Sunday, September 29, 2013

On the (business) media

I generally enjoy APM’s Marketplace podcast, notwithstanding the host’s all-too-frequent use of the phrase “c’mon, man.”  But in a recent episode, the host interviewed an Ivy League business school professor about “meetings.”  In short, there are about 11 million business meetings in the United States each day.  About half of those surveyed said that about half of their meetings were unproductive or not a good use of their time.  The prof’s conclusion: limit the duration of meetings to force the attendees to be more productive, thus getting more done in less time.  Superficially, that sounds fine.  But on closer inspection, here is my list of complaints about the podcast:

First, the conclusion is nothing more than the age-old adage that work tends to expand to fill the available time.  That is, if you’ve got something due at the end of the day, you’ll get it done by the end of the day; if it’s not due until the end of the week, then you’ll take all week to finish it.  The podcast is nothing novel or even useful. 

Second, the prof’s conclusion assumes that the meeting attendees are capable of knowing what is, and what is not, worth their time.  This likely doesn’t hold true for many of the attendees at any given meeting, depending on a number of factors.  Further, negative views about meetings could be just as much a function of general job dissatisfaction as the meetings’ actual level of productivity.    

Third, the prof discuses the high “cost” of having these bad meetings and cites, as one of the problems, the attendees’ ability to tune-out of a useless meeting and instead go to their smart phones.  But, in reality, having email and other electronic business documents available during a meeting would actually decrease the cost of what would otherwise be wasted time.

Fourth, and most significantly, this criticism of meetings reminds me of the business media’s practice of selectively citing facts to explain any particular state of affairs.  For example, at any given point in time, including today, we could name hundreds of examples of: (a) corporations moving slowly and inefficiently and producing administrative waste; and, conversely, (b) different corporations moving too hastily and making bad strategic decisions.  However, given that our nation’s businesses currently hold a lot of meetings, profs and journalists like to cite this as the “cause” of the first of the two phenomenon: corporate administrative waste.  But imagine that tomorrow the number of meetings held at U.S. businesses was suddenly cut in half.  Within weeks, profs and journalists would be citing the dramatically reduced number of meetings as the “cause” of the second of the two phenomenon: hasty behavior leading to bad strategic decision-making.        

Granted, the podcast about meetings does have some value: it gives us employees something to feel good about.  “I hate meetings, a business school prof says they're a waste of time, and therefore I’m smarter than my company’s management!”  Well, the conclusion might be true, but not because of the premises.  Further, we don’t need business school profs or the media to run flawed stories just to make us feel good.  We already have Dilbert for that.

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