media-based rationality has provided the basis for new management strategies that have proved surprisingly effective and resilient. The fascinating process examined in Angels of Efficiency explains why consultants, at least those working for the top firms, are currently regarded as quasi-religious authorities. As external experts, they were capable of shifting, not solving, the capital-labor conflicts between 1880 and 1930 that threatened to undermine the social order. Against all odds, Hoof observes, the 2008 crisis has not eroded the power of consultants, but rather strengthened it. The political...