Carnegie Mellon University

Cognitive Processes in Argumentation: An Exploratory Study of Management Consulting Expertise

Author: Richard Young
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1989

This study used protocol analysis and problem-solving theory (Newell and Simon, 1972) to explore the cognitive processes of management consultants and their clients. Think-aloud and talk-aloud data was collected from an expert and a novice management consultant and their two entrepreneur clients as the consultants read their clients' business plans, planned for consulting sessions with their clients, and consulted with them. The study coded each of the participants' statements both in terms of problem-solving operators and also in terms of the statement's rhetorical impact.

The primary hypothesis consistent with the findings was that the expert and novice consultants gave themselves very different tasks to work through. The expert's knowledge was organized rhetorically from the start in terms of the tasks that investors and entrepreneurs in this situation must engage in. Reading his client's plan, the expert came to represent his client's tasks as rhetorical ones: she must re-conceive her plan to make it investor-oriented, but first she must decide whether or not to abandon her current technical orientation. While consulting, the expert developed an integrated argument that enabled his client to understand how each of his recommendations was grounded in an investor's perspective.

The novice, on the other hand, started with his knowledge organized in terms of his MBA course work. He came to represent his client's tasks as those of a rational decision maker: his client should acquire as much relevant information as possible to reduce his risk of making a bad decision, and his client should immediately recognize the novice's recommendations as correct "without even considering them." While consulting, the novice made no attempt ground his series of arguments in a single perspective. Finally, although both consultants made many recommendations, only the expert obtained his client's agreement. A secondary hypothesis suggests how the clients came to agree or disagree.

The study proposes a cognitive process model of management consulting expertise in the context of business planning as well as a general cognitive process model of argumentation.