Richard Plenty, Managing Director, This Is Ltd
Last August I was invited to talk to the annual American Psychological Association (APA) Conference in a symposium on diversity in organisations, rather imaginatively (and positively) entitled ‘The Absence of Uniformity in the Workplace’.
Although I had lived and worked in North America for many years during the late 1980’s and early 90’s, this was the first time I had ever attended an APA conference. Not only was attending the conference a fascinating professional experience, but having been on the conference committee for the UK Association of Business Psychologists Conference earlier in 2005, it was also interesting to be able to compare the two events.
My first impression of the conference on my arrival was its sheer size. There were many thousands of delegates and a myriad of workshops and break out sessions. The Washington Conference Center where the conference was held is enormous. Hotels nearby were full of delegates, and it was difficult to get accommodation in the area during the conference. Fortunately, I had booked in advance and my hotel was just five minutes walk from the Center, an oasis from the hot humid Washington August, and conveniently close to a relaxing salsa bar with tapas, rioja wine and flamenco!
This particular conference was the general one for the APA. All manner of professional psychologists were there - bearded, sandaled, suited, formal, casual, hipp, elder statesmen and women, and younger aspirants. American accents abounded, but few Europeans were in evidence. The food halls were abuzz with the chatter of psychological debate. The bookstore had volumes on every aspect of psychology from Freud to Laing, trauma to creativity, abuse to spirituality. Hard to choose and how do these people manage to write so much? I wondered whether they make any money out of it!
My second impression was the high profile publicity and marketing of the conference. Enormous banners were draped on the front of the main conference building. Bus stop shelters were festooned with American Psychological Association banners and logos. The front page of ‘USA Today’ outlined the topic of the day at the conference -.would the UK press ever cover the ABP or BPS conferences in quite the same way? Washington taken over by psychology and the White House just a few blocks away!
The conference was efficiently organised and tightly run. The symposium I was in was orchestrated by the very personable Walter Reichmann, a former Professor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, now with Sirota Consulting.
I was sandwiched between two excellent speakers - Doug Klein, the President of Sirota, and the respected Lynn Offerman of George Washington University. Each of us had ten minutes only - yes ten minutes! - to make our presentation, so it was important that our talks meshed with each other. This was helped by the fact that we all shared the view that imaginative and well run diversity programmes can have a positive impact on business performance.
My own talk focussed on work carried out across the Shell Group (spanning over 140 countries and more than 100,000 people, and sponsored by the Chairman) on the value of systematically tracking perceptions of diversity and inclusiveness. Diversity is not only about population demographics and progressing women and ethnic minorities into senior positions, but is also about ensuring that a climate is created where people from different backgrounds can work effectively in international and multicultural teams.
I talked about three stages with which I had been personally involved over the period between 1999 and 2004: creating awareness, developing a common language and metrics which everyone was able to buy into, and the development of systematic processes which has enabled the organisation to identify areas where action is needed.
The talk was well received, particularly a photo of a mother duck and ducklings which I used to illustrate the problems of not paying sufficient attention to Diversity!
The other speakers were also very well received so our symposium was classed as a success by the organisers.
Still, not everything was perfect. The numbers attending our symposium - and many other sessions - were quite small, with between 20 and 30 attendees not unusual. This could have been OK if the sessions had been designed to be interactive with lots of networking, but generally the set up was conventional and formal - presentations and people listening to them, with very little time for debate, dialogue or discussion. It was disappointing to travel all that way for such a small audience and old fashioned event. At this conference there were simply too many sessions going on in parallel. There was not much scope for networking and sharing ideas - just speakers with tight timelines, one after the other. Little room for controversy here! This is one area where the ABP in the UK has been outstanding in its conference design - year on year delivering informative, entertaining and interactive sessions which allow for real learning and networking.
Not withstanding the criticisms, I felt that the effort of speaking at the conference was very much worthwhile. Psychologists in North America are a professional group, and I find working with them is generally a valuable experience. Most have limited experience outside the States, so coming from elsewhere and being able to contribute an international perspective is usually well appreciated. The scale and scope of the conference were impressive and feeling part of a more mainstream profession than is the case in the UK was rather satisfying. And of course it’s nice to be able to say I’ve done it!
Still, I wouldn’t recommend going to the general APA Conference as a participant. What might be more interesting for people who are interested primarily in occupational and business psychology would be to go to the conference of the APA division specialising in ‘Industrial Organizational Psychology’ (SIOP), which is the major venue for occupational psychology in the States. SIOP publishes a quarterly journal to members called TIP (The Industrial - Organizational Psychologist’). This year’s conference is in Dallas, and 2007 will be in New York. Let me know if you’d like more details!
Richard is a member of the International Relations Sub-Committee