Over the last few years research on management consulting has established itself as an important area in management studies. While, traditionally, consulting research has been predominantly a-theoretical, lately researchers have been calling for an exploration of different theoretical approaches. This article has been written in response to these calls. It explores a new perspective for theorizing the client–consultant relationship based on the theory of social systems by Niklas Luhmann. According to this approach, clients and consultants can be conceptualized as two autopoietic communication systems that operate according to idiosyncratic logics. They are structurally coupled through a third system, the so-called ‘contact system’. Due to the different logics of these systems, the transfer of meaning between them is not possible. This theoretical position has interesting implications for the way we conceptualize consulting, challenging many traditional assumptions. Instead of supporting the client in finding solutions to their problems, this perspective emphasizes that consulting firms can only cause ‘perturbations’ in the client’s communication processes, inducing the client system to construct its own meaning from it.
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