Workplace conferences missing the point

I was going to pitch a version of this to The Conversation, but as you will read I got a tiny bit ranty. And while I’m probably helping to destroy any future employment opportunities (like I had any to begin with) I still had to get it all down .

“Ooh I would love to go to this” tweeted a learning specialist friend today. The ‘this’ in question was the Future of Work conference to be held in Melbourne in April by The Centre for Workplace Leadership which operates within the faculty of economics and business. I replied that I too would love to go but the $990 ‘early bird’ price tag meant that I’ll probably be at home that day plugging away on my PhD which, coincidently, is about leadership. I followed with a tweet that I was disappointed that a large potential group of participants in this event was never going to be able to attend, excluded based on cost.

While this is not a revelatory idea, something about it bugged me as the day progressed. How can we promote creative, ethical, practical, diverse discussions of what constitutes effective leadership when those doing the talking (and listening) come from a limited section of the community? The speaker list for the conference includes academics and business leaders, HR managers and CEOs from innovative organisations. And the audience, I’m sure, will be filled with more of the same. They bring research knowledge and experience in finance and venture capital. There’s a calculated mix of genders and nationalities, but they are also all from mainstream, generally large, institutions.

The Centre for Workplace Leadership undoubtedly has its target audience and revenue generation goals. Leadership is big business. A 2012 report on US companies suggested they spent almost $14 billion on leadership development, often with limited impact. The Centre for Workplace Leadership is only one organisation that offers a suite of training and development resources for sale in the Australian marketplace.

Despite all this spending leadership does not have a good reputation. There’s a lack of faith in our political leadership, the questionable ethics of our business leaders have now become pop culture material in films and books such as The Big Short and my own research into leadership within the cultural and creative sector shows that emerging leaders are giving the title of leader the cold shoulder.

Surely rolling out the same ‘innovative’ companies in the same over priced conference format is not changing anything? The Centre for Workplace Leadership’ mission says it aims to improve leadership across Australian workplaces, but in reality it is speaking to and for a very limited section of organisations. The creative industries, to highlight my own area of interest, is roughly 6% of the Australian economy, and of the 123,000 or so creative businesses in Australia 98% of them employ less than 20 people, many of whom turnover less than $200,000 annually (CIIC Valuing Creative Industries Report.) The only way any of these guys are attending a $1000 conference is if they are invited to speak as the ‘token creative.’

Couple conferences like these with the increasing corporatisation of cultural leadership and the conversations all start to sound the same. Is there any wonder that my research participants think ‘leadership’ is not relevant to them? If the only representation of leadership they see is a) political b) corporate, c) our (cough cough) sporting leaders then it is unsurprising that the title is not one they want to embrace.

This lack of diversity in discussion is not restricted to leadership. The rise in popularity of events like TEDxSYDNEY saw what once was a culturally and economically diverse event (which was free, but had a ‘curated audience’) shift to a advertising and design agency love in at the Opera House at $250 a pop.

Do I want to attend events like TEDx and The Future of Work? Damn straight I do. I believe I the power of conversation, peer learning and the importance of storytelling as a leadership tool. But if I have to hear the HR team from Macquarie Bank tell me how they implemented design led thinking to their leaders (with chickens and beanbags!) again with no actual creative practitioners in the room and everyone earning over $100k per annum (which did happen at a Sydney conference last year) I may tear my hair out.

How about a discussion on the future of work that actually includes all types of workers? Sole traders, freelancers, volunteers, organisational leaders, artists, creatives, activists and those that don’t even know what they are doing is leadership? Then we might have a conversation that makes a difference.

Rant over.

Social Theory, Politics and the Arts 2015

Note: I changed my title from Surry Hills PhD to the even more generic PhD 2017 as I’m not in Surry Hills anymore, Toto. But I still hope to finish my PhD by 2017, so there’s that. 

At AIMAC in June one of the loveliest people I met, Kathleen from Southern Methodist University, encouraged me to apply to present at STPA.  There’s not many chances to be involved in an international level academic arts orientated conference when you’re in Australia, so I thought why not?

Of course I knew going to Adelaide two weeks before Christmas and two weeks after we moved to Melbourne may have been stressful, but I only aliased how stressful whe I tried to change my flight to come home early (as I just couldn’t face going.)

Of course my paper was scheduled for the final session of the final day, thus ensuring I was not able to escape, forcing me to participate in the whole conference.  I should note, all this mental miserableness occurred before I actually made it to Adelaide.

What I did discover, within two hours of arriving, is that I knew a lot more people than I expected too. Which is always comforting.  People I’d met in France, people I’ve interviewed in Australia, and I few that are increasingly popping up on my social media feeds discussing cultural policy and the world of the arts. The second thing I discovered is, I’ve lost significant stamina in making polite, even academically polite, conversation. The downside of PhD life is the you forgot how to be in rooms full of people, as it’s usually just me and the dog.

But the conference itself. It kicked off with what has to be described as the rockstar dream team of David Throsby and Julian Meyrick. (The lack of women keynote speakers does have to be mentioned though, this is the second conference where there’s been no female plenary speakers. Come on guys, really?) Prof Throsby is undoubtedly a superstar in cultural economics and he rolled out all his hits in his keynote.  Prof Meyrick was a great theoretical counterpoint bringing his theatre driven charisma and style to discussions of cultural language. And he wore a good hat.

Paper sessions reminded me of a few things.  People still forget to present according to audience. Academics travel the world giving the same paper a lot (a few times I ended up seeing a presenter give exactly the same presentation they gave at AIMAC).  That it’s hard to pick what will be a fascinating presentation by the abstract.  (One of my favourite presentations from day one was an comparison of Indian and South Korean cultural policy, which I went to because I met the speaker previously. ) Storytelling, effective narrative, cannot be underestimated. Good storytellers are good presenters (And good leaders?) and panel sessions are never panel sessions but a series of short presentations.  The only panel sessions I’ve seen at any conference was a recent on at the Australia Council’s Arts Learning Forum where instead of a series of monologues the panel asked each other questions.  I’m stealing this idea, as it was great.

I was exceited that Prof Nancy Adler from Montreal was presenting (over lunch, which again pushed me #everydaysexism buttons.)  While she was lovely, and her presentation engaging, it wasn’t particularly useful and wasn’t really about leadership as I’d hoped.

More generally, I find the people at conferences are one of two types, overly generous and kind, sharing ideas and collaborating willingly or constantly looking past you to see who’s more important to talk to.  I hope I can be the former.

Research wise I find I’m still a little out there in my own. There’s very little work being done on how creative people learn. How arts education is taught maybe, but not practitioners themselves.  I was pleased to meet Dr Sheree Gordon from Western Sydney University who’s working on issues HR in the creative space, her research focussed on family balance and responsibility for actors and how that’s managed. Really interesting and I can see parallels in her finding to what I’m seeing.

I also caught up with someone I went to high school with, but a few years below, who happens to have the best job ever- head of research and policy for Screen Australia.  After I got over my extreme jealousy it was good to hear about her experience.

As to the reception of my paper, the feedback was pretty positive.  It was pleasing to have Ruth Rentschler come and see me present after providing me such guidance at AIMAC, and then tell me she thought I’ve come forward in leaps and bounds.  Each time I present I do get my ideas better formulated and more coherent.

Once again, however, I confirmed that academic life is not in my future. This wasn’t the tearing down of ideas type scenario, but more a confirmation of the logistics of academia being out of reach.  I can’t apply for fellowships or post docs in other cities when I’m done. The required mobile life of an academic, especially early in their career, is not achievable by a 40 something married to a lawyer aiming for partnership. And furthermore I could see how difficult this was for people, especially women, socially.

This does a couple of things, it removes my self inflicted anxiety about publication in academic journals (though I will still aim to next year.) It also has me planning again for life beyond the PhD. And to that end I’m reaching out to organisations with the aim of volunteering next year.  One, I want to return to community service, two, I want to build my Melbourne network towards a post academic career.  So let’s see how that goes.

But it has left me undecided about going to another conference in 2016.  I had thought maybe one would be on the cards, but maybe it will be hard to justify the expense when my scholarship runs out mid-year and we are about to buy a house.  I have to think honestly about this one.

Now I’m heading back to transcribe the last of my interviews, ending the year how I began I suspect.

Thoughts on Disruption

I’m writing during the lunch break of Disrupt Sydney, a one day conference run by University of Sydney on digital disruption. I was invited to attend by a recent person I met via Twitter, and as I like to shake my brain up every once and awhile it seemed like a good idea.

Like all conferences it is a mix of entertainment, networking and the occasional snippet of useful information.  With 8 weeks left before I leave Sydney the networking aspect is low on my agenda, hence hiding out writing when I could be collecting Linkedin profiles. I think two years of PhD work has made me a little too orientated toward being alone with my thoughts, which is going to be interesting when I have to go back into the workforce. (I also ignored the standard conference food for Mary’s, but that is just the fact that I’m not often in the city and because MARY’S…. Here’s a tip disruption conference organisers: disrupt the standard food and we’ll love you more.)

Disruption.  It’s big.  Thanks to our new PM it will be bigger.  It’s all about agility and innovation now isn’t it.  I do a lecture on cultural leadership and disruption (badly) in my course so I’m not immune to the trend.

While it has been touched on, very, very, very briefly, there is little critical analysis of the concept of disruption going on, here or more generally. And I can’t help asking to myself as I hear each speaker “is this really disruptive or the natural evolution of technology use?” Skip Rizzo gave a fantastic talk on the use of virtual reality technologies in the clinical environment including treatment of PTSD but is this really a radical departure? It’s still clinician driven, only the mechanisms have changed.

In my mind I keep thinking about Bespoke, Marcus Westbury’s recent ABC series.  This showed some great examples of a return to traditional making, along with examples of using technology for distribution and production, that to me is more disruptive than encouraging girls to study STEM.  I’m not critiquing the speakers, who have mostly been very engaging, but predilection for attaching the word ‘disruptive’ to a whole mess of stuff that has always happened.

Of course we’re in a business school, and mainstream organisational thought is where it’s at.  I signed up to a ‘workforce of the future’ workshop led by a Macquarie executive prior to attendance and I knew by lunch I was probably going to hate it.*  There’s a lot of language about creating community and bringing organic farming into the workplace (CHICKENS!) but not enough reflection on the fact that all this is designed to make people work harder/longer/smarter for the benefit of owners and shareholders.  Antony Funnell from Radio National reminded everyone in his keynote that the digital world is not a meritocracy and a tech genius with a laptop does not have everything necessary to build a world changing app- power structures still play a part. I just wished that level of critique was leveled at some of the other concepts.

True disruption is not just about finding new uses for technology to make more/save more money, it’s radical thought that changes the world. Most of the speakers today have talked about work that helps people, great, but disruptive? Not to me.

*I didn’t hate it, but I also didn’t get any useful information from it.

Update: This was in The Guardian today and I agree wholeheartedly.

Collaboration versus cooperation

Theme two in my exploration of the big ideas underpinning my research is probably the mother of them all….maybe. I’m toying with the idea of the individual versus the collective, which I’ll write about tomorrow, but this leads me into all sort of political areas that I know I’m interested in, but I’m not knowledgable enough on.

Collaboration became one of my most though about ideas after I visited Adelaide in March. I was so energised and excited about the interviews I conducted there.  Here was a group that were under-resourced, yet banded together to produce great work (I can only assume as I didn’t get time to see it) and, most importantly, valued the role of learning in their community.

From interview one I was intrigued by the idea that working collectively (and I use the different word on purpose) could be a critical factor in the development of leadership capability, and importantly for me, the willingness to embrace leadership identity.  Participants seemed to consciously draw together to achieve shared goals, which is obviously necessary to produce an art form that takes many people, but also recognised the learning they received from each other.

Institutionally, organisationally and academically this learning also seemed to be recognised and mechanisms were put in place to facilitate networks and shared practice. Coming after the final interviews in the visual arts arena, which were highly individualistic in nature, this was a massive difference.

This propelled me down the communities of practice path, an area of learning I had never come across before. To the point that I’m now writing a conference paper on it and in the recent FASS 3MT competition I proposed that this is a primary finding.

But then, in May, I went to Hobart to talk the film community there.  They have many similarities with Adelaide, in that they are a smaller city that requires a supportive community to survive (the role of geography and space is another theme I’m considering too. More on that later.)

The film work experience came up slightly in my Adelaide research, with participants suggesting it was very different and their experiences in the different sector were not positive.  I wanted to test this theory, both disciplines are collective in nature are they not? Surely the same learning would apply?

No.

My primary participant in film told a fascinating story about their university experience, which contrasted incredibly with that of theatre.  (In a strange twist I actually knew this group at the Melbourne University they studied at way back in the 90s as I was a volunteer on some of their projects.)  There was no evidence, early on in this subject’s history, of the shared learning and confidence that developed through communities of practice and participation.  In fact almost the opposite occurred, early career development was stifled by a negative experience of collective learning.

A memory floated into my consciousness. Late last year I met a very successful cinematographer at a party (as you do, though it was probably the only party I went to last year.)  We got talking and he told me that film sets were an exercise in role understanding. Everyone knows their job and they can walk in on day one and produce because of the clear demarcation lines.

One Hobart subject (who predominantly works in film) explained to me took a role in a theatre production where they spent two weeks in a room brainstorming ideas and visiting the Botanic Gardens.  He thought “I’m getting paid for this?” The perceived ‘luxury’ of spending time together jointly producing the work was not something he experienced in his other jobs.

So we see that even though both of these art forms are collective, they are not necessarily collaborative.  Film is a sector I would describe as cooperative, not collaborative.  In the ‘award winning’ paper delivered at AIMAC 2015 Jyrämä and  Äyväri write:

“In order to create joint practice, or activity, for the intersection of communities of practice, it is noteworthy to make a distinction between cooperation and collaboration. Cooperation refers to tasks divided separately with defined responsibilities. Cooperation might occur at the intersection of communities of practice without any changes in respective values and norms. On the other hand collaboration refers to joint problem solving, building interaction, and understanding the others’ values and norms, in other words, creation of a sub- community, team or new joint practice. (Nissen et al., 2014.)”

This explains to me why I saw evidence of leadership capability building and learning early on in the career of my theatre practitioners, but it was less evident at the same stage in film.  However, later on in the film subject’s career she actively created her own community, and credited it as being critical in her development.  It just wasn’t facilitated necessarily through University, institutional or organisational networks as it was in Adelaide and it was driven through activity on a film set, or even film production, it was a writing group.

So here I can use my interviews to illustrate that communities of practice can work in the creative sector to enhance learning, but only when they are collaborative in nature, not cooperative.  While there are authors who say such communities must develop organically, and cannot be facilitated by organisations, it is still beneficial to understand how they are more likely to emerge.

In my idealised career path I really wanted to explore the difference between film ways of working and theatre, as I think it could make a great project.  In the real world of my thesis, however, I can see this forming a key claim.

AIMAC CONFERENCE day three 

Our final day we used to Marseille to spend most of the day at Friche de la belle de Mai, a great location, with big cool auditoriums, as well as being a fascinating space.
After the artist studio tour, and morning tea, we settled in for the final plenary session, in English this time. Not to sound all Anglo Saxon dominant and colonial but HOORAY.

On a proposed new models for arts funding the panel consisted of perspectives broader than just European and presentations were restricted so dialogue could be had. Finally a well orchestrated round table…..well that was the theory. The reality was the introductory speakers went well over an hour and then the whole session ran 30 minutes late. You could feel the crowd tuning out 3/4 way through.
There’s been a lot of discussion on crowd funding, and Zannie Voss from SMU Dallas raised the point that crowd funding is shallow, there’s no one to one relationship with donors, which makes we wonder why no one is studying the ‘Amanda Palmer phenomenon’ because this clearly contradicts this idea that crowd funding doesn’t promote individual connection.
The Chinese perspective highlighted that government and industry focus has been on establishing creative industries, in which they have been very successful, but there is almost no support, government or otherwise for public cultural institutions. This is the new area of exploration.
We also heard from the head of fundraising from the Louvre, one of the most important people in this space globally. He spoke about how it was harder to attract business sponsorship unless there are two factors, one it links to social causes too for CSR purposes, or they want strong marketing benefit, bang for their sponsorship buck.

Little gift giving comes from individuals in France, but it is growing both from major donors and little value campaigns and crowd funding. The idea that culture as a sponsorship opportunity alone is not enough was a theme in a few places, culture needed to align with some other social cause or issue- culture plus youth for example.
A big issue, outside the U.S. where it has existed for a while, is the professionalization of fundraising as an industry and a career. Much training needs to occur in this space.

After lunch you would think would be the killer slot, the last session on the last afternoon of the conference, in a dark room on a 30 plus degree day. I’d say, however, they were three of the best presentations I’d seen over the conference. The first was a study of a creative clusters using a museum case study in Vienna engagingly presented by a double team. The second two were both American, the former examining knowledge centric organisations and whether they have better organisational performance outcomes and the latter on the relationship a state’s entrepreneurial climate and the sustainability of arts and culture organisations.

This wrapped up the content for AIMAC15, with only the awards, a final museum visit and the gala dinner to come. Or I should say the Gala dinner that wasn’t, but more on the other blog.

AIMAC CONFERENCE 2015 day two 

  
Anne from Deakin presented first on coproduction in the museum sector, specifically focusing on professional bodies as co producers. It was an interesting perspective for me given my employment with NAVA in 2012/3. She described a process of institutional inertia with regard to change toward new working models. That sounds familiar. 
The model took change management theory and applied it to professional association’s response to coproduction in museums. It was a great example, to me, of application of theory in a practical context. A great role model. And a note that it is a quirk of this modern world that I travel to the south of France to hear someone who grew up in the same area as me and who studies the local area my father lives in. 
Paper three delivered by Wendy Reid from Montreal in the first session was on role transitions for artists, such as moving into an artistic director role. Given there’s been a bit of focus on artistic directorship in Australia, and our tendency to now import in people from non artistic roles, I thought this was very interesting.

The second plenary session improved on the first, in the sense my headphones were not quite as painful, but still ran as a series of presentation as opposed to real round table. It was on territorial anchoring of cultural activity and not uninteresting to me from a cultural policy and creative cities perspective, but the combination of the format, the heat and the distance created by the language made it hard to maintain concentration. The last speaker, however, was the head of Liverpool 2008- European Capital of Culture who presented a really engaging look at the impact of the festival and societal impact of cultural activity. It was worth listening to the other six just to hear him. 
In the afternoon, really struggling with the heat, I left HR for strategic management to hear Ravid’s presentation on the financial impact of stars in Broadway productions. While clearly a “flashy” topic and one clearly appealing to many of my Surry Hills neighbours, it is really about the measurement of organisational impact created by individuals, similar to the study of CEOs. He is an engaging speaker and the topic was an appealing one (in short: theatre stars impact show performance, but movie stars do not.)
It was different being in the strategic management track for a while because I found myself in the world of quantitative analysis, all statistics and variables. I do love a good statistic in terms of using them to tell a story, but it also reminded me why I failed first year statistics in my undergraduate degree. (After being a maths geek in secondary school.) 
The third session in this block was an investigation into competition and copyright policies and while I like to think I know a little bit about the latter (at least in the Australian context) I had absolutely no idea what was going on after the introduction bar a few terms. The formulas looked impressive. I’m blaming tiredness. 
After a break I returned to strategic management, as I’d met someone who I wanted to support. The first speaker in this block, Dottie, was talking on strategic communication to build arts audiences and fundraising, and was presenting in a classic corporate way, not academic. If corporate style is at one end and academic at the other, I was somewhere in the middle, maybe slightly on the corporate side. Dottie was hanging out as far left as I’d seen since I left American Express. I was really interested to see if she got called on it, not presenting a paper in the traditional sense, given I’d been raked over the coals for the same. (I noted too Dottie had just completed a Masters, so wasn’t engaged in doctoral research or an academic.) And for a 20minute presentation I think she used about 36 slides. She reminded me of the Anna Kendrick character in Up in the Air (at the beginning of the film.) 
Interestingly the third speaker was a management consultant, from Ontario Canada, looking at change in arts organisations. She didn’t use a presentation at all, preferring just to speak. I could see from watching both of these presenters where the critique I received came from. In the first case there was no research, just hypothesis, and in the latter there was extensive research (over three years) but no theoretical underpinnings. While I have both theoretical underpinning AND research I may actually have too much research (as much as I like interviews I think I’m going to have to stop at 50 maximum.) And my challenge is building a comprehensive theoretical framework that aligns to my data outcomes and helps position me where I want to go academically. I think I’ve probably said this in every post but it’s been hammered home.
At 6pm I was happy to retire for an aperitif. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I have two years to sort this stuff out. But at the same time I’m thinking it might be good if I don’t teach in 2016 to really focus on this.

AIMAC 2015 CONFERENCE day one

(Word press is being a nightmare regarding spacing, I apologise if this is a bit of a mess.)

The first session delved into the idea of cooperation across the Mediterranean region and included 6 speakers from both universities and practitioners from the region. The first, but not only learning, was the translation earphones that were provided, as it was conducted in French, are really uncomfortable. (And they shorted out during the second last speaker, the artistic director of the Aix festival, who was the most engaging.)


The second is, despite this being the very first session, and the urging by organisers that we must stick to time, that no one tells people of this calibre/status to stop telling their stories (and it should be noted the panel was all male, facilitated by a woman, a fact pointed out by Dr Kate MacNeill from Melbourne University, who has earned her badge of honour already.) The supposed round table was actually six speakers presenting their own story one after the other, with almost no time for audience interaction or even interaction with each other. I have to say it’s my pet hate when we don’t manage panels effectively to achieve the dialogue component. But that is just me.

The issue of terrorism and political instability, particularly given the events in Lyon this past week, clearly hung over the proceedings, particularly when the engagement of Arab world is such a crucial area both regionally and globally. Monday night was to be a trip to the opera as part of Aix Festival. It was a Mozart opera, nearly four hours long, and as it was starting at 9:30 I had mixed feelings about attendance. The director of the Festival, however, informed us that we were to attend the final dress rehearsal, but in the light of the recent terrorist attacks, particularly in Tunisia, some of the performance needed to be rewritten as to be sensitive to the situation and the audience was no longer welcome. It was an interesting insight into the reality of artistic directorship in the modern environment.

There’s plenty of social time across the conference, and I’m very glad to have spent 2 days in the doctoral workshop as entering the melee of the conference proper without a few friends would be daunting. I’m happy to see a few Australians presents, Ruth who ran the doctoral workshop, and two of the senior figures in Melbourne University’s Cultural management program. No one from Sydney has been spotted as yet, suggesting our move south might mean I’m more connected into Australian arts management networks than I had been previously.
Lunch was held in the luxurious, but hot, grounds of Pavillion Vendome and featured pastis and local rosè. Yeah it was tough. All the Australians, or I should say Melburnians, congregated together and had a chat with the very charming head of MUCEM, the museum in Marseille we visit on Wednesday.

The afternoon kicked off the main paper tracks, at each time there are up to seven parallel sessions ranging from strategic management to consumer marketing. I’m likely to camp out predominantly in the organisational behavior and HR track as it’s my main research area, though I plan to also see some of the ‘big names’ and the people I’ve met along the way.

Paper one was an investigation into arts management and millennials, and I was surprised to find that no work had been done in this space before. This sort of generational analysis is standard in non-academic HR as it’s so crucial from a hiring and retention perspective.

Apparently this group of prospective employees, as determined by this particular study, see training and career development as being “somewhat unimportant” which is interesting from my perspective, writing on on this space. But my theory, one I shared with the speaker, is that we have conditioned people to be in control of their own career, thus do not expect organisations to provide training or career development therefore it isn’t seen as important.  I was happy to find this opinion was agreed with by others.

I was watching the presentations with two purposes, one to learn what research was out there, but the other to understand the structure and mechanics of presenting at conferences. I’ve decided to submit a paper to a conference in Adelaide in December, which would be my first foray into actual conference papers. The generally tough feedback given in the PhD symposium was not found so much in the general conference, a fact I learned was a conscious decision. And the presentation content and style was pretty general, nothing that revolutionary, but I’ve learned my lesson that this is not always welcome in academic circles.

I’m probably displaying my academic naïveté in some of the sessions as I get excited when people are researching areas that overlap mine. I probably wear my glee too obviously. Not cool. But it’s exciting to hear about communities of practice research in Estonia or how visual artists learn career skills in Birmingham.

At the end of day one we went off to see some art and culture, but I’ll cover that in my other blog.