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August 2006 – Video training

With a few exceptions until quite recently attempts within the popular media to penetrate and portray the often cloistered world of companies had been lacking in authenticity.

David Nobbs came close in his parody of the self-important boss in his book, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. In a different way the Monty Python team managed to get under the skin of the accounting profession in its sketch about a chartered accountant who thought he wanted to become a lion tamer.

Generally, however, film and TV programme-makers have relied heavily on visual props such as stethoscopes, barrister’s wigs and policemen’s helmets to create workplace stereotypes for a viewing public.

For years we could be comforted when laughing at our favourite comedy shows in the knowledge that real life was different. Then along came The Office that made us shift edgily in our seats because we not only identified some of the workplace situations and characters, occasionally we identified with them.

Maybe it has something to do with the increasing hours so many people spend in the workplace, but today the schedules of TV networks seem to be dominated by corporate themes and many of the programmes are lending themselves to adaptation for management training.

Video Arts*, the video-training company started in the early 1970s by Sir Antony Jay and John Cleese has been exploiting the potential of series such as The Apprentice in management training.

Who would have thought that a TV chef would have been recognised as a management guru? Yet Jamie Oliver’s Channel 4 documentary series Jamie’s School Dinners has been adapted as a lesson in change management.

“We have also used the same series for lessons in leadership and teamwork. All the ingredients were there so we have packaged it in a way that identifies various learning points,” says Video Arts director, Martin Addison.

In fact the series illustrated so many features associated with managing change – the need for change, the visionary concept, the leadership, the initially sceptical audience – that it seemed almost ready made for conversion in to a training package.

Video Arts was founded on the simple idea of first showing people how not to do something, then going through the same exercise the right way. The combination of slick scripts, amusing situations and the use of well known actors provided an entertaining formula for workplace learning.

One programme that has so far avoided a Video Art’s makeover is Dragon’s Den, the TV series that puts prospective entrepreneurs seeking funding for their business idea in front of business people with money to invest in new ventures.

Anything that helps people to bring great ideas to the market, I suppose, should be welcomed but I would prefer a gentler format than standing people in front of a line of harsh inquisitors. I don’t like to see people humiliated for the entertainment of others. On the other hand, those who enter the den know they are subjecting themselves to an ordeal before the most cynical investors they are ever likely to meet.

One thing that strikes me about many of the presenters is their astonishing lack of preparation. In last week’s show a man who had invented an electrical device for boiling an egg without water had forgotten to adjust the thermostat so that the eggs did not cook. After a few unsuccessful attempts he realised his mistake but by that time he had run out of eggs.

This might make good television but is it the best way to stimulate a business? One way that a programme like Dragons’ Den could be adapted for training would be to focus on the various interview techniques. The so-called “dragons” may be experienced entrepreneurs but they don’t make great interviewers.

Granted, the format of the programme does not encourage them to put the candidates at ease. But it doesn’t help the interview process to see a candidate freezing in their anxiety and tripping over their words.

I have never liked interview panels. They encourage poor behaviour and bullying interventions among panel members. They also create an impression that no longer holds for much of the jobs market: that the job is some kind of prize for which the applicant should be deeply grateful. Employment is not a form of charity; it is a transactional relationship in which there is a cost/benefit consideration for each party.

In one of the presentations the applicant turned the tables on the prospective investors, asking them what they would bring to the business in connections and expertise. The investor who initially said “nothing” was forced to rethink his involvement when it was clear he had a rival.

While Video Arts is mulling over the adaptive possibilities of Dragons’ Den it has brought out one of its more traditional offerings aimed at improving job interviewing techniques.

One of the latest offerings in the Video Arts stable is a package on behaviour-based interviewing written by the company founder Sir Antony Jay who based the original idea for the company on training films he had seen in the 50s when undertaking National Service.

It is good to see some of the ground-breaking work of the late David McClelland, the pioneer of behavioural event interviewing, coming in to mainstream recruiting. The Video Arts module shows interviewers how to build up a behavioural profile of their candidates that can be matched against the kind of behaviours that have been identified as significant in the role that needs to be filled.

Anyone who is familiar with competency-based recruiting should understand the techniques. But it should not be assumed that this approach is understood by a line manager who may have only recently been given responsibility for recruiting his or her team.

Without a single mention of competencies or any other human resources jargon the video shows managers how first they must identify the most important qualities necessary to do the job and how they can then seek out examples that illustrate these qualities in a candidate’s past experience.

The growth of workplace-related TV programmes is likely to create further potential for training adaptations in future. Video Arts anticipates more internet-based and customised packages. “Video streaming will allow us to make our products available more flexibly so that managers and coaches will be able to download chapters on the company server, for example,” says Martin Addison, adding that from the autumn programmes will be available on handheld devices.

In time, he says, video training will be transmitted via mobile phones, allowing a manager to brush up on various techniques for a specific requirement. Whether such “training on tap” will ever replace experience is debatable but the digital reminder will leave no excuse for a poor performance.


©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved