flowing motion

Dancing with fellow professionals

Posted on: May 25, 2009

Week 4 at Xoozya

Yup, that bid took it out of me.  I was so tired this weekend,  I couldn’t even be bothered to go for a walk in the sun.

Back at work and another tender – but this was sorted out fairly quickly.

They have it or they don’t!

There is definitely a pecking order of clients.

People who did stats or personality theory at uni will remember an unidimensional factor means everything correlates.  If you are high on one thing, you are high on everything.

You notice this pattern when you work on projects.  When the documentation is good, the verbal briefing tends to be precise and you can also find information about the firm on the internet.

And when everything is clear, we can get on with the work.

Because we are usually bidding to fellow professionals, we also find we can get directly to the point .  .  . and use big words.

I am all for expressing our services in lay language.  I think every professional service needs to pass the plain language test.  For the lay user, I must be able to say simply:

“This is what you are doing and this is where I can help you.”

But between professionals, we want to communicate nuance and detail very very quickly.  We don’t want to stop to explain technical terms that they really should know.

Is it true that HR staff are this bad?

Thinking about this took me back to a project I did “in-house” many, many years ago.  I was preparing the salary information for industrial level negotiations.  All our competitors would be present, we would negotiate annual awards with the unions, and we would recommend a set of minimum conditions to the Ministry of Labor for reconciliation with awards offered in other industries and promulgation in due course by the Minister as a Statutory Instrument.

My immediate boss was going away on holiday.  He was a visual guy and didn’t want numbers.  This was before the days of desktop computers, so I grabbed a pad of graph paper, pulled an all nighter, and because there was so little time, drew him a bunch of line graphs.

He duly departed to the beach and the MD paid me a surprise visit.  A rare occasion indeed.  He usually just dialed the switchboard and told them to summon me on the factory wide tanoy: Jo Jordan to the MD’s office.  A bit like being summoned to the Headmaster but after a while Jo Jordan was associated to MD and that was definitely in my favor, so I wasn’t complaining.  Things began to happen so much faster for me!

On this hot afternoon, the MD plonked himself down in front of my desk and proceeded to explain how to draw bar charts, without actually mentioning the word bar chart.  I mischievously let him go on and after an hour, I smiled gently and asked: So you would like me to draw bar charts?  He was a good guy and got the joke, though I was almost half his age.

We subsequently discussed the substance of what he must achieve in the negotiations and some time into this, he once again he went into a tortuous explanation, this time of the minimum wage.  I wasn’t quite so patient and interjected tersely, “you mean the y intercept.”

That evening,  I rang up the HR Manager who had recruited me, but who had left the company herself, and I asked her, why did Mike, for that was his name, why did Mike talk to me like that.  Her answer was because so few people know.  Hmmm.

Professional training

Now compare this with professional internship viva’s.  Graduates often come in and try to claim the procedures they use – rather than the data about the client – are confidential.  We always set our students straight.  Any procedure that we use as a professional must be tested and published, or a known convention and therefore also published, or a law which we can cite with paragraph, section and sub-section.

Basically, within a profession, we have a common knowledge base.  We know what is common to the curriculum across the country.  We usually have a pretty clear idea of what we know and what we don’t know.  There’s lots we don’t know, of course.  We’ve only learned the stuff in our profession and there is heaps more to know about the world.

But students talking about work in their professional internship don’t need to explain.  They just say what they did.  The examiners are just providing an audience so they will be motivated to write down what they do.  With 4 vivas a year for 3 years, they get better at describing what they do and move from a superficial account, through using plain language, to telling us how they improved the system.  Now, they are communicating with us quickly.  The questions we’ve asked them over the years help them separate background and foreground, what is expected to move suddenly from what is likely to be static or slow to move, what looks better from a different angle or in a different light, what is ‘boilerplate’ and what is an interesting, nuanced account.

Learning at the edges

It was interesting when an intern learned a new procedure, or was able to use a procedure in new circumstances.  Usually sometime in their third year, students would ring up the Convenor and alert us to an interesting log book coming in.  And they would ask to address a plenary session rather than just a viva panel.  They wanted to address everyone!  Every student and every examiner.  And so they did.  And everyone came too.  They wanted to extend their knowledge and they weren’t going to miss out.

Sometimes we would have someone in between.  They knew their stuff but couldn’t explain it yet.  This was awkward when the person is senior but didn’t have a strong connection with the professional body.  Maybe they’d been working abroad and had just come back.   I have actually attached students to such people and told them to follow them around and come back and tell us his thought process.

Once I was working with a very experienced psychologist in the UK on an assessment center.  I made a few remarks about a candidate.  She simply asked pleasantly for me to walk through what I was doing and when she thought I was referencing a model that she wasn’t familiar with, she said, very pleasantly and inquiringly, “What are you doing?”

I worked for a long time with a positive organizational scholar in New Zealand who would never stop to explain what he was doing.  It was hard work keeping up.  In fact, I’ve only just found one of the poems he would cite.  It was used to advertise BBC poetry week.  I heard it and thought, yes at last, dived for my laptop and courtesy of the Beeb, found the long lost reference.  But I am glad I put in the work.  All those years of saying what is P talking about, looking things up and piecing it together has paid off.

Lack of shared knowledge or lacked of shared manners?

Yes, there are gray areas, but I am finding too many awkward moments when someone is teaching me to suck eggs and they sadly don’t have Mike’s sense of humor.  I feel like Jeeves with Bertie Wooster, except that Bertie knew he didn’t know.

  • Thinking, thinking . . .  is it a matter of lack of shared knowledge.  Or is it a lack of shared manner system?
  • Is it that inquiry and particularly joint inquiry is not seen as the essential scaffold of the working relationship?
  • Is it that we have become Flat Earthers at heart?
  • Or is it the old masculinity/class thing – the conversation is to do with recreating the pecking order – our job is simply to yes sir, no sir, 3 bags full sir?

My questions to buyers of professional services

Here is my challenge to everyone who sends out a Request for Tender or advertises a job.

When people ring you for a briefing, what do you expect them to ask?  What information have you compiled and put in a handy place on your desk so you can ask questions precisely and concisely?

What do you expect to learn when people ask you questions?  What did you learn last time you managed a tender?

My question to you

What do you think?  Do you get caught in these dilemma?  How do you make sense of my predicament?

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