Seminar Propaganda: The Emperor’s New Clothes

newclothesThe Plot: A vain Emperor who cares for nothing except wearing and displaying clothes hires two swindlers who promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or “hopelessly stupid”. The Emperor’s ministers cannot see the clothing themselves, but pretend that they can for fear of appearing unfit for their positions and the Emperor does the same. Finally the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the Emperor marches in procession before his subjects. The townsfolk play along with the pretence not wanting to appear unfit for their positions or stupid. Then a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretence, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but continues the procession.

When will the innocent, and I have to say often slightly naïve attendees of workplace conferences and seminars realise that the organisers and speakers have an agenda that is the polar antithesis of their own. These ‘Workplace’ guru wannabe speakers typically spout self-reverential apocryphal guff, using often misunderstood and borrowed consultancy vocab clichés. Doubtless picked up from someone else’s equally half-baked, grasping at straws, seminar the week before. Or if they’re a little up market, perhaps their source material was drawn from a seldom viewed 2007 TED talk found through a lucky Google search. Which resulted in a landing on someone’s decaying tumbleweed strewn blog page, hosted on a lesser known island off the eastern tip of ‘The Federated States of Micronesia’, thereby hoping nobody will have seen it recently.

Professor ObamaAs long as the conceit that their talk is a highly original insightful analysis based upon balanced emotional intelligence, considered intellect, and much practical experience; and all their own work, all will be well. So long as the audience is convinced that the speaker, has a massive presidential brain, is an expert (Allegedly) within their own field, within 20 minutes, it’s job done! However, it’s a game of performance and script designed to lure you in to believing that what they’re saying is true and will have a positive impact upon you and your business. Credit where it’s due when you come away thinking you’ve heard a great speaker, even if you can’t remember a word they’ve said. It’s quite a skill, and not to be underestimated.

Mary-PoppinsWith this in mind, there are several things to note when listening to these oh so confident gently gesticulating guru like speakers. It’s the free seminars you need to worry about most of all. Primarily, because they are selling a product that ultimately requires payment, a huge payment. It could be for desks and chairs, fitout and refurbishment contracting, ICT Infrastructure products & consultancy, property agency commission, or an architectural or interior design commission. There are equally inherent dangers in paying for a larger, more professional conference. Perhaps you’ve just clicked ‘Pay Now’ on an easy PayPal payment for the privilege of attending a broader less-partisan commercial event, discussing the weighty and evergreen ‘Workplace’ topics of our time, such as the perennial old chestnuts of ‘Wellbeing’, ‘Productivity’, ‘Creativity’, ‘Collaboration’ or ‘Agile (give me f***ing strength) working’, what is it called this week anyway? ‘Superflexi-Unrealistic-Bound To Be-Atrocious’. It will be if you let a marketing professional or narcissistic workplace wannabe convince you that their angle and take on it is the definitive word on the subject.

Hyperbolae like “We commissioned a survey of blah blah businesses considering a relocation in the next 18 months blah blah, and 92% of respondents stated that they thought walking was integral to getting from A to B” or “Our experience shows that 60% of property managers would rather make the wrong decision, than admit to their senior colleagues that they don’t really understand what ‘Agile (give me f***ing strength) working’ really is and why so many workplace pundits are referencing it as so crucially important to employee ‘Wellbeing’ and ‘Creativity’. Blah blah. Ooh, I’m feeling giddy now. I can only take so much creativity before I feel faint.

Star TrekIt used to be that workplace pundits headlined ‘Flexible Working’ as a big ‘Real Estate’ cost saver, but that’s not fashionable any more,  oh no, that’s passé. The way to attracting fresh new uninitiated clients is to sell the idea that in the new fluffy socially connected world (OK, ‘paradigm’, I can’t help it) it’s vital to have more zany and varied interiors, more bright comfy chairs, and multifunction sensorial play spaces. Especially if you want to attract the [braces himself]…yes I’m going to say it…Gen Y, and emerging millennials. [Winces with professional embarrassment] Like me perhaps you’ve heard it all before, and wonder why nobody has the answers to the fundamentals. It’s because the whole sphere has become so huge, that nobody questions its presence or origins. ‘Workplace’ as a topic has it’s own gravitational pull now. Attracting all kinds of low flying junk and detritus, having fallen out of previously stable orbits, far from the centre. Although sticking with a celestial spheres theme, I’m mixing my metaphors a little here; it’s comparable to the voyager spacecraft launched in 1977. Voyager 1 is currently leaving the edges of the solar system, rising above the ecliptic plane at an angle of about 35 degrees at a rate of about 320 million miles a year. Maybe life will reflect art and as in the original Star Trek movie of 1979, Voyager (VGER) will return one day as an all powerful thinking being demanding to know it’s creator, and asking why it exists?

Frankenstein & MonsterOr is Frankensteins monster a better analogy I wonder? There is so much workplace BS now that it’s a self-perpetuating, self-feeding monster beyond anyone’s control or understanding. Bolted together workplace terminologies along with unconvincing psychobabble regurgitated in regular workplace seminars scare the hell out of me. Unpicking the complexities of what constitutes a clear and simple ‘workplace’ occupancy strategy is not helped by regular misinterpretations reinforced by desperation driven by professional pride, and interwoven with ignorant misunderstanding and platitudes borne of commercial imperatives. There is a virtual domino effect spreading ever outward like a relentless unstoppable virus through seminars and conferences, and tweeted instantly around the planet by well meaning attendees who accept that convincing well rehearsed speakers must be credible, and understand their subject.

Now we can all be misinformed in the blink of an eye, and in just a few retweets and with a little more plagiarism and editing, it’s picked up by some young blogger in Moscow, who posts excitedly to his followers that the 140 character nano post from London’s latest ‘Workplace’ seminar is a revelation. Which then gets picked up by the Guardian newspaper online, which influences an editorial in the New York times, read by a blogger with a huge following in south Africa, who tweets that apparently if you do X you get Y…with easy to follow link to New York times story to verify.  Ad infinitum. It’s a tragedy of global proportions that the social media age has not helped.

Sideshow Carnival ClownsIt would obviously stretch credulity to have a carpet manufacturer or partitioning company put on some ‘Workplace’ related seminars, for after all they just weave carpets, and erect partitions, and what would they know about the subtle/complex interplay between occupiers, workspace and property. Whereas fitout contractors, furniture firms and self-proclaimed IT futurologists clearly have the inside track on what’s relevant because that’s what they do on a daily basis. Er! Wait a second! No they don’t, do they? What they do is by merit of their association, through their core business activity, is to align themselves to the ‘Workplace’ debate. They find a passable justification to ramp up their marketing machine to gloss up what little ‘Workplace’ strategy knowledge they may have, and that’s mostly none, to put on a little ‘Workplace’ show. Much like an attention grabbing fairground sideshow that draws in the curious and wide-eyed. “Roll up! Roll up!”, “Come hear the mesmerising honeyed tones of ‘Madame Mellifluous’, she can transport you to the most beautiful and productive workplaces you can possibly imagine, and never leave the comfort of your stackable seat. You’ll be amazed at what she can make you believe”. “Roll up! Roll up!”. It’s free! “Don’t forget to fill in our short feedback form with your contact details at the end, because we care deeply about what you think of our speakers, and what is relevant to you”. Don’t forget your email address?

Working Very SociallyWith the clever use of only one bubble diagram, two small info-graphics, one (fairly recent) case study and a royalty free image of laughing workers co-working themselves hilariously and productively across your field of vision, you too will believe that she is the most erudite, witty and awe inspiring voice you have ever heard on this subject. You will feel as if red rose petals are falling from the sky, whilst the blinding light of ultimate truth shines behind her, silhouetting her goddess like figure, as she sweetly, almost hypnotically tells you that research tells us that by 2025 40% of us will be working alone (Speak for yourself), and that when designing your office it’s important to create spaces to think. Oh for f***ks sake! Seriously! Yup, it’s important not to forget to think. … [Thinks] … Oh Sorry, I just lost my train of thought there as I fell out of my ‘acme’ (patent pending) big purple sound proof ‘Think-o-pod’ before completing the sentence. Oops!

All I am saying, and not for the first time on this blog is question what you hear in ‘Workplace’ circles and seminars, especially free ones, challenge the veracity of suspiciously apocryphal statements, and don’t be afraid to say “I don’t believe a word your saying” or “you have no evidence whatsoever that anything of what you have said is true or has any validity with anyone”. You’ll find that the more you probe and interrogate the closer you will get to the actual truth; namely that you must remain vigilant and make up your own mind about what’s right for you and your business. There are no panacea solutions.

I will say this in concluding. If for the most part there is good open communication, trust and belief between everyone in your organisation, you will be able to arrive at an acceptable consensus, with a well-considered viewpoint and occupancy vision for your organisation. It won’t necessarily require any external consultancy BS served up by strangers, struggling to look and sound interesting, and looking for a five-figure fee or big juicy fit-out contract at 35% margin.

Don’t forget that consultants charge you to take your watch from you in order to tell you the time.

‘Duel’ Courtesy of ‘Propaganda’ 1985…

One thought on “Seminar Propaganda: The Emperor’s New Clothes

  1. Pingback: The Ministry of Truth: 2+2 = ? | Double Helix

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