Of ditherings and doodles

10th December 2004 at 00:00
There is a panacea for all human ills. It is universally reached for, universally experienced and universally loathed. The meeting. We have engaged in this cure-all activity since our species first found two heads were better than one. At an early meeting, fire was dismissed as impossible, then a thousand years and many meetings later its first flickers were used to prolong Any Other Business into the twilight hours.

The social contract itself was probably drawn up and signed at one, though it is not in the minutes. In the last day or so you will have been invited to attend one, chair one, speak at one or send a representative to one. But is this exclusively human phenomenon the cure-all we think? More aggregated time has been wasted in meetings than elapsed between the start of the universe, when God and Satan fell out at a meeting on growth targets, and the opening of McDonald's, when they made up and God granted Satan the hell-on-earth franchise. The big bang to the big banger.

Sitting at your desk alone, gazing into space and twiddling your thumbs will get you sacked if the CCTV camera swings your way. Doing the same thing in a meeting is perfectly acceptable, as people will assume you are contemplating the points made so eloquently by the last speaker. At very least your body language will indicate that you are interacting socially and thus contributing to the general weal. This impression fades, however, if you are slumped across the table with your head on your arms, fast asleep.

Occasionally meetings grow up. They assume responsibilities and are expected to have progeny. They become a committee. Committees are no more effective than meetings but they confer higher status on their members.

Really important bundles of meetings, with rules and statutory powers, are called boards. The members of a board have huge status and are called directors.

Boards do nothing much faster and more efficiently than meetings and so the directors earn huge sums, unless they are FE governors, when a piece of rubber chicken at an annual dinner is considered sufficient recompense. A board can fail to tackle an issue in under half an hour and be down at the bar for drinks. A meeting might take the whole morning to reach impasse before adjourning for a cold stale coffee left over from the last meeting.

Meetings must have an agenda. If a meeting does not have one, it is not strictly a meeting. It is probably a coincidence, a therapy session or an affair.

If holding hands is involved, it is a seance. All these are more productive than a meeting. The agenda gives the meeting a spurious sense of purpose.

It allows the members to measure the passage of time towards their release from the meeting. As such, it is a small ray of hope. Mass member suicide is avoided only by the knowledge that there are just three items left on the agenda and the pub is still open.

Occasionally a decision is taken, to the general astonishment of everyone present. The mood is lifted for a few seconds, before the chairman moves the members on to the next item: normally car parking. A college is a collection of mutually hostile factions, bound together by a common need for car parking.

Car parking is the ultimate irresolvable dilemma and therefore a perfect agenda item for any meeting. If a decision is taken it falls into the hands of the minute taker. Everyone will remember that a decision has been taken but no one will remember precisely what it was. The only way out of the inevitable dispute is to refer to the minutes. The minute-taker is thus in a position of absolute power. Fortunately, perhaps, the minute taker is often of lower status in the organisation than the members or they wouldn't have got lumbered with the chore. This can mean they have even less familiarity and understanding of the topics discussed than the members themselves. So the minutes, usually reviewed at some distance from the original meeting, might as well be written in Aramaic.

In any organisation or community there is an iron law of meetings. This is that the same people will meet each other over and over again in infinitely different combinations depending on the supposed nature of the matter in hand.

But it isn't always a different combination. I remember on one occasion rising from the meeting table, leaving the building, crossing the street to a new building and, to my astonishment, reassembling with all the same people under a different title and with a new agenda.

Meetings do not do what it says on the tin. Consultative meetings don't consult. Management meetings don't manage, team meetings lead to fights and union meetings decide to send motions on Afghanistan to anyone who'll have them. So why do we see them as a panacea? And if we scrap them, how will we regulate our affairs? Quite a problem. I think it calls for a royal commission.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield college

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