The Ministry of Truth: 2+2 = ?

Newspaper SalesAs I made my daily spin through my incoming twitter feed this morning I noticed amongst other great little tweets that @officeinsight (Mark Eltringham) had announced that his ‘Workplace’ focused news site http://www.officeinsight.org had achieved 1000 readers yesterday for the first time. This is a notable and significant landmark in readership for an online trade news source, that didn’t exist at the start of the year. Mark, Sara Bean and his other excellent contributors have achieved what larger equivalent print trade magazines can only dream of in terms of online reach. He has done this by not replicating a publishing model for the old order but creating a highly interactive and invigorating experience online. There are articles of interest for everyone whether FM’s, designers, HR professionals, property managers and fit-out sector suppliers etc. He has achieved this through effort of will and a determination to be relevant and interesting, and often highly amusing. So congratulations are in order, and well deserved!

Following some gentle ribbing that it was partly down to his 2 squillion daily tweets, some of which I and others have gratefully retweeted, I dangled a little retweet ‘fish’ of my own for him to retweet. Incidentally, who would have thought such a strange new word like ‘retweet’ would have such significance for global communication, publishing, social commentary and commerce. It’s the ‘retweet’ that has the reach, not the ‘tweet’. The dangling ‘fish’ for the little tweeting bird was a link to my last blog post entitled ‘Seminar Propaganda: The Emperor’s New Clothes’, which is essentially my energetic tongue in cheek commentary on the plethora of bandwagon seminars popping up that purport to espouse wisdom on all things ‘Workplace’. My point of view is that a combination of professional pride and commercial imperatives are stifling an open debate about what office occupiers really want, and need; especially in an environment of apparently increasing democratization in workplaces.

Head SandMark tweeted back to me rather than retweet the ‘tempting’ link to my radical post, which is absolutely fine of course, I tried at least, knowing it was a contentious subject. He responded though saying something that on the face of it seemed very reasonable and eminently sensible, namely that “I think we’re guilty of some of the things you identify in that blog, but that’s commerce”. He went on to say in his next tweet “Challenge would be to put together a conference solely with practitioners as speakers, telling the truth, free to attend but possibly sponsored by firms”. A very sound suggestion, and a point made to me by the excellent @SimonHeath1 last weekend. A commerce free debate on ‘Workplace’ issues and strategy is what I am all about in any event, as evidenced in my blog posts, but to read the deflating statement “that’s commerce”, it was like a big wet rank fish dumped on my lap. As if it were understandable and acceptable to trade in a black market commodity of misunderstood platitudes and half baked poisonous ‘Workplace’ recipes in seminars and conferences? It’s genuinely sad. Mark is of course correct though.

It’s OK however, so long as we retain the conceit that given they’re selling and your buying it’s fine to hold our noses and gulp down the big mouthfuls of apocryphal half baked stinky workplace fish. We all know its highly distasteful and may make you sick, but come on everyone; we all have to earn a buck. What is it they say about the truth getting in the way of…Mmm, this fish is lovely. Can I have some more please? Luckily there’s a plentiful supply.

So a reasonable question would be, do commercial imperatives stifle open and honest debate? or is the status quo perfectly acceptable for everyone except me and a handful of vocal others in workplace?

big_brotherIt would seem that with some notable exceptions, such as that of the socially engaging unconference style favoured by @Dougshaw1 in his What Goes Around Limited HR sessions, part of the problem is that the larger conference forums such as put on by the BCO (Madrid this year), or Workplace Trends or ‘Worktech’ are structured in such a way as to preclude actual broad and inclusive discussion and debate, even at plenary sessions, with no forum for broader points and challenges to be explored further for wider dissemination and peer review. Not withstanding any gratefully received live tweeting, everyone is facing the guy at the front, why has he/she got the floor anyway? There is a room full of experienced designers, architects, HR professionals, agents, FM’s, contractors and occupiers, with their stories. Most of whom sadly wouldn’t say boo! to a goose, when 200 colleagues are looking in their direction. That’s one for the psychology skills of Nigel @oseland perhaps both on the traditional structure of the ‘Workplace Trends’ gig and the missed opportunities to hear the great ideas and thoughts from the introverts and others in the crowd.

CorporateWorldSo what we have are annual ‘Workplace’ events sponsored by global corporations for elevated market profile, and speakers selling their little piece of whatever it is their selling this year, probably the same as last year, but repackaged with a social paradigm twist. Maybe it’s E-surveys (See my Living by Numbers post), or software solutions, books and consulting services? Can nobody see what is happening here? Is it really just me?

A final question, where and when is ‘Workplace’ strategy and design openly debated in a non-commercial, non-partisan setting, and if not, does it really matter anyway? I raised this topic in my previous post on Tomorrow Never Knows: Evolving Ideas. If in 1984, the ‘Ministry of Truth’ indoctrinates, tortures and brainwashes Winston Smith into believing that 2+2 = Five, who is he to disagree. Don’t dissent. It’s easier that way. Right? It certainly makes sense commercially. No question.

“Underneath the spreading Chestnut Tree, I sold you and you sold me”.

Important Note: In accordance with the RSPWP guidelines (Royal Society for the Protection of Workplace Pundits): No conference organizers or speakers were harmed in the making of this blog.

Closing scene of ‘1984’ starring John Hurt.

4 thoughts on “The Ministry of Truth: 2+2 = ?

  1. Adrian. I do take the point. The problem is not only with any commercial enterprise having to sell out to some extent but also having a proper discussion and multiple voices. For example, I work on the assumption that people know why a telecoms firm publishes a survey about flexible working. We don’t need to editorialise it if we publish a story because people have their own filters, some of the results might be interesting and we have a comments section and people can express themselves through social media if they think it’s all about vested interests or wrong in any way. The big challenge online is always about attracting people to the website especially when they have so much other information to deal with. You can only do that by publishing the truth or a version of it. We can’t publish heaps of rotting haddock like print magazines because what we do is transparent while they can still get away with pretending to their advertisers that the stench of rancid fish is nothing to do with them. I also know the traffic data for the websites and they prove that people don’t want to read complete flannel from suppliers.

    This event sounds a good idea though. Woodstock for the profession.

  2. PS. Do you know the real challenge? It’s getting commercial organisations to accept that they should be communicating truthfully with an engaged audience of thousands rather than bullshitting to an indifferent audience of hundreds. It seems like a no-brainer but many are happier with the latter. You only have to look at what they spend their money on to know that’s true. As we discussed last week, the blogs of people like yourself, Neil Usher and Simon Heath get better traffic than a title like Tomorrow’s FM. And yet suppliers are still spending money on TFM rather than working out how to work with – or at least listen to – the true influencers in the market. I don’t mean to single out TFM because there are others but it’s an example. What is most amazing is that they are actually geared up to produce content daily and yet still can’t compete with people who have to find time to publish because they are passionate.

  3. Great post, and though it may be cold comfort – please don’t think this is just a Workplace thing. The problem blights the conference industry in general to the extent that it’s one of those markets that makes you wonder ‘how does it survive, and in some sectors even thrive?’ Of course there are some good events going on and more often there are good things happening in bad events too, but that feels a bit like going to a fancy restaurant and letting the chef off after a crap starter and main course, because the pudding was….OK. You wouldn’t do it, would you? And yet people put up with this thin soup time after time after time. Hmmmm….? I think I need to go sharpen my pencil. Oh – and a sincere thank you for the name check, I appreciate it.

  4. Love the post Adrian, and not just because I got a name check. Over the past couple of decades I’ve sat through endless conferences and seminars and have found the FM/workplace events in particular a very mixed bag, with both delegates and speakers (let’s face it, particularly speakers) often too cautious to say what they really think. I used to attend occupational nursing conferences as part of a former editorial role and found both speakers (usually practitioners) engaging and enthusiastic about their jobs. They also weren’t afraid to disagree with each other, which led to some fantastic debates. Mark’s point about TFM is so true – if some of these suppliers could appreciate the negative impact bland corporate speakers do for the sector and take more of a risk we’d all benefit.

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