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November 18, 2009

Workshops and why you must avoid them - or so says Theodore Dalrymple

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Workshops are a pathology that spreads like bacteria on agar gel - argues Theodore Dalrymple.

Kingsley Amis, a man whom, for reasons neither interesting nor publishable, I did not much admire, once said that the word "workshop" summed up all that was wrong with the modern world. He was right, and his comment was both shrewd and prescient. Courses, conferences, away-days, workshops, team-building weekends - they're all part of the same pathology, and they've spread like bacteria on agar gel.

With a regularity bordering on the boring, from many sources, I receive flyers offering me courses to improve myself. I am far from supposing that I cannot improve or be improved, but most of these courses seem more designed to relieve me of money than anything else. They come with pictures of the course leaders (or trainers), happy and smiling and, to my eyes at least, deeply crooked.

A learned journal to which I subscribe always arrives with invitations to courses and conferences. Some, naturally, are of interest: those given by people who are acknowledged experts in their field, and who will provide a convenient digest of the latest research in it. But a high proportion of them are about what one might call para-work: activity that has nothing, or something only very tangential, to do with the ostensible aims of one's profession.

Here is the latest, offering courses on the following:
Building Multi Professional Teams
Communications Skills
Assertiveness Training
Emotional Intelligence
Negotiation and Influencing Skills
Implementing Change
Time Management
Dealing with Conflict

Each of these course comes with a testimonial even less trustworthy than those that used to accompany advertisements for Pink Pills for Pale People, in so far as not even initials or addresses to within the nearest hemisphere are offered.

Really enjoyed every minute of it! Flexible, memorable approach, encouraging direction. Good practical exercises. Thank you!

Excellent session - very interactive.

Very useful and helpful, it helped me reflect on my work style and identify important issues.

Identifying important issues: another of the phrases that so beautifully instantiates our modern social, intellectual and moral malaise. Anyone who identifies an important issue is almost as lost a soul as anyone who believes that he suffers from low self-esteem, for he has lost the power of language to express thought. He has become almost an automaton.

The fee for each course (no doubt repayable by the National Health Service to those who work for it) is 225 per person, with a discount of 10 per cent for those who - perish the thought! - sign up for four or more of them.

If instead of going to a course you arrange for a course to come to you - an advantage to the public purse, because it will entail "no extra travel and overnight accommodation costs" - it will cost only 3000, which means that (shall we say) eight people would have to attend for their to be an overall saving. And just think how wonderful everything will be when all are equally assertive!

Another discount is available for individuals, of 50 per cent this time - for those who are retired.

It used to be that the British had a sense of humour, an irony that was an admirable approach to life, and that was once supposed to have preserved them from the wilder shores of ideology, whether communist or fascist. The idea that professional people aged more than 60 should now attend a course on how to assert themselves or learn to communicate would have produced a guffaw of contemptuous laughter. No longer, it seems.

All this para-work, this ceaseless diversionary activity, is designed, or at least destined, to prevent people from carrying on their real work. By doing so, of course, it creates employment, or at least the necessity to pay people salaries: for, overall, many man-days are lost to it. And it creates pseudo-entrepreneurial opportunities for so-called consultants (often ex-employees of the organisations whose staff they now offer to train in such skills as assertiveness). It is, in effect, an exercise in Keynesian demand-management, but unlike the kind of public works that Keynes envisaged as a stimulus to a flagging economy, it leaves the country with nothing of enduring value, unless a bureaucrat with a flat-screened television and a new conservatory be called something of enduring value.

Needless to add, ceaseless "personal and professional development" is perfectly compatible with the most abysmal incompetence. Indeed, such incompetence is welcome, for it creates ever more demand for the personal and professional development that is supposedly the means to overcome it. This is what I believe is known as a positive feedback loop.

I will mention just one of the courses on offer, the "building" of multi-disciplinary teams, so called. I have some experience of multi-disciplinary teams once they have been "built", or should I say "assembled", "agglomerated" or "accumulated". More often than not, in my experience, they are not so much multi-disciplinary as undisciplined. Lacking a clear structure of overall authority, and therefore of responsibility, they lead to endless disputes as to who is to do what, as well as the grossest neglect of the ostensible aims of the "team".

The power struggles are interminable and insoluble, for no one is truly in charge and any instructions are regarded as an infringement of or attack upon the idea of equality of disciplines and equality within disciplines. The pretence that the most junior is equal to the most senior means that supervision scarcely happens, or only retrospectively, after a disaster, when the most junior person who can plausibly be blamed is singled out.

The inevitable squabbles that result lead to accusations of bullying, usually defined in purely subjective terms: you are bullied if you feel you are (in the absence of a requirement of objective correlates of feeling, thought is, of course, quite unnecessary and probably best avoided). Such accusations can result in a Kafka-esque procedure lasting months and occupying days, weeks and months of labour-time.

Meanwhile, neglect of the real work is ascribed to a shortage of "resources" and the object of the team's attentions, that is to say members of the public, are offered perfunctory services, for example never seeing the same member of the team twice. Between holidays, team meetings and courses on how to make the team function better, there is no time left for the elementary compassion of consistency.

Every public enquiry into every disaster that comes within the remit of the services set up to ameliorate the social pathology brought about by years of social engineering finds the same thing: lack of communication between the various parts of the multi-disciplinary teams. Time, surely, for a course on Communication Skills.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor. He is the author of the author of Junk Medicine: Doctors, Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy and In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas.


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What a glorious piece! All of it spot-on, and delightfully written. Required reading for any non-automaton thinking of a career in the public sector.

Posted by: P.H. at November 18, 2009 08:23 PM
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Absolutely spot on. I entered the public sector after 25 years in the private sector. Never have I been on so many courses.
What, I want to know, is their point? We are told it is to make us work better and, therefore, work more efficiently. Does anyone know how the unit costs of the public sector stack up against those of the private sector?
By my reckoning I and my colleagues are now about 30 per cent as productive as we were in the private sector. What on Earth is going on?
What really riles is that a certificate from a course trumps years of real experience. We have people who don't know their jobs at all - but who have sheafs of certificates. These people actually seek out courses as a way of building up their CVs - and yet they forget what they were 'taught' as soon as the course ends.
I blame the intellectual bankruptcy of the Labour Party. In the 1990s it was clear that Thatcherism had won the battle of ideas - and the only 'critique' the Labour Party could offer was the alleged need for 'long-termism' and and 'investment' in 'training'. We are now reaping a poor reward.

Posted by: NG at November 22, 2009 11:38 PM
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I think that once you've been in the public sector for a while, as I have, and are lucky enough to have a choice about which courses to attend (which basically means that you're not desperate to climb up the ladder in record time), you get quite canny about sniffing out the occasionally useful ones from the 90% of them that are pointless rubbish. I do pity those who are obliged to go to just about every course out there, though. A fate worse than death.

Posted by: mike at November 24, 2009 05:33 AM
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"Kingsley Amis, a man whom, for reasons neither interesting nor publishable, I did not much admire"...

Oh, do tell. Anything about Kingsley Amis is interesting, surely. Your remark naturally sent me into a frenzy of googling but I couldn't discover anything about your animus against KA, so I have to appeal to you personally.

Good stuff about workshops, too. Never been to one, thank God. Don't think I'd like 'em.

Posted by: Graham Asher at November 24, 2009 12:34 PM
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As a teacher in Canada, I was required to be present for several workshops per year. In every case, I came away more discouraged with my profession. It would take several days of the classroom to wash the nasty taste of these workshops away. Mr. Amis had it right, but I'm sorry that I had to spend 32 years helping prove him right.

Posted by: Brian Bauld at November 25, 2009 12:17 AM
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