Training day at the University Inc.

complaints.jpgWhat does an international Airline, a global bank, a transnational retail corporation, and a British University have in common? Well, they all have to “compete” on the global marketplace to survive, they all have “customers” prone to litigiousness to appease and mollify, and they all have the need to defuse staff questioning managers priorities and practices. So, few weeks ago I found myself in “a three-line whip” training course — that is a compulsory course that all academic staff had (supposedly) to take. The compulsion was designed to be a gentle “peer” compulsion, a subtle way to compel the individual that avoid direct confrontation between senior management and the individual academic staff: the University center would have fined your school £50 if you did not attend. The title of the day course was odd enough: “challenging academic decisions” — and it dealt with training staff in dealing with the challenges that the “costumer” base of the university — its students — would put forward. I heard that the same exact training was given to non academic staff under the title: “dealing with difficult customers”. I also been told by our trainer - and I document below — that the stuff we have “learned” in the training which we received either as academic or support staff in dealing with “students-costumers” would be applicable with little or no modifications to all situations of conflict within an organisation along its hierarchical scale or between company-costumers relations. In other words, the way we were about to be trained to deal with our students when they raise some problem, is the same way that our senior managers are trained to deal with us when we raise problem. Revealing! I overcome the boredom and I eagerly staid for the entire day, with my hear ready to steal their secrets!

Now I say this so as the reader is aware that the specific interests we would have in taking up a training day as university teachers (the fact that we were academic staff and we were dealing with students who have very diverse backgrounds, many poor, many migrants, many “mature” and therefore stressed out with jobs-children-debt preoccupations and all that) was not addressed at all - - -what was addressed was an abstract relation manager-subordinate/manager -customer — and we were trained as kind of managers, responsible to our institution, yet seen by our “subordinates-customers” as listening to their preoccupations…This is the reason why my own instinctual reaction and that of many of my colleagues was to walk out, do not show up or give our trainer hell. Many have done precisely this. Colleagues raised issues relevant to their work relation to concrete students (not abstract customers), problematised the underlying theories provided by our trainer in support of his advice, and so on. When I got to the training, one of the last days at the end of the couple of months in which the training was available, our trainer seemed shattered and tired, ready to accompany the punch lines of his wisdom with the sentence “and now I am waiting for the ‘the abuses’”. The man’s name was Tim Russell, the head of a corporate consultancy called Tim Russell Group. If you check on their web site, you will see the range of services they provide to all sort of corporate clients.

Let me start from the beginning, the rationale given to us by Tim Russell of the reason why we were there. The rationale was that the University has made a promise to its customers (students), and in an increasing litigious society, and in presence of a minefields of rigorous rules we have implemented in the past years to deal with this or that target and benchmarks (that incidentally have reduced the power and flexibility of staff to handle students problems), students have now a tendency to appeal academic decisions. This is obviosuly costly for the University. Hence, the rationale for our training was that we acted in ways to minimise appeals from students. This, we were reassured, did not mean we had to change our academic decisions: “nobody questions your opinion on this matter” — we were told . . .an important point the implication of which will be clear below. I have asked what was the size of this problem, this reason for all the staff spending a total of about 8000 hours in compulsory training, and I was told that there has been about 60 appeals reaching the highest stage, the costly one. A collegue in the room corrected, and argued that last year they were actually declined, and they were 48. In either case, out of a total of 19000 students boasted by the University (the University of East London), they seem to me . .. peanuts.

Despite being obvious that the rationale was unreasonable, the training continued, and, it seems to me, it revealed another rationale. I will not even bother to problematise the theoretical framework employed by our consultants to come up with his advice. What I am interested is the rationale of the practical advice given to us from a management perspective. As we have learned from the day, the first piece of advice was that when a student (or someone at a lower level in the hierarchy) comes to us with an issue for which we or the university might found out as responsible, we are urged to apologise. However, Mr. Tim Russell distinguished between two types of apologies, what ha called “liable” apologies and “non liable” apologies. The “liable” apologies are the ones in which you take responsibility (or you open the ground for the University to be pointed as a culprit in some issue). The “non liable” apologies are the ones in which you express your being sorry that someone (a student, say) feel bad about something. So for example, if I am holding a class with 40 students in a room which capacity is only for 12, and students complains, I cannot say: “yes, I agree, the room is stuffy, let us see whether we can get another one” but “I am sorry you feel that way, I will try to do my best to get another room”. In other words, the mode of communication between teacher-students (or manager-subordinate) must at all cost avoid anything resembling a human communication, that is in which the basis of the communication is part of an evaluative process. Note that the evaulation aspect of communication is maintained, but only on academic issues.

The problematic character of this advice became more evident when we discovered the overall methodology proposed by Mr. Tim Russell to deal with any type of complaints. This methodology was summarised in the 6 “microskills” that were presented in our brochure and in his web site as microskill™, since he claimed intellectual property rights on this stuff. A look at his web site reveals that the the promise of these “microskills” are remarkable. The web site recites: “When talking with someone else, the speaker decides what they want to happen next and then they use the appropriate microskill TM, so that the whole conversation is managed almost frame by frame.” (web site accessed 27 Feb 2007, my emphasis). A look at the many applications of these “microskills” is revealing, they all deal with possibly conflicting situations in work environments or in dealing with costumers. These include: “handling grievances, customer service, handling conduct issues, conducting disciplinary interviews, performance management, appraisal interviewing, giving and receiving feedback, supporting staff after serious incidents, counselling, coaching, mentoring, sales, call centre work, negotiating, managing meetings, presentations, selection interviewing, assertiveness”.

Now, let us briefly look at what these skills are all about. The first one is encouraging, which is about showing the students-costumers (or subordinates) you are hearing their complaints, utter some “ah ah” while they are talking to show you are listening. Asking is what it says, ask questions regarding the origin of the complaints — basic request for information, etc. Reflection implies that you, the listener, paraphrase the sentences uttered by the students/subordinates. And finally, summarise, that is end up you conversation with a summary of what has been said. Note that so far, you, the “manager-teacher” have only listened (or shown to be listening). Now two more crucial “microskills” are brought in. Giving information and giving opinions. The first one is the one you perform from a position of authority. You tell your students-subordinates what are the procedures to carry on
the complaints, you tell them what are the people/offices to go to. In other ways, you tell them the rough facts that hook them up into the bureaucratic machine, that channel their revolt and passions into the proper procedures that we — the institution — have designed in order to manage conflict.

And then, the last one, the greatest skill of all: giving opinion. Here we were repeatedly told, the rule of thumb is, categorically, never give an opinion unless of course is on an academic matter, on the subject of our expertise, in which we are sovereign. But what an alienated sovereignty is this. We might be an authority with respect to global macroeconomic flows, the sociology of development, the political economy of labour market segmentation or the anthropology of direct action, but we are urged not to utter a sentence regarding this stuffy room or that crazy procedure. And here is the secret: in our dealing with our “subordinates” we must be opinion-less.

Now, I think this is very crucial, and when I say alienated sovereignty, I really mean it. Aren’t “opinions” the center of gravity of any human conversation? What does it mean to construct a relation with the other in which the only important opinions you utter are those of your “expertises” but not those relating to your common context of living and operating? It means that you avoid liability, Mr. Tim Russell would say. And indeed, he is correct. But it also means that my communication — qua human communication — is inexistent . . .the “subordinates” are talking to a machine, a computer programme, unable to share or, for that matter, not to share with you, unable to see where you stand and where you do not stand, unable to receive a feedback against which to measure their own opinions, dismiss them or strengthening them, enriching them or putting them aside, unable to enter in a process that construct and reinforce commons sense and common values across existing hierarchies, and in thus doing, challenging them as hierarchies. Fortunately, our trainer did not have an easy time, implying that we are far from embracing his advice. Still, the opposition did not seem to me to be fully aware of the real important frontline. The training was revealing of the way the management of a university (or of an international Airline, a global bank, a transnational retail corporation) thinks to channel certain types of conflict. In so doing, they are also revealing their Achilles heel (which we mostly found in what is left out, hidden, or, in this case, advised not to share): whatever we are in the hierarchy scale, and whatever we do, “opinions” on how things are done, on processes of production must be shared, produced, discussed, contested or embraced. Only a process of “opinion making” or — better — “value-making”, is a process constituting the new. But this of course, to be viable, can only be a terrain of collective recomposition, not an individual strategy.

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