Human and machine: What the player piano has to teach us about the future of consulting

My husband likes the music of Conlan Nancarrow, who was one of the first composers to write music for machines rather than people. His work for the player piano, a piano with no pianist, where the music is “played” by feeding in a roll of punchcard data, is extraordinary. Extraordinary because the machine can do things that a pianist can’t: It has more than 10 digits, and its “hands” can stretch to wider chords and play impossibly fast.

It’s also a good metaphor for how technology is expected to change what consultants do. Our recent report found that consultants are broadly positive about the impact technology has had on their everyday working lives and that they’re optimistic about the future. The biggest change they’ve seen is that they’re devoting more time to developing software tools to support their consulting work (particularly true for junior consultants) and to creating new consulting services (especially true for partners).

This burst of creativity is being driven partly by clients, who are looking for innovation—all our research shows this—and partly by consulting firms, who want to be seen as leading-edge. At its heart is the recognition that technology enables consultants to do things they couldn’t do before—to stretch their hands, if you like, to ever more extraordinary chords ever more quickly. Strategy consultants are gathering more data in less time, allowing them to spend more time on more sophisticated analysis. Disparate data sets can be linked, generating insights that wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago. No longer do we need to sift through a sample of an organisation’s transactions: We can look at all of them.

All of this is positive. But there’s one thing that worries me: I don’t actually like Nancarrow’s music. Call me old-fashioned, but I want to listen to something with a bit more of a melody; I want to be moved, not just amused and amazed. Another problem—and here I think my views would be shared by anyone who’s been to a Conlan Nancarrow concert—is that I’m disconcerted by the absence of a pianist. Am I supposed to applaud the person who feeds the punchcard rolls into the player piano? Is this a “performance”? Why pay money to watch a machine, when I could listen to the same music—and of course it’s precisely the same music—on Spotify? And of course, many people don’t pay: Nancarrow “concerts” tend to be rare and sparsely attended. And some of the people who do go to these concerts leave part of the way through—they’re more prepared to be rude to a machine.

All of these points are directly relevant to how clients may view consulting work performed in the future. There’s a danger that the cleverness of our ability to integrate unprecedented volumes of data may obscure the messages it tells us. Clients remember and act on recommendations that resonate (read: move them); they need stories (read: tunes). If we don’t get the balance right between the person and the machine, could we end up in a situation where the role of the consultant is to feed the punchcards in? And who will pay for a consulting process that’s largely down to a set of algorithms, which, in the future, may be easily downloaded? Nancarrow’s music challenges our assumptions about value and worth, and because it’s “just” a machine we’re dealing with we won’t hesitate to act when we’re not satisfied.

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