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The Dilbert Effect

September 28, 2010

There have been a lot of things written about Dilbert, the long-running comic strip by Scott Adams, who in some circles is revered as a cultural workplace hero.  Some of these are even called “The Dilbert Effect”, pointing out things as diverse as a decreasing number of people going into engineering as a result of the strip, to the clash that happens when good intentions conflict with workplace culture.

I have another. Anyone who has read Dilbert for any amount of time will have noticed that, in addition to stereotyping people (the Pointy Haired Boss, the Overachiever, the Underachiever, the Evil HR Director), the strip also stereotypes meetings.  One strip goes like this (December 5, 2008):

Dilbert, the Point-Haired Boss and a big bird are sitting at a conference table.

Pointy-Haired boss:  “I got a canary to warn us when our meetings are too boring. Canaries die of boredom before humans, so…”

Canary dies.

Dilbert: “I guess he knew that.”

A second goes like this (November 19, 2008):

Catbert, Evil Director of Human Resources, in his office typing on his computer:  “Laptops are banned from all meetings.  The only things that should be in your mind during meetings are soul-crushing boredom and a futility headache.”

Scott Adams is brilliant in stereotyping office behaviour and caricaturing it.  People laugh because this is what they really think of meetings – boring, mind numbing and ineffective.  This constitutes what I call “The Dilbert Effect”:  the perception that meetings are a waste of time.

The repercussion of this is that business tends to dismiss the meetings industry as inconsequential, and this has two effects:  first, they don’t treat them as the powerful business communications tools that they are, and second, meetings and events are often bypassed by corporate social responsibility programs.  This in turn means that business tends to overlook both the power that meetings and events have to actively communicate sustainability values, objectives and strategies to relevant stakeholders, but also that they don’t tend to be implemented in a sustainable manner themselves.  So, the communications power is lessened, the environmental footprint is not decreased, and the community footprint isn’t even established.

Meetings and events are tools that can be more effectively used to meet sustainability objectives.  They are vehicles to demonstrate corporate values and strategies in action, meaning that they are an opportunity to “walk the talk” so organizational stakeholders can see you mean what you say.  If your website says that “you support the communities in which you do business”, then an event that shows you doing just that puts reality to those words.

Events that are sustainable – and by sustainable, we mean that it reduces the environmental impact while increases the positive community impact in a cost-effective way – are corporate sustainability values in action.  Organizations need to consider the possibilities of meetings and events when creating their organizational sustainability strategy.

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