Business

Another day, another meeting, another £191bn down the pan

Please allow me to introduce myself (woo-woo)

By Alistair Dabbs

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Something for the Weekend, Sir? "Wow, that was quick!"

Yeah, sorry about that. I don't like to waste time. I prefer to get my thrust in first and finish off straight away.

"You're not joking! I barely noticed it happening, it was over so fast!"

I readily admit I have a reputation as an early finisher. If I can, I'll try to get it over and done with before anyone realises we'd even started. Just muscle my way in there, unburden my load and withdraw as quickly as possible.

"That's all right for you! But I didn't even get the chance to enjoy myself!"

Enjoy? ENJOY? Do you expect me to believe you actually experience enjoyment when attending meetings???

Evidently you are some kind of fetishist who gets his kicks by sitting in a room with deadheads doing nothing useful. Such moral deviance knows no bounds. You probably go weak at the knees at the thought of a Stand Up Nine Thirty. I bet your perverted mind even interprets sexual innuendo from the innocent opening sentences written by a weekly columnist for an IT news website on Friday mornings.

Get a grip on yourself.

Possibly you are under the inexplicable supposition that your attendance at a workplace meeting serves a useful purpose. Yet in practical terms, all a meeting achieves is a mass downing of tools by its participants for the duration. A meeting can be defined as an absent stretch of time officially blanked out of the day for the specific purpose of getting nothing done.

Meetings infuriate me. Those arranged ad hoc in kindergarten-style breakout areas with their ugly purple sofas and drum-shaped beanbag tools render me to silent fuming. But meetings held in proper meeting rooms with meeting room furniture and meeting room equipment bring out the worst in me.

I hold in special disdain those meetings arranged at the beginning of a project at which each of us must introduce ourselves to each other, even though we know who we are already.

- "Hello, I'm Chris and I'll be co-ordinating the co-ordination section."

- "I'm John and I'll be… Yes, I know there are 16 other people called 'John' on the project. Yes, seven of them are in this very room this morning. Anyway, I'm John as well and I'll be implementing unique naming conventions in the metadata."

- "Please allow me to introduce myself. I'm a man of wealth and taste. I've been around for long, long years. Stole many a man's soul to waste. Pleased to meet you. Hope you guess my name."

[The 17 Johns, in chorus: "Woo-woo!"]

And so it goes on around the meeting room. When it comes to my turn, I can't help myself.

"Hi. I'm Alistair and I'm a Scorpio. I like the kind of woman who can juggle fruit while unicycling."

[The 17 Johns, in chorus: "Float, float on…"]

At the early stage of my career, I seem to have managed to avoid meeting culture entirely. My first experience of it was accidental, while on a six-month contract at the British headquarters of CompuServe (remember them?) in the days long before the business was bought up by AOL (remember them?).

For reasons I cannot be bothered to explain, I had been invited to work there by legendary Sounds music journalist Jonh (sic) Ingham to help on the rollout of CompuServe's re-imagined and fully curated home pages.

In those days, posting content to a bespoke content management system hosted in the US across a woefully under-powered and over-wrought T1 connection from an office in Reading was very challenging. WordPress it was not. There were a couple of things I did not understand in the interface and the documentation written by the in-house programming team was out of date.

I needed to ask an adult for help.

"John," I began, causing 17 heads to pop up from behind massive CRT displays. Correcting myself, I tried again. "Jonh (sic), how does this bit here work?"

He suggested I call one of the coders, situated on another floor in the same building, to explain it to me properly. I do so, and the voice on the phone tells me he is going to arrange a meeting.

A meeting? Really? Gosh, it must be complicated! Sure enough, a scheduling email turns up a minute later.

Later that afternoon, I find my way to the appointed place and see that it is a palatial boardroom in art deco style, a huge back-projected screen occupying an entire wall and the room dominated by a massive elliptically shaped table decorated with mysterious and arcane symbols intricately inlaid in walnut and brass. It's like I have stepped into a Frank Herbert interpretation of a sci-fi King Arthur's future war room.

The programmer from the second floor, the one I spoke to on the phone, waves to me as I enter the room. Another 11 pairs of eyes turn toward me. An assortment of mid-level supervisors, systems specialists, human resources managers and a public relations executive have been invited to the meeting too.

Pulling up a spare high-backed Charlie Mackintosh chair, I join the Knights of the Oval Table.

Copies of a time and date-stamped agenda, laser-printed on linen-textured company letterheads, are passed around. Notebooks are riffled. Brows are rubbed. Ball-point pens are clicked.

"So," I venture, "what I wanted to know was…"

The programmer nervously interrupts me, apologising from behind the mountainous pile of hand-annotated documentation he has brought along. The first item on the agenda, apparently, is for everyone to introduce themselves.

Half an hour later, I have learnt and promptly forgotten the life stories and broken dreams of a dozen forlorn company employees who evidently stopped developing personalities in the mid-1980s. A third of them are called Chris. The rest are called John.

Eventually, after sitting through presentations on the history of the company, a couple of fire alarm and health-and-safety lectures and an interactive demonstration on how to operate the hands-free lid on the smart wastepaper bin, we reach Item 14 on the agenda: my question about what I'm supposed to click on in a certain screen of the CMS. I hadn't spotted it on the agenda at first because it had been labelled Contract Employee Training Session. The lights are dimmed and everyone turns to the wall-sized cinema screen that is glowing into life.

After 10 minutes of advertising for Butterkist, Kia-Ora, Warburton's Bread ("Cor, luvverley and fresh!") and a local Indian restaurant imaginatively named The Taj Mahal, there is an intermission. I buy a tub of ice cream and a bag of Revels from the attendant, who guides me back to my seat by flicking the beam of light from a red plastic torch.

Finally, I am called upon to ask my question.

The programmer answers: "Right-click and choose Upload."

"Thanks," I reply, stand up and leave the room. As I exit through the door, the others are still rising from their seats in half astonishment as the lights come back on and an organist in a sequin-trimmed suit begins performing the National Anthem.

Behind me, I hear the programmer – John, I think his name was – giggles and blurts out: "Wow, that was quick!" Later on, he emails me to confirm it had been the briefest meeting he had ever attended. I respond that the meeting between the two of us could have been over in less than 20 seconds if it hadn't been a meeting at all.

But then what would the other 10 attendees have done with the time they could have saved by not being there? A bit of work? Move their projects forward a little? Get something done? No, it's much better for deadheads to sit around achieving zero productivity during bugger-all and remaining utterly unreachable for hours on end AND get paid for it.

Take care: people like that drag the rest of us down into the pit of hopelessness with them. Meeting governance technology firm eShare estimates that the total staff cost per year of unnecessary meetings in the UK is more than £191bn.

That's a lot of wasted money. Up and down the country, panicked organisations are probably scheduling meetings to discuss what to do about the problem.

Well, you can keep your King Arthur pretensions, art deco chairs and mighty oval tables. If we end up working together one day and you invite me to a meeting, I will smile but know for sure that you are a time-waster.

"Let us not go to Camelot," I shall say, politely and knowingly. "It is a silly place."

Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. We wanted him to provide an amusing anecdote or tidbit to put next to his mugshot at the end of this week's column but we were unable to contact him to make the request in time for publication. He was in a meeting.

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