Thomas A. Stewart and Art Kleiner direct thought leadership development and marketing at Booz & Company. The Bloom Group interviewed Stewart and Kleiner to explore how they manage the tasks of developing, codifying and marketing the intellectual capital of Booz consultants.
An Interview with Tom Stewart and Art Kleiner
Thomas A. Stewart and Art Kleiner are the latest in an illustrious group of ex-journalists to direct thought leadership development and marketing at Booz & Company. The management consulting firm’s strategy+business magazine was launched by Joel Kurtzman, a New York Times business editor and editor of Harvard Business Review before teaming with Booz. (In fact, Kurtzman has been credited with coining the very term “thought leader.”) Randall Rothenberg, another ex-New York Times writer and editor, took over strategy+business in 1999 and later became Booz Allen’s chief marketing officer, before being anointed senior director of intellectual capital. (Rothenberg went on to become president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade association of media and technology companies focused on online advertising.)
Bob Buday and Tim Parker from The Bloom Group interviewed Stewart and Kleiner at the company’s Park Avenue office in Manhattan to explore how they manage the tasks of developing, codifying and marketing the intellectual capital of Booz consultants.
Booz & Company split off from Booz Allen Hamilton in July 2008, leaving the former to focus its management consulting services on the corporate world and the latter on government. Even after its split-off from Booz Allen Hamilton (a majority stake in which was sold to private equity giant Carlyle Group for $2.5 billion), Booz & Company remains one of the world’s largest management consulting firms, with 57 offices and more than 3,300 employees worldwide.
Since the split, Booz’s appetite for thought leadership has only grown. To compete against McKinsey, Bain, Boston Consulting Group and other large consultancies, Booz had been upping its investments in thought leadership for a number of years. In 1995, the firm launched its flagship magazine strategy+business —setting it up with closed-circulation, regular subscription, and newsstand circulation, a rarity in the consulting industry. Today, the quarterly publication has a circulation of 135,000, more than half the readership of Harvard Business Review (at around 245,000). Booz has also published a number of books (19 in the last three years alone, several of which have been bestsellers) and numerous white papers and research reports, all to burnish the company’s image with CEOs and other senior executives around the globe.
Stewart (photo at right) and Kleiner (below) spearhead the thought leadership charge at Booz. Stewart joined Booz last September as chief marketing and knowledge officer. He leads the company’s marketing and knowledge management staff. Prior to Booz, Stewart had been editor and managing director of Harvard Business Review for six years, and before that a top writer at Fortune magazine. He has written two books on how companies capture and capitalize on the knowledge of their people (Intellectual Capital: The New Wealth of Organizations and The Wealth of Knowledge: Intellectual Capital and the 21st Century Organization).
Kleiner came to Booz in 2005 as editor in chief of strategy+business. He has written three books (Who Really Matters: The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege and Success, The Age of Heretics: A History of the Radical Thinkers Who Reinvented Corporate Management, and Helping Clients Envision the Future, a history of Booz Allen Hamilton) and edited several others (including the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook). Kleiner also has been a teacher of graduate classes at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. In the 1980s, he was research editor of The Whole Earth Catalog, the widely heralded countercultural publication launched by Stewart Brand in the late 1960s.
Bob Buday: Both of you came largely from the publishing world, in particular the journalism end of it. Both of you have written books—one of which was about intellectual capital (Tom), and another (Art) about management gurus. Now the two of you are in jobs in which you get to practice what you have observed and written about: helping consultants develop, package and market their ideas. So you’re making the sausage now rather than writing about how the sausage is made. So what’s different? How does it feel, and what kind of adjustments has it required?
Tom Stewart: Let me take a stab at part of it. When I was at Fortune and writing about management, there was an old journalism rule that went, “If it happens once, it’s a story. If it happens twice, it’s a coincidence. If it happens three times, it’s a trend.” We were mostly observing. Obviously, a piece in Fortune could be influential. But we were observing the world.
At HBR, we had more of a sense of trying to interpret, codify, validate and say, “The world has gone this way, this is what it means, and this is what you should do about it.” The implication was, having read this article and absorbed this knowledge, it would change your behavior.
Here we tend to be in a different stage. This extraordinarily brilliant work force is– forgive the cliché -- at the coal face. And they are impatient to get back to the coal face and are not concerned with the opportunity to take the coal and compress it into diamonds. And yet, the tools they use to drill at the coal face have diamond bits. So that’s where we get to play—helping them recognize when they have a piece of coal that can become a diamond and be used again and again and again.
The consultants here tend to be impatient with theory. At the same time, they are always using what we produce. The more we can help in the process of saying, “This is scalable and replicable and repeatable,” the more we’ve actually helped their work.
In Clay Christensen’s theory-generating concept, you form a theory and hypotheses about things that happen in the real world, you test the theory and find anomalies. And then you go back and revise the theory. We’re on that left-hand slope of the triangle, trying to build things up to theory. And so it’s a different place from what I was doing at HBR, but it’s the same process.
Art Kleiner: We’re often on the edge of theory—especially, on the edge going up to theory. Every once in a while, we click into what systems writer David Kantor calls “model building.” We’re doing that right now with one of our biggest projects, a pair of books for Harvard Business Press. The first, called Cut Cost and Grow Stronger is ostensibly about reducing expenses. But underneath that, we’re taking a long-standing body of practice (that we call “capabilities-driven strategy”) and making sense of it in a way that applies to cutting costs and many other business problems.
I was hired here not just as the editor of the magazine but as an internal consultant on thought leadership. We’re encouraged to help the client-facing staff crystallize their practice into thought.
My favorite line about the state of management is from Elliott Jaques, the great Canadian organizational psychologist. He said, “Management is in the same state today that the natural sciences were in during the 17th century.” In other words, there are a huge number of “barber-surgeons” out there applying leeches. …
Tom: (laughing) … By the way, consultants are not leeches …
Art: So in some way, it is like being the publisher of a medical journal just before William Harvey put out his theory of the circulation of the blood. There are people out there inventing new practices, but they’re not necessarily communicating with each other. And they’re not necessarily aware of what each other is doing. And all of them are moving knowledge further than it would move if they hadn’t been there. But none of them are moving knowledge as far as it would be if they were all communicating openly with each other. And they all have to make a living. Because they’re all selling their services at the same time, they have to balance being competitive against being open and expanding knowledge.
When management consulting is at its best, it is the single place where knowledge about how to change industrial society is kept. It’s not being kept in academia except with a very few people like Christensen. It’s not being applied and it’s not being developed because it’s the kind of knowledge that can only be developed through application.
Tom: A really interesting example is to try to find somebody in academia who is an expert on cost cutting. They don’t exist. Much as I admire and respect the work of my former colleagues [at HBR] and would have been doing the same thing if I was still there, the stuff that they have been publishing about the recession is good, but most of it is not about this recession. There’s some interesting new stuff about this recession that’s being developed by consultants—not just here but at all kinds of places.
Art: So learning and codifying through practice—at its best, management consulting does that. We have been rewarded for making it easier for this firm to do it. I don’t know what it’s like at other consulting firms. This is the first management consulting firm I’ve worked at. I came in wondering whether I would be working with low-quality ideas. Actually, the ideas have been very high-quality. But they aren’t always expressed at a broad, universal level, or at a codified, systematic level. So a lot of my job is to help bring the ideas to their potential—first by asking questions and listening, second by helping just enough but not getting in the way, as the partners and client staff develop their thinking, and thirdly by finding creative ways to publish and promote it.
With us, the whole credibility of the magazine rests on the average reader looking at it and saying, “This is a place where something has to hit a gold standard to be in here.” And therefore we continually go back to somebody within the firm and say, “Have you thought about this? Can we make it better?” We are always encouraged to do that. I never get anybody saying, “This is mine, don’t touch it.” I might get people saying, “You don’t understand it.”
Tom: And that’s a softball for an editor. “Well, if I don’t understand it, help me make it clearer because I’m not stupid.”
I think Art has that exactly right. There are 200 partners at Booz, every one of whom acts as if he owns the place—and does. I think our biggest issue is not one of whether we can help a colleague make something better, and more pointed, and more generalizable, more systematic and so forth. The biggest issue is, Which comes first? Which are the top-priority ideas?
Obviously, we don’t have an infinite editorial capacity. We’re surrounded by very smart people who are always coming up with ideas, all of whom think their ideas are important. Many of them are, although some of them are narrower than others. But the real issue is prioritization, and prioritization according to some collective consensus about where the firm should be going.
The magazine strategy+business, as opposed to the firm’s white papers, which we call Viewpoints, has the right to set its own agenda. s+b has the permission to say, “We don’t necessarily have to reflect the priorities of the firm. We can reflect the priorities of what we think are the most interesting ideas for the readers of the magazine.”
So it has a kind of independence, although we hope it’s a supplement to the firm’s strategy. It’s not orthogonal. It’s sort of a consensual independence.
But Art can go against the firm’s priorities in the magazine in a way that we wouldn’t want to do in the white papers.
Art: I don’t believe there’s ever been a priority of the firm that we’ve ignored in the magazine. We’ve had to always find a way to do it within the context of the magazine. We are never told, “Here is your editorial calendar for the quarter.”
I consider strategy+business to be an extraordinarily lucky magazine because we just seem to strike at the right time, not always by design. My sense is that this is because we’re constantly looking around the firm, and elsewhere, for unusually good ideas.
Tom: By example, the week that General Motors declared bankruptcy, strategy+business ran a wonderful article called “The Best Years of the Auto Industry are Still to Come.”
The fundamental idea is that if you look globally at GDP per capita, there’s a threshold beyond which people buy cars, and 2 billion people are at that point. The total addressable market for the auto industry is about to quadruple. Now it’s going to be a different industry. But that article came out the week General Motors declared bankruptcy. There couldn’t be better timing. And it wasn’t luck. It was the residue of design.
Art: I think the whole firm, like any good management consulting firm, is in tune with what’s happening. At our best, we help them say the things that they perceive, but wouldn’t necessarily make explicit. Maybe you’re familiar with the phenomenon of the “drop-off insight”—when you say something offhandedly to your spouse or your friend, just before you drop off to sleep, and it turns out to be the most brilliant thought you’ve had all day? A lot of our job here is to get consultants to say things that, in their most rational moments, they would dismiss as unimportant or silly. But often those are the things most worth saying.
Tom: I introduced one of our partners to a stock analyst friend of mine from the media business who was in town from Los Angeles. I thought she’s really smart; he’s really smart; just match-make. Our partner was talking about the future of media and some things we see in media and marketing, and how more and more companies and more and more advertisers are spending more and more money creating their own websites. Did you know that Betty Crocker.com has more visitors than Epicurious, and that Baby.com has more visitors than Parenting magazine? My stock analyst friend was having a little trouble grasping what he was getting at. Finally, our partner explained it this way: “It’s like private-label media.” The minute he uttered that phrase, I said, “Man, that’s an article. You finally named that phenomenon.”
Three months later it showed up in the magazine. It was one of those times we happened to be in the hall at the right time and heard the right phrase and said, “Go for it—that’s extensible, brandable, nameable.”
Art: And that article is getting response.
Tom: The article and on the client side.
Bob: What kind of thought leadership marketing programs did Booz have before launching strategy+business in 1995?
Art: From the 1950s to the early 1990s, Booz launched a number of ideas, from the PERT chart to supply chain management, to the “centerless corporation”—which was an organization design concept involving autonomous business units that they are still using. I get the impression that there were bits and pieces here and there. But the firm certainly didn’t take the full-bore-press approach that, say, BCG’s founder Bruce Henderson did with the articles he wrote in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Tom: My sense is that Booz had not made it a systematically developed competence of the firm. Bain was using HBR as their primary channel. Index [of reengineering fame] created its quarterlies, and so on.
Bob: To what degree to you think strategy+business has become an engine for intellectual capital development for the firm?
Art: Last year Arkimeda did a survey of thought leadership in consulting firms. They had a scatter chart showing a clear correlation between quantity and quality. The only firm outside of that scatter plot was us. We were low on quantity but extremely high on quality. They said one reason was strategy+business.
The only other consulting firm that was close on quality was McKinsey. McKinsey Quarterly has a staff of something like 40. We have a staff of nine, and of that, only four are content editors. And we are unusual in the extent to which we seek articles from outside the firm. I don’t know of any other magazine [from a consulting firm] that deliberately says half of the contributions must come from outside the firm.
And I believe that it’s only recently that competitors have hired people with the same sort of journalistic or business writing backgrounds. Joel Kurtzman came to Booz from Harvard Business Review; Randy Rothenberg had been at the New York Times. Both of them brought those sensibilities with them.
When I inherited the magazine, I might have been expected to reinvent it, but I didn’t see any need to do that. I made lots of improvements, but they were all small. Joel and Randy had already created an extremely viable platform.
Bob: Ghostwriting for consultants can be a difficult endeavor, even for the most capable of journalists. How do you get your ghostwriters to work effectively with Booz consultants?
Art: I’ll give you a framework I use when I train our journalists to work with the consultants. We say that in any piece of thought leadership there are four ways of looking at and thinking about the problem. First, what is your purpose? Can we be absolutely explicit about why we are doing this—to get business, but what else? Do you want your name out in Europe? To make money in North America? And so on.
The second thing is “Who is your audience? What are they ready to hear? What do they expect to hear? What can you do to stretch them? How do they want to be stretched, and how to they need to be stretched?
Third thing is, “Whose shoulders are you standing on? What is your research methodology? How credible is this piece? What is its credibility based on? What would somebody else do to criticize its methodology, its credibility? And how would you counter that?”
Fourth is, “Throw away the facts. What is the truth? What is it about this story that resonates with the blood? What is the myth?”
I was part of a group of people who developed this in a “learning history” project at MIT’s Center for Organizational Learning in the mid-1990s, with the leadership and support of Peter Senge. I’ve used the framework ever since. The punch line is that these are four different ways of thinking, and I have yet to meet somebody who can think in more than one way at a time.
Tim Parker: So they will come to you with a view on only one of those?
Art: My task, without necessarily being explicit about the process, is to take them through all four orientations. Some people are very gifted in thinking only about the story and the audience; they tend to produce propaganda. Often they are gifted in thinking about research and their purpose, and they produce academic writing.
The most difficult part is getting people out of the frame where they think, “I have to think about all of these at once” and into the frame where “I have to think about all of them in sequence.” Writer’s block is often a result of trying to think about the story and the audience at the same time.
For the consultants, it’s a matter of saying, “Now I’m going to take you through a set of questions.” For the ghostwriters or journalists, it’s a matter of saying to them, “OK, you’re not just here to get the story. You’re here to help them think about these four things.”
Tom: Ted Levitt [the late Harvard Business School professor, marketing expert and author of the 1960 HBR classic “Marketing Myopia”] used to tell faculty members at HBS that the lessons he took from editing HBR was that “HBR was a magazine by people who can’t write for people who won’t read.” The ability to resolve that paradox is what made it work. It’s a similar thing here. You have to think all around that to make it work.
And that, by the way, means you also have to have consultants who buy into the legitimacy of editing and publishing. There are those who will say, “I can do a [presentation]—I don’t need Art Kleiner and strategy + business to do that.” But to translate a PowerPoint deck into an article is not just a matter of turning bullet points into paragraphs and stringing sentences together. It requires creating a new thought around it. You are moving to a different audience and medium. It’s not a matter of taking those ideas and saying, “That’s the topic sentence, and those are the three sentences after that and …”
Tim: We couldn’t agree more. As a recovering consultant, I might have been guilty of believing I was the font of all knowledge and that I could sit down and write an article that HBR would be delighted to receive.
Tom: [laughs]. And sometimes, that’s the right thing to do. Not every article should be a strategy + business article, just as not every book needs to be made into a movie or every thought in the shower should be made into a book.
Bob: The way we see it is that this is not about writing. This is about creating a powerful argument, based on research. And yes, there’s some writing.
Art: We have a whole other framework for teaching writing. But the four orientations framework is more for thought leadership, which is a separate matter.
Tim: In my career, a lot of consultants don’t realize that.
Tom: Well, to forgive them, they’re engineers. A former colleague of mine, Walter Kiechel, is writing a book about the history of consulting that will come out next spring. Bruce Henderson was an engineer. Bill Bain was an engineer. Michael Hammer was an engineer. Mike Porter was an engineer. Peter Senge was an engineer. [A brief description of the book can be found here.]
These are not MBAs. They are not anthropologists. They are not English majors. They are engineers. What do they do? They take problems apart. Somebody once told me the definition of engineer is someone who walks into your office and says, “That’s a nice desk. But, you know, it would be even better if you made a few changes in it.”
They are reductionist by nature and by training. That’s their strength. That’s what makes them really good at consulting—and anxious about theory-building.
Art: Paradoxically, when they are thinking about thought leadership, when they are thinking about an article, they will often be concerned about reductionism. They will shrink back from spelling things out too concretely. I think it’s partly because they’re not used to the craft of using language with precision. Precision is for machines. But once they start, they soon get enthusiastic about it. At the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, when I was ghosting pieces for lots and lots of engineers, I would often find myself saying, “Well, you know, our job here is to dance up to the edge of reductionism without falling into the abyss. Let’s keep our sense of the whole intact but never leave the concrete.”
We want both inspiration and precision. We want what J.D. Salinger once called “your loot.” I don’t know if you remember that line from “Seymour: An Introduction,” which he published in the New Yorker in 1959. He has his character Seymour ask his brother Buddy, “Are you a writer, or just a writer of rattling good stories? I mind getting a rattling good story from you. I want your loot." In a way, I’m charged with saying the same things to our client-facing staff. I don’t want just their good ideas. I want their ideas expressed in a way that will change people and perhaps change the world, and yet be concrete and practical. I want it all.
Bob: Does that mean capturing their ideas in a concrete way, which some of them may feel is being pedantic?
Tom: Or maybe giving away the store. The big argument we always had at HBR was something called “The Black Box.” Often, articles that come to us from consulting firms would have a black box—a method of solving an important problem that the article never fully described. Of course, the authors were trying to do two things simultaneously: keep mum about proprietary ideas, and suggest to the reader that their response to the article should be to run out and hire the firm that wrote it. At HBR, we’d put on our academic hat and insist that the author open up the black box, or least suggest enough of it so somebody else can reverse-engineer it or invent their own.
There is that same interesting tension here—a tension between getting so open that people won’t need to call us, versus so mysterious that people think you’re making it up out of whole cloth. And this is complicated by issues of client confidentiality. As a student you’re told to “show your work”—but sometimes we can’t.
Art: Of course, in the real world those who reveal the method are always showing they are one or two steps ahead of the codification of that method. And so there’s all the more reason to hire us, if we articulate it right.
Tim: I would have expected this attitude to change with so many people putting their intellectual capital on their websites. How do you get the consultants who aren’t worried about giving their ideas away to think big things?
Tom: The magic happens at intersections. I can know everything about upstream oil and gas, and you can know everything about information technology or human capital. When we meet and cross industry logic with functional expertise in some kind of bounded way, and get engaged with this problem here and now, we can do something amazing for a client that cannot necessarily be replicated. It can’t be photocopied and done with another client. It can be replicated or it can be done again in a different context.
Art: I’m realizing listening to you talk that the paradox of intellectual capital ownership is exactly the same for management consulting firms as it is for newspapers, except inside out. So a newspaper starts with the journalistic ethos—not that information necessarily wants to be free but you want it out there and read by as many people as possible. You want scale. And that’s one reason why newspapers and magazines are in trouble. They’ve scaled their audiences but they have no business model to get people to pay for it.
A management consulting firm has a very practiced way of getting people to pay for information but they haven’t had to worry about scaling their audience so much. And now, that they are recognized more openly as a source of thought leadership, they may face unprecedented challenges with this.
In other words, for a variety of reasons—the Internet is one among several factors—news media and management consulting firms may end up competing with each other. These two very different types of organizations are suddenly in the same business. They used to have very different ways of gathering data and making sense of it. But now data-gathering is increasingly commoditized, and ways of making sense of data are unfolding and merging. Newspapers are increasingly forced to do consulting work; consulting firms are increasingly forced to publish. Both are wrestling with the problems of scale, and how much knowledge to keep proprietary, and how best to codify it for what kinds of audiences. These problems used to be fairly separate, but now they’re all interrelated.
Bob: What’s been the impact of the Web for Booz? How does the firm use the Web in its overall marketing mix?
Tom: I’ll tell you one thing. We now have a private label medium, in the website, as does every consulting firm. All of these consulting firms use them and have a different emphasis, whether it’s about showing off thought leadership or making sure you can find a consultant in Dusseldorf in your industry. The Web has given consulting firms a channel to put their ideas out there directly, without intermediation by the journalist at Fortune or Business Week or the Times or the Journal.
Bob: We have noticed a particularly interesting part of Booz.com that is devoted to your “organizational DNA” consulting concept. Tell us more about this microsite.
Tom: This is work that is based on many years of research led by Gary Neilson, one of the senior partners of the firm. We created a microsite around it, called out “ORGDNA profiler,” which Gary and his team used to walk clients through a sort of diagnosis of organizational problems that make it hard for companies to do what they say they want to do. I first saw it when I was at HBR. We were looking for material to put up on the HBR website. Ellen Peebles (an HBR senior editor) and I said, “Gee, could you do a version of that that we could put up on HBR.com?” The answer was yes—but even better, the answer included a superb article. The article came out—which became the lead article in that month’s issue—and it drove traffic to Booz’s ORG DNA profiler. It’s a good example of symbiosis between the public and private media.
Bob: How important is the Booz.com website in your overall marketing mix?
Art: strategy+business as far as we know right now is one of two business magazines that is going up in circulation. The other is the Economist. We are proud of that. But I have an Andy Grove-like sense that it is not going to be true that much longer. “Only the paranoid will survive.” The reason I say that is because I am looking at what the Web is doing to business journalism.
The firm asks us to exist as an attractor—to bring people’s attention in the world at large and, ultimately, business to the firm. We need to not only attract people to Booz & Company but also attract people to a gathering place of thought leadership, of which Booz & Company plays a large and deserved role. Right now we can go on being an attractor, and apparently a growing one, as a quarterly print magazine with a fairly perfunctory website. How long will that continue? Obviously, not very long.
What does it take to be an attractor in a world where there are no inherent boundaries between print, video and audio, where they are no inherent communications boundaries between India, the United States and Europe, where there are no inherent boundaries on the length of a passage or an article? Where things can be posted immediately and live forever on the Web? And where the audience is as much a part of the generation of the material as they are the recipients of the material? And in fact if you do it well, people are going to your site because they want to see what other members of the audience are saying and want others to see what they’re saying? And they want that to happen in all three media?
What do we do in that milieu to distinguish ourselves and attract people in a year of recession, where budgets are tight and we don’t have a staff of more than nine people? That’s what keeps me up at night.
Tom: It’s not that it keeps Art up at night fretting about it. It keeps him up doing it! [laughter]
Art: We have a lot of ideas. Ultimately, we rise and fall on our ability to put those ideas in practice.
Bob: Could you see strategy+business as an online-only publication at some point?
Art: We have just launched a new website for strategy+ business. I think that a year from now, probably much sooner, just about everything we published will be published first on the Web. Then once a quarter, as publishers, we will push a button and create a print artifact that represents the best we have to offer at that moment.
Tom: Even that print compilation—and this is hypothetical right now because we haven’t talked this through—that says, “Of the things we have published, these are the ones that are in our print magazine,” that almost might exist as much in a Kindle or other electronic version as it does in a print version.
But in a sense the flow of electronic publications represents the general ledger—here are the daily sales, and the magazine is the balance sheet—a snapshot every quarter of where we are. And calling that an issue. That issue might be distributed or redistributed or sold by the drink. You could sell it as an issue or as an anthology of articles that you could pick up.
Art: Or an instant anthology on innovation. The anthology doesn’t necessarily have to be the articles you publish this quarter. How we organize this, price it, develop it, manage it are all still things that we know we’re going to have to learn by doing.
Tom: One thing I think is really interesting —not just for strategy+business point of view but also for The New York Times and Fortune or HBR or the Economist—is the question impact. When that “thing” thumps on your mailbox or your desk, that is something that gives it impact. “It was on the front page of the New York Times on Tuesday.” There is this ability of print—or the mere existence of the artifact—to say, “That article came out the week that GM declared bankruptcy.” And the fact that it showed up in a 150,000 mailboxes that week gives it a power that is different than if it got downloaded into 150,000 email boxes over the course of three weeks.
It doesn’t have that “pow!”—though it might have a viral power that is different but equally effective. I don’t know how you create “pow,” but figuring that out is going to be interesting.
Art: It is interesting. We do email our major articles, and we get, fast, instant, powerful response. We get sustained, interested response when we put it in print. And we don’t know what kind of response we get when we put it on the Web because we haven’t yet created the Web context that will define and distinguish us online.
We know a little bit about what it takes. I was one of the co-organizers and early participants in the computer network that Stewart [Brand] started with Larry Brilliant: The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL). I was very active on that for years. We know what kind of work goes into really creating an online community. And we know that, from a strategy+business side, the task of becoming interactive and relevant represents an immense, fascinating thought leadership challenge.
From the Booz side, it was very clear from the beginning that Booz & Company, in this new incarnation, was a Web-enabled organization. Booz Allen and Hamilton had published an annual report on paper. We didn’t even consider doing that. But we put a lot of effort, given our size, into making the website distinctive. Of the thought going into marketing and communications innovation that I’ve seen, the lion’s share of it is going into either content or the Web environment—the channels that are either email- or Web-based.
It’s very clear that our Website is not just about Booz & Company’s reputation. It’s also about providing direct access to clients, partners, collaborators and potential recruits through a medium that didn’t exist 15 years ago.
Bob: The fact that both of you are here signifies an enormous commitment to thought leadership. There are sizable consulting firms that have very little of this, except for maybe a mediocre Website. What is it in this organization that permits all this to exist here?
Tom: I see two things. One is real enthusiasm at the top of the organization for being an idea-led firm. Shumeet [Banerji, Booz’s CEO] talks about this a lot of the time. Cesare Mainardi, who’s the head of the North American practice, talks about that sweet spot at the intersection of functional expertise and industry expertise. All across the top leadership of the firm you find a commitment to ideas and also a belief that though we are one of the biggest consulting firms, we need to punch above our weight. One way is by demonstrating your intellectual chops and then bringing your talent to bear on the client’s problem.
The second reason this is allowed to happen here is that the Booz business model itself seems to depend on the idea of foresight—being able to help our clients understand where the world is going and how they need to change in order to be there when the world is there. We pride ourselves on understanding what we call “industry logic”—where an industry is going and what that implies for strategy, talent, structure, and soon.
Another thing that seems to be more temporary—although I hope it’s not temporary—is that the split-off from Booz Allen Hamilton generated an extraordinary burst of intellectual entrepreneurship and the energy associated with it.
Art: We went from a 17,000-person firm to a 3,000-person firm [after the split-off]. The other piece was that when Booz & Company had to form, a 94-year-old consulting firm, fourth ranked in size [after McKinsey, BCG, and just under Bain], had to determine how to distinguish itself from the others.
Everybody in the firm had a different way of putting it. The way I put it is that our industrial society is reinventing itself right now. The place where that knowledge of how to do that exists is in management consulting firms at their best. We distinguish ourselves by making those capabilities explicit in a way that others don’t. The firm itself said, “We do it by being bold and to the point, and telling our clients what they need to hear (not just what they want to hear), by having foresight and insight, by balancing functional and industry expertise.”
All of that meant that at the end of the day, we distinguished ourselves not because we had gone to college with a client, or even because we had solved a problem for them. None of that is as powerful as having a client say, “You guys know how to do something that nobody else knows how to do. And the reason you know how to do it is because you’ve thought it through in a way that nobody else has.”