Archive for January, 2011

Take a deep breath

January 29, 2011

In which Dr Aust hails a vintage piece of Corporate-balls.

One of the occasional pleasures of blogging is the unexpected emails you get offering tip-offs or material, relating to something you have blogged about. For instance, my friend David Colquhoun, having written extensively about bogus B.Sc. degrees in Unreality, often gets plain-brown-envelope anonymous deliveries of material relating to such – usually, one assumes, from academics with an actual sense of responsibility who are ashamed of what their own institutions are doing.

Dr Aust, not being in the same celebrity skeptic bracket, does not get the same level of mole-mail, but nonetheless, things do appear from time to time. They sometimes come via people I know, but just as often from people I don’t.

Now, Dr Aust is a long time collector of vintage manager-bollocks, so it is a special pleasure to post the following photos, which arrived a few days ago, relayed on by a friend of a friend from an anonymous source somewhere deep in the bowels of Big Pharma.

Take a close look at these two pictures.

You might think this is a picture of a simple packet of sunflower seeds.

But you would be wrong.

Look closer.

The corporate PR-speak is unmistakeable.

“Igniting Passion”

“Unleashing potential”

“delivering benefit to our patients”

[Funny – I never knew that drug companies had “patients”. I thought that was doctors. Silly me]

And in case you can’t read it,  the smaller lettering in the top left hand corner reads:

“Inspire to Innovate”

Hmmmm.

I don’t know about “Inspire”, but it certainly caused me to take a large breath in. After I’d spent half a minute speechless with laughter.

Anyway, the answer is that it IS a packet of sunflower seeds, but it is also much, much more.

According to the accompanying email, this is a key part of a campaign to reinvigorate the innovative-ness of a Large PharmaCo’s Worker Bees.

The idea, I gather, is that the Worker Bee should plant these seeds in their garden, or window box, and then, as the sunflowers gradually emerge and grow, they will remind the Worker Bee to ignite their passion to “grow” new ideas from small seeds of innovation.

Or not.

Now, sunflowers are nice things to have in your garden, no question. But when you see stuff like this you do have to wonder if the company management think all their workers are completely brain-dead.

And as for the slogans….

“Inspire to Innovate”, in particular, is one of those  meaningless exhortatory mantras, dreamt up presumably by a PR consultant, that cause such eye-rolling in the sort of broadly cynical milieu that Dr Aust works in. Not that that means Universities are immune from the enthusiasm for such slogans, of course. One of Dr Aust’s former Faculty Deans, a genuinely nice and usually impeccably down-to-earth bloke, once had a rush of blood and told a Faculty meeting in apparent seriousness that he thought our new Faculty watchword should be:

“To Infinity – AND BEYOND!”

[This was many years ago now, when the movie Toy Story was just out].

A spate of alternatives soon emerged in the corridors and tearooms, as such things will:

“To Inanity – AND BEYOND!”

“To Insanity – AND BEYOND!”

And finally, one which comes back to mind especially in these latter days of uncertain University finances:

“To Insolvency – AND BEYOND!”

Now, it is one thing when the Boss dreams up one of these little bon mots half-way through a dreary meeting. It is another when a company has a PR department doing it, or pays a PR consultancy good money to “strategize” or “vision” or “futurize” and then come up with this sort of platitudinous nonsense. Do they really not have anything better to spend their money on?

Personally I find it almost impossible to imagine that anyone’s reaction is REALLY some variant on:

“Great. Super. I feel SOOOO STOKED to innovate!”.

I would be predicting something more like eye-rolling, followed by complete indifference.

Though perhaps the PR folk will be doing an impact assessment for their campaign? I can see the MCQ now:

When you received your “Innovation Pack” did you feel
A despairing
B embarrassed
C underwhelmed
D queasy
E all of the above

Because most people can see through vapid slogans.

Finally, whenever I see a slogan which has the form:

“[Imperative] [Verb]” (like “Inspire to innovate”)

I am reminded of this wonderful movie scene from my all-time favourite Clint Eastwood western, The Outlaw Josey Wales:

So perhaps there IS a message there, after all.

For if your employer is treating you to this kind of stuff, I sincerely hope that you, too, will endeavour to persevere.

——————————————————————————

PS  Getting serious for a moment, perhaps you may think that I am being a bit too negative. There is, dare I say it, little doubt Dr Aust is a grumpy old so-and-so, and he usually feels even grumpier in the Winter.  Anyway, the question of whether there actually IS a way to encourage people to be more “innovative” is sort of interesting.  There is a bit of discussion here, and some ideas in a video that Dr Grumble posted over here.

The not terribly startling message seems mainly to be to leave your more innovatively-inclined employees alone to get on with it. This is, of course, rather what Universities traditionally did until the Govt and University managers had the idea that it would be a good thing to start micro-managing everything. And having lots of “campaigns” and “initiatives”, of course. Anyway, watch the video if you are interested.

Suffice it to say, though, that sunflowers are not involved.

Ant-acid

January 23, 2011

In which Dr Aust finds some black humour on the Internet.

As redundancies loom in various parts of the University sector, I have to remind myself that we here in UK Universities PLC are still, despite an expanding cadre of managerial droids, comparatively “under-managed” compared to many sectors of the economy.

No, really.

Well, all of us except the folk at Imperial College, perhaps.

The NHS, it hardly needs saying, is awash with Trust Deputy Directors of Patient Experience, their PAs, Assistants to PAs, Secretaries to PAs and their Assistants, and so on. Local Government in the UK also has a long-standing reputation for managerial “layering”.

Now, some people would tell you that the private sector has less of this kind of thing – though I don’t believe it, based on what I have heard from my friends who work there . More of that later – but for now I will just say that you should read the Dilbert cartoons – originally based, of course, on its creator’s experiences in the US private sector – if you think that the private sector is immune from managerial “creep”.

This brief bit of musing was triggered by a couple of things in particular.

One was the emails on this comments thread from a fellow academic, “Bobber1″.

The second was the arrival, in an email from my father, of the following presentation (click link below to view). It has obviously been doing the rounds of the internet in various forms.

The Ant’s Story

(PS: rather annoyingly it wouldn’t embed properly using the automatically generated embed code, and life is too short to learn HTML coding).

Now, the version I originally saw had one of the final captions changed to:

“Any similarity to the Ministry of Defence, NHS, Local Government, Education or any major company big enough to have an HR department, is NOT purely coincidental.”

To which I – like, I dare say, many another who has encountered the shiny suits from HR – would say a hearty “Hear hear”.

Anyway: going back to the private sector, one of the people who laughed the loudest at this slideshow was a friend of mine who is a refugee from a large international Pharmaceutical Company. PharmaCos are often held up as the apotheosis of Sith Private Sector Evulnez, so they are arguably as far from the TopplingGlittering Spires of Academia as you can get, ethos-wise. But there too, the Hegemony of the Bean Counter is all-pervasive.

For instance, once you have perused the Ant’s Story, compare the following history related by my ex-Pharma pal, and originally recounted by me in a comment in the blog a year or two back:

“Another of my ex-sidekicks who went the Pharma route took redundancy two or three years back from a large Pharma that was “re-sizing”, or whatever the current euphemism is, its UK operation. There, what the company did to “restructure” was to convene a panel of ten mid-managerial suits and get every single member in the research teams to go in individually and present their “personal vision of their own future in OurPharmaCo, with a five-year horizon” (for an hour)… followed by a further hour’s grilling from the suits. Very Dragons’ Den.

The upshot of this process, according to my mate, was to cull, with an amazing reproducibility, the two best practical lab scientists from each eight-to-ten-person research team. It turned out that these folk tended to be the least equipped to sit and bullshit the managers in fluent Manager-ese, which ability was the characteristic that was being positively selected for retention.”

Once more, I dare say this has parallels outside science.

Oh, and before I go:

Will the last person out please turn out the lights?

I have little doubt that HR will previously have arranged an afternoon course, given by a pricey outside consultant, training you in how to do it in accordance with all standard operating procedures.

Getting the bird

January 11, 2011

In which Dr Aust ponders language and its obscurities.

You lookin' at my bird?

One of Dr Aust’s current nightly rituals is reading a bedtime story to one, or both, children.

This evening we were reading a story – one of this charming series – which contained the word:

“budgerigar”

This reminded Dr Aust of an event, over a dozen years ago now, which exemplifies the problems with language (and perhaps also cultural differences) that can turn up unexpectedly in Universities.

The story concerns an exam sat by our undergraduate medical students some time in the mid to late 1990s. Back in those days we academics used to, as they say, “invigilate” all the exams ourselves. Nowadays we have special people – often retired academics – who do this, and the word “Invigilate!” instead tends to conjure up for me a vision of someone casting a spell in a Harry Potter book. But in those days, we would be there ourselves to hand out the exam papers and terrify the students with dire announcements about the consequences of cheating, or inadvertently having any notes about your person. Then we would spend a few hours patrolling the exam room trying to look grim and/or spot students with suspect programmable calculators.

Next, you need to know what sort of exam it was. This was what we called a “Case paper”, in which the students were presented with a short medical case history. The idea was that they should try and figure out what was going on, first trying to recognise so-called “cues”, and symptoms, in the history, and then suggest what kinds of tests or investigations they would order.

The particular case in this exam paper involved a man called “Mr Polly” (sic) who kept budgerigars. The birds actually appeared in the first line, which went something like:

“Mr Polly was devoted to his budgerigars, and kept several dozen in a shed at the back of his house. They were his pride and joy.”

Now, you need to know that the word “bird” appeared nowhere in the exam paper, though “budgerigar” was in there several times.

Perhaps you can guess what happened next.

A student stuck their hand up.

Dr Aust hurried over. Students sticking their hands up in exams are not unusual, since requests for extra paper, or to be allowed to visit the toilet facilities, were a regular part of invigilating then and doubtless still are. Of course, a minute or two after the exam started was a little bit early.

Dr Aust asked the student what s/he wanted.

The student replied nervously “I don’t understand this word”.

…And pointed to the word “budgerigar”.

This put Dr Aust in a bit of a quandary. He was a fairly junior academic at the time, and was not one of the people who had actually set the exam paper, so he didn’t really feel he had the authority to just tell the student that a budgerigar was a small bird. Scanning the paper, Dr Aust hunted for something else that might offer a clue. His eye fell on a passage more or less like this:

“One day, Mr Polly felt short of breath and a bit faint – walking up the stairs was an effort. Nonetheless, he was determined to attend to his budgerigars. Whilst cleaning out his aviary, he became dizzy and breathless and collapsed. His wife found him and called an ambulance”

Dr Aust pointed at this last sentence and whispered to the student:

“This sentence should help you. Look at this word. he said, underlining the word aviary.

The student, who judging by appearance and accent was clearly from outside the UK, looked panic-stricken.

“I don’t know what that word means either” s/he said.

Which is an object lesson, I guess, in being careful what words to use. And in what settings. Especially settings where it is difficult for people to ask clarifying questions.

The story does have a happy ending. After a few words with the Senior Examiner who had set the paper, we decided to make an announcement to all those in the exam hall to tell them that a budgerigar was a small parrot.

It turned out afterwards that several other students had been equally flummoxed by “budgerigar” and “aviary”, though most had not put their hands up.

Over the years I have sometimes wondered if any of those flummoxed students, now doubtless many years qualified in medicine and quite possibly GPs and consultants in the NHS, have ever again encountered the words “budgerigar” or “aviary”.

——————————————————

PS Mr Polly’s complaint, which I dare say all my medical readers will have guessed, goes by the common name of “Bird Fancier’s Lung”, and is a form of extrinsic allergic alveolitis or hypersensitivity pneumonitis (more here).

PPS Language and comprehension is, of course, an issue in many settings in academia, and more so in medicine. Dr Aust has always (he hopes) been reasonably good at spotting – mostly from the non-verbal cues – when people working in his lab did not understand what he was saying, and adjusting his language accordingly. Not everyone does, though. One eminent Professor I knew was famous in the Department for fixing non-English-native-speaking research assistants with his most gimlet gaze and then saying, in his slowest and loudest voice:

“Do. You. Understand?”

The joke was that he often did this to people who came from cultures where to admit that you hadn’t understood the Great Man’s pearls of wisdom would be a terrible source of shame, and also a grave slight to the Eminent Professor. Thus the unfortunate subordinate would nod meekly, and the Great Man would depart satisfied that he had got his meaning across. Whereupon Dr Aust and the other more junior lab people would explain to the quivering research assistant what the Prof had been saying.

A slightly different problem arises for doctors who work in countries where the language is not their native one. Apart from just the language, they have to cope with regional accents and dialects. In the UK they also have to cope with the British talent for slang and euphemisms.

When Mrs Dr Aust first arrived in the UK to work as a junior doctor in a North West England-shire hospital, she was presented with a glossary of “local terms that your patients may use”. The list ran to a fair few printed pages. I suspect it may have had some similarities to the Yorkshire one here, which was discussed by the august British Medical Journal a while back.


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