Professional Service Firms: Volume 24


Table of contents

(18 chapters)


Pages v-vii
click here to view access options
click here to view access options
click here to view access options


Pages 1-16
click here to view access options

Our conception of the ideal organization has changed from the machine-like efficiency of Weberian bureaucracy to a post-industrial ideal (Bell, 1973) in which organizations spurn the bureaucratic form to become more adaptive, receptive and generative. Such ideal organizations, we are told, will exhibit strong employee involvement and will rely on self-organizing autonomous teams. Hierarchy will be abandoned in favor of flatter organizational structures, and authority relations will be based upon individual capability and expertise rather than position. Put simply, organizations of the future will cure all of the ills of Weber's bureaucracy while preserving the ideals of precision, speed, discretion, knowledge and, above all, efficiency.

We identify three key areas of change in the context of professional services. First, is the increasing demographic diversity and growing income inequality within professions; second, is the emergence of neo-liberal ideologies that challenge traditional professional norms; third, is the emergence of management consulting as a distinct occupational group with professional aspirations. We argue that these trends have produced an environment in which the delivery of professional business services has become disembedded from its institutional context of professionalism. We speculate about the possibility of the re-emergence of professionalism as a distinct logic of authority and control for professional service organizations.

How do new professional service firms strategically position themselves in fields where developing a favourable external reputation is critical to performance? Are certain positioning strategies more effective than others? This study reveals that most professional service firm start-ups attempt to establish themselves by pursuing a strategy of moderate divergence from a field's institutionalized practices. Those that do so, however, do not perform as well as those that either conform more closely to these institutional prescriptions or depart more radically from them. In other words, balance beguiles but purism pays.

Due to impressive market growth over several decades, consulting can today be regarded as an influential industry. In spite of this success, consulting is confronted with prejudices, which, to some extent, can be linked to difficulties in the evaluation of consulting services. By guaranteeing certain qualification levels, professionalism is generally considered useful for reducing this kind of uncertainty. In this chapter, using a German case as an example, we analyze professionalization efforts among consultants. We argue that these efforts will never be successful if the classical concept of professionalism is applied. However, seen from the perspective of the “new professionalism” that concentrates on work behaviour, consultants qualify as highly professional.

This chapter examines the impact of adopting a global strategy upon leaders’ roles and identities in an engineering consultancy firm. Drawing upon process and social practice perspectives on leadership; our results explain leaders’ resistance to changing practices despite major process changes as due to the threats to their identity caused by the new role requirements to implement a global strategy. Our emerging process and social practice model of leadership highlights the complementary nature of process and practice change, creates a distinction between good and malign ambiguity in professional services firms and has implications for regulating the pace and timing of major changes which impact upon professional identities.

For professional service firms (PSFs) the partnership form of governance is the most effective means of reconciling the potentially competing claims of three sets of stakeholders: shareholders, professionals, and clients. Increasingly, PSFs are abandoning this traditional form of governance in favour of incorporation and flotation. Very little is known about the implications of this trend. We examine an alliance between a partnership and a corporation and analyse the systems and structures that professionals in both firms deploy in their efforts to preserve and sustain the interpretive scheme of professionalism and partnership. We emphasise the need to develop a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between governance as a legal form and governance as an interpretive scheme.

This chapter examines the sources of variation in organizational form among accounting and law firms. We first summarize research in the organization of professional service firms and explain its evolution. This is followed by the argument that variations around the P2 archetype have emerged in response to different market and institutional pressures faced by accounting and law firms. Drawing on contingency and institutional theory, we show how the changing balance between the influence of market and institutional factors has resulted in structural variation.

This chapter discusses professional service firms as collectivities. Collectivity refers to the interface between the social and the cultural. It is a ‘social unit’; however, it is defined through the meanings, definitions and distinctions of the people involved. This chapter addresses the cultural and processual aspects on collectivity. Eight dimensions of collectivity are highlighted. Two case studies of consultancy companies illustrate these dimensions as well as different forms of collectivities. This chapter also addresses the interplay between foci on individuality and collectivity in organizations.

Drawing upon an eight-year-long study of two of the global accounting firms, this chapter suggests that a key aspect of professionalism is networking. Networking within these firms is crucial to achieving and demonstrating professional competence and to career advancement. It involves sophisticated forms of social practice and permeates a range of organizational processes. It is argued that networking also implies and potentially creates and regulates a particular kind of identity, namely that of the networked self or, more specifically, the networked professional.

There has long been an “ideal” model of the profession in the sociology of the professions. Our point of departure is that the independent professional is something of a vanishing species, and professional practice is increasingly carried out within non-professional organizations (organizations not managed nor largely staffed by fellow professionals). Indeed, can we expect to recognize our “ideal” professional at all whether in the multi-disciplinary professional service practice or more focussed large private practices? Might in fact there be something fundamentally flawed about both in this model? This chapter explores these issues and their implications for how ethical dilemmas are resolved.

Studies suggest that women in law appear dissatisfied with the practice of law due to the difficulties of balancing work and family. Little research has examined how the contextual characteristics of law firms affect women lawyers’ sense of life balance and career satisfaction, which is the focus of this study. I propose that if women in law firms can have children and be just as satisfied with their careers and have the same degree of life balance as women without children, then women practicing law can “have it all”. I show how contextual characteristics of law firms are important in understanding mothers’ and non-mothers’ work experiences.

Computer-mediated knowledge transfer has been at the forefront of consultancy research. The underlying idea is that individual knowledge can be externalized into disembodied symbols and codes, which can then be disseminated and accessed electronically within and across organizations. Although the process of externalization and transfer of knowledge has been investigated from various theoretical perspectives (positivism, social constructionism, pluralism), little research has addressed the role of cognition in computer-mediated knowledge transfer. Based on a case study within an international technical consulting firm, we argue that the success or failure of computer-mediated knowledge transfer is influenced to a large degree by embodied mental frames, social networks, and individuals’ creative and explanatory use of artifacts in real-world situations.

This chapter provides an ethnographic account of the interaction between a professional marketing consulting firm and its client. The interaction is analysed as a ‘narrative archipelago’ or complex of discursive practices by which professionalism is constructed. In this case three narratives predominate: the narrative of instrumental reason, of neo-liberalism and consumer protection. The analysis demonstrates the microprocesses by which wider concepts of professionalism are recreated in daily interactions between professionals and clients.

We explore factors that influence the circulation of client–service firm relationships between firms in the same market for professional services. Circulation refers to the dissolution of a client–service firm market tie and the formation of a new tie involving the same client but a new professional service firm. Building on research in social embeddedness and the structure of markets, we argue that the circulation of client–service firm relationships is affected by three social signals: the mobility of exchange managers between professional service firms, the size and market strategy of professional service firms, and the similarity of new service firms to clients’ previous exchange partners. Using data on advertising agency–client market ties, we find that client ties are more likely to circulate to large agencies, agencies with many market ties, and to agencies that are similar to a client's previous advertising agency. The circulation of client ties is also more likely when new agencies hire exchange managers from a client's previous agency. This effect is stronger when exchange managers circulate to agencies of equal or higher status as their previous employer. We discuss the implications of our findings for social embeddedness research and for the study of professional service firms.

In this paper, we analyse how the national variety in professional organisation is affected by the current period of globalisation by reference to key features of the business law firm in the US, the UK and Germany. Our argument is that changes in law firms from these different countries are indeed intertwined with each other through a gradual process of legal globalisation but that they are not necessarily converging on a dominant US model. Rather we find evidence that new hybrid types of firms are arising in Europe out of a re-combination of elements of different national models.

Publication date
Book series
Research in the Sociology of Organizations
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
Book series ISSN