My Brain for the Picking, Revisited

My blog post last August 12 was about how organizations that conduct training for practitioners often ask academics to volunteer their time as speakers. The post generated some controversy. Several colleagues agreed with me, and told me of being approached by organizations to discuss giving a lecture or providing training, but the organization, having lifted the academic’s ideas, never pursued the discussion any further. One colleague referred to this as “brain-rape.” Other colleagues, two whose comments follow my post, feel their salaries provide adequate compensation and that they have a duty to share their ideas with practitioners without seeking additional payment.

Let me share my latest experience in this area. During the holiday season email doldrums I was approached by a Toronto-based firm that organizes professional development courses for people in the public and private sectors. The company was planning a course on big data and analytics for the public sector for Toronto in the spring and, to quote their email, “after reviewing your experience and expertise online, I think you would be a wonderful addition to our speaker roster for the conference.” I replied that my expertise was in other areas (narrative and innovation) and I would be happy to discuss presentations in those areas, with the caveat that I have a standard fee for practitioner presentations. I have not yet received a reply. In fact, the Toronto conference on big data and analytics for the public sector is no longer listed on their website.

This got me interested in their business model, so I did a bit of investigating on their website. Later this month, the company will be giving an annually-repeated seminar on Risk Management for the Public Sector in Ottawa. Eleven speakers are listed, five of whom work in the public sector and six of whom are consultants, either with major firms or on their own. From the endorsements for previous versions of this seminar, it is clear that the typical delegate, to use their term, works in that area in the public sector. The full price for one delegate is $2400, reduced to $2200 per delegate for groups of 3 or more from a given organization, with a further early bird discount of $200.

It is obvious that presenters at these conferences do not charge for their services. Public servants are not allowed to, and for consultants, their time and incidentals are business development expenses.

What surprises me about this business model is that the firm is charging upwards of $2000 per delegate to act as a convener for public servants and consultants in risk management to speak to other public servants who work in that area.

One of the practices I refer to as an enabler of public sector innovation is “communities of practice,” public servants who share their expert knowledge in a specific area with one another and thereby diffuse innovative or best practices. Now here’s the rub. If the public sector had a more robust community of practice in risk management, this business model would collapse. Public servants could share knowledge with one another directly, rather than through a private sector intermediary. The money that departments spend on travel and what I consider exorbitant conference fees could better be spent on building and supporting a community of practice. A community of practice would provide more permanence than for-profit courses and would provide more flexibility in the ways public servants share information with one another. Rather than two-day conferences, the community of practice could support webinars, shorter learning events, and online forums.

I’ll conclude with my personal decision. I am unwilling to volunteer to speak to practitioners through a vehicle that so enriches the private sector convener of the conversation. If there were more robust communities of practice, that would be a different story. I would have a serious conversation about the best way I could further the work of the community and what would be appropriate compensation.

Finally, if this post has challenged public servants to consider establishing strong communities of practice rather than relying on private sector intermediaries, then it has achieved its purpose.

1 comment

  1. Here are professional communities of practice, and there are mixed scholar-practitioner societies (Canadian Association of Public Administration as one). Unfortunately, a large number of conferences, like so many contemporary “scholarly journals” are profit-driven operations.

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