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No Such Thing as Free Lunch

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but when a construction product manufacturer wants to present to an office full of professionals then making sure they are well fed is virtually a prerequisite. It’s a well established system designed to suit both parties – but is it meeting the needs of either? Written by Paul Forrester and originally printed in the April Issue of Insulate Magazine

Most professional institutes in the construction industry require members to undertake continuing professional development (CPD).

Recognising that any qualification, no matter how prestigious, becomes outdated in a shifting landscape of legislation changes and ‘innovative’ product development, the theory behind CPD is to keep knowledge relevant and up to date, readying professionals to face new challenges. Different institutes guide members in different ways with regard to how they should meet their CPD needs.

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), for example, has a ‘core curriculum’, from which a certain number of members’ CPD hours should come each year. Others give complete freedom, allowing each professional to personalise their learning in accordance with their individual requirements.

Structured Learning

With the rise of different platforms for delivering information, so the number of ways it is possible to undertake CPD has increased. Podcasts and online learning are just as valid as traditional books and magazines; delivering training to colleagues or mentoring students are legitimate development activities too.

Construction product manufacturers – insulation producers among them – have long been happy to support the provision of education. The key is that a chosen activity should be planned, and of a level appropriate to supporting the identified learning needs. If a manufacturer is prepared to offer it, the recipient is prepared to travel, and the content has been approved, even a factory tour is a possibility.

Presentations remain the favoured option, however, and a CPD coordinator may book a manufacturer to attend their office because the topic of a presentation is useful to the aims of the organisation as a whole. But that doesn’t stop some people from attending purely out of convenience, or to boost their CPD hours for the current year.

In a similar vein, while CPD material is expected to not be overtly promotional – and is assessed accordingly in order to be included in some CPD provider directories – it rarely takes a huge logical leap to get from the general topic of a seminar to a particular product the manufacturer is keen to promote.

In-post with Insulate Network

Mixed feelings

As a result, it’s not uncommon to come across conflicting evidence about the success of in-office lunchtime CPD seminars.

Feedback forms give recipients the chance to express their opinions. A presentation might be judged as unbiased by the majority, but one or two will always feel it could have been less promotional. Where 90% or more of responses are favourable though, and where a majority of attendees suggest a willingness to specify a company’s products in future, the actual rate of conversion into specifications can be surprisingly – and disappointingly – low.

From the other side, I’ve heard comments from new and experienced presenters expressing surprise that an audience was less engaged, or had a lower level of base knowledge on the subject, than they expected. From personal experience, I’ve been willing to discuss live projects in relation to a presentation’s topics – and had nobody take up the offer.

Never having been a full-time CPD presenter, I recognise isolated examples aren’t necessarily representative of a majority of audiences. Anecdotal as all this evidence may be, however, it can’t help but raise questions – not least whether conventional CPD seminars are delivering their intended benefit to specifier or manufacturer.

Making an Exhibition

Trade shows and industry exhibitions are another popular outlet for manufacturers to deliver their CPD material. Whether it’s on-stand talks or a dedicated stream of presentations as part of the show’s content programme, seminars by manufacturers feature consistently.

Except … going by the evidence of the last three or four years, I’m left wondering if a level of mistrust (or simple fatigue?) exists towards manufacturers. Presentation areas and theatres can be full to bursting for expert speakers discussing cutting-edge industry topics, while representatives from manufacturers face rows of empty seats.

It’s not unique to insulation either. Regardless of the ratio of educational content to overt promotion, and however genuine and well-intended the topic, no type of construction product appears to be immune to a muted reaction.

A new approach?

Is it time for trade shows and exhibitions to work with manufacturers to develop alternative formats? Classroom or workshop arrangements could offer a greater level of freedom and interaction, delivering a higher quality experience, of greater value, that might even generate increased interest from the intended target audience.

Better to address questions the audience on the day actually have, rather than ones assumed in advance they might have. If presentation slots fail to fill generous seating areas reserved for them, where’s the harm in experimenting with more exclusive sessions, held away from the noise and distraction of the main hall?

An often-overlooked aspect of CPD is reflection. Professionals are expected to consider whether an item of CPD met their needs, and adjust their other planned activities in response. Whether they do or not is a matter for debate, but consider this: manufacturers like describing themselves as innovative, and show organisers want their event to be the most important of its kind. So shouldn’t there be reflection on their parts too, about why they keep doing the same things?

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