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.

Individual versus collective

I mentioned in yesterday’s thematic post that the idea of the individual versus the collective may be a big, politically charged theme that I don’t want to get into.

I’m not sure how I can avoid it though.

When I started this research I came at it from a positivist approach, as that was pretty much my default way of thinking when I hadn’t been exposed to research methodologies, epistemologies or any other ‘ologies.  My focus was on the individual emerging leader and what they did, learnt or experienced that helped them build leadership capability.

This started to change (surprise!) when I spent more time reading.  The first change was understanding that leadership related to more than just the leader – it includes the followers. A basic and fairly obvious thing to realise, but one that is an early on ‘aha’ moment, which I wrote about here. I watch my students go through this shift in thinking now as I teach.

The second, and more important to me, change is the one between leader and leadership. Which I’ve written about previously, but I can’t find the post.  Rost (1993) wrote about how most leadership development was actually leader development, focussing on the individual when it should be leadership development focussing on the all parties involved. This probably helped me progress to the methodological approach to include people around my emerging leader, not just talk to the leader themselves, but also pushed the notion of the collective.

Then,of course, I have the emergence of communities of practice as a central component of my research. By definition this is a collective or social learning process, which again shifts thinking away from the individual.

Linked to all this, however, is not only leadership development being individually focussed (which is actually less important for these participants are most have not attended leadership development programs) but career development and educational messages also being individually driven.

When delving into the worlds of career models, when thinking about my journal article that became something else, I read a lot about protean and boundaryless careers and how they are linked to the cultural and creative industries, particularly through writers such as Ruth Bridgstock.  The rhetoric here is one of the individual being in control of their own career, and decisions being made based on values as much as economic or status. Internal motivation as much as external.  I can see my own contribution to this dialogue in my teaching and discussions with creative industries students – you will likely be an entrepreneur, you will change jobs, you need to learn requisite skills, you likely wont be trained by your employers.

So there is this individual push toward learning, self-awareness, self-control of career, that contradicts with the notion that we still learn collectively outside the educational environment and a focus on individual learning responsibility may mean we miss the potential opportunity to facilitate social learning and communities of practice that are so valuable.

While leads to the inescapable notion of neo-liberalism and its pervasive influence in the educational and economic systems.   To paraphrase Angela McRobbie (2002), a scholar I’m very fond of:

Creative work increasingly follows a neo-liberal model, governed by the values of entrepreneurism, individualisation and reliance on commercial sponsorship. One consequence for the relatively youthful workforce is the decline of workplace democracy and its replacement by network sociality.

She claims that the notion of the auteur, traditionally associated with film, writing and fashion, has been extended across the creative sector in what is now a highly individuated workforce, and that is not just about the individual per se, but less permanent social relations that are characterised by a perception of freedom and choice. Universities and educational institutions, and teachers like me, support this through the promotion of entrepreneurial skills in courses.

From here I can’t help but leap back to some of the statics around the creative industries, in particular the precarious nature of employment.  One one had there are those like Hesmondhalgh who critique the creative world’s structure of short-term contracts, lack of unions and individual employment focus, while many from the creative industries camp, like those at QUT, say precarity is less of a problem and that as a sector the creative industries earns higher than average and has better psychological conditions.

It’s hard not to see the latter’s approach as one that supports this neo-liberal approach which places all career success, or failure, on the individual who has none of the traditional workplace support that may have existed in other sectors.

Which makes my communities of practice idea even more important. Many have spoken of how their community provides psychosocial support (echoed by Higgins 2010) in dealing with the tempestuous employment conditions they face.  Particularly women, who tend to, early in their career, internalise rejection as being their fault, not a result of the institutional arrangements they face. (Hey, sounds familiar!)

So by taking an individual learning approach we are neglecting the benefits of the collective in not only development of capability but in filling the void in workplace support that used to come from organisations, professional association and unions. That said, McRobbie and scholars of her ilk argue that networking, or network sociality, has become required for career success and that this may be a challenge for many.  The way I’m thinking, however, is there is still a distinction between legitimate peripheral participation in communities of practice and networking for employment purposes, in the same way collaboration and cooperation are different, networking and social learning are different.

So a conclusion may be that we need to increase understanding of social learning and communities of practice within the educational curriculum of creative practitioners to help facilitate post-University learning.


(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.