I have recently been forcibly reminded how fragile life is. How slender is the thread by which we are all suspended. Events have also brought home to me how important it is to plan the future for ourselves, and our teams. Without wanting to sound morbid, the "Leaders" amongst us should consider the "what if" scenario and ensure our teams, our profession will survive us. This has nothing to do with age, but is simply a risk management issue.
As we all move towards, and ultimately achieve, accreditation, we will have in place manuals that describe how to perform all the procedures in our laboratories. What no manual can do, no matter how exhaustive it is, is provide experience. Experience at trouble shooting. Experience in getting sick people to do tests. Experience in interpretation. Experience in making the team feel valued. These things cannot be documented. They can only be learned.
How can this experience be "learned"? Obviously "time on the job" is a major contributor. This is the school that has as its motto "We have always done it this way." I would suggest this is a dubious basis for quality. I believe the key to gaining experience is the sharing of knowledge and ideas, the fostering of discussion. Attending meetings is clearly an important facet of this sharing but it is not enough, just as going to Church on Sunday doesn't make you a Christian. What do we need to do? What can we do?
Sharing, surprisingly, requires two participants. One has to provide the solution but the other has to provide the challenge. Without the latter there can be no learning. Why are people so loathe to ask questions, to seek advice and to get involved? Is it a fear of being judged, a fear of exposing perceived weaknesses or perhaps a fear of being intimidated? These are all very valid and understandable fears. My desk calendar recently threw up an old Chinese proverb that went "The man who asks a question is a fool for 5 minutes: one who does not ask a question remains a fool forever." No matter what the question, you will learn from asking it. With respect to the fear of being intimidated I would like to think that would not happen in our Society. If it were to happen, I would remind you all that with respect comes responsibility.
I suspect the same fears apply to those who should be leading the sharing. It does take some guts, or perhaps something of a masochistic streak, to put your opinions out into the public arena and I still surprise myself that I continue to do so. On a personal level the buzz that comes from the single e-mail expressing appreciation of my contributions outweighs many times the risks from the barbs that could just as easily rain down on me.
Why are people so reluctant to stick their necks out? Is it fear of getting it wrong? There is always that risk, but the most important thing is to get people to think and discuss your viewpoint. More will be learned in discussion than by reading in isolation. Nobody of importance is going to think ill of you if you get it wrong - except perhaps if you present your way as THE way.
A commonly offered excuse for not contributing is the notion that "I've got nothing important to say." You may very well believe that, but if someone came up to you with a question would you still have nothing to say? Think about it.
The most common deterrent, I suspect, is time, or rather lack of time. It may be surprising to realise we all have the same amount of time available to us each day. Very few people have "enough time" for all they wish to do. The problem is not the lack of time but rather what we do with that time; with the priorities we assign our allotted time. There are two issues here. The first is what could be called the "lab rat syndrome" where we are so busy chasing our tails that we lack choice in assigning priorities. I would contend that this is neither healthy nor conducive to quality outputs. This situation must be resisted. The second issue is the setting of priorities. By not assigning time to get involved and to contribute to the growth of the profession, you are saying that this activity is not important. No matter how many deadlines are met, how many dollars are raked in, the Society, and as a consequence our Profession, will not benefit or grow without your involvement. Without a Profession, what gains arise from the deadlines we are all chasing?
What can we do to foster networking and sharing of experience? Perhaps the Society should consider setting up a formal mentoring system. This would possibly get around the difficulties of establishing dialogue between pairs of labs or individuals. This could be simply set up by the Executive matching a request from a lab or individual with another member who has registered as being available to act as mentor. Alternatively individuals could simply register as being available on the web-site or in Mouthpiece. I continue to help my old lab in Wellington and a small provincial lab in NZ. This has been helpful to both them and to me. Mentoring is not something that should be restricted to big and small, experienced and inexperienced. It is a very powerful management tool. I frequently seek advice or feedback from others either because I lack knowledge, because I need to flesh out an idea, to make sure I am communicating clearly or simply to chew the fat. Many CEO's use mentors in this way and find it a very powerful management tool. With the ASM fast approaching this is perhaps an idea that is ripe for discussion.
Many laboratories in Australia and New Zealand are active in supporting those people who are less experienced and less well resourced and they are to be applauded. Many labs are involved in Society activities but there are also a good many who set themselves apart for a variety of reasons. This is not healthy for the Society or for our Profession. I put the challenge out to the incoming Board Members to get all the labs in their region involved in 2003. If there are labs and members who are not active in the Society, find out why they aren't. Find out what you can do to get them involved and then do it. It may require a Social function or a workshop. Use CRFS to being people together. Be innovative and make sure there is always a fun element in whatever you do.
By sharing knowledge and experience we all empower each other. There are few more rewarding things than to see someone you have helped become empowered and grow. An empowered team will perform better, be more loyal and be more likely to go that extra mile. It is a win-win situation. To return to the "what if" scenario, our teams will survive us whether we be on long service leave or make a more permanent departure.