Saturday, November 21, 2009

So what is personalisation? Try this for size.

I'm on the road now, and for the next couple of weeks, in the UK, to see what's going on for the disability community.  I'll try and post to this blog as much as possible, though of course this means you may be exposed to thoughts that haven't been fully thought through, if you know what I mean.  Indeed, my previous blog posting was done while I was sleepless in Singapore, waiting for my next flight.  I hope it was coherent.

My first meeting of the trip was with a group of mainly social work professionals at London's Tavistock Centre, the great bastion of "tell me how you're feeling".

The meeting was to discuss the nature of 'personalisation' as this is the Big Thing in the UK.  A social work academic journal is planning a special issue on the topic and this meeting was arranged to hear from some of the contributors as they prepare their draft papers.  I was an interloper really, because I had a separate meeting later in the day with Simon Duffy ( a leading thinker on the nature of welfare and citizenship) who very kindly had obtained an invitation for me to attend the Tavistock Centre seminar.  The organisers in turn very kindly invited me to contribute an article to the special issue.  

I arrived at the meeting bang on time and had with me my killer presentation giving an overview of the Julia Farr group, a description of the interesting things we do and what we've learnt, leading to a summary about a key challenge for the future of case worker practice.  And all in a neat 30 minute bundle.

So the meeting started 20 seconds after I arrived (I refer you to my afore-mentioned punctuality), and I read the agenda and discovered I had been scheduled 15 minutes only for my presentation.  And it also quickly transpired that the Tavistock person chairing the day was a stickler for time-keeping ("tell me how you're feeling, and make it snappy").

I sat through three thoughtful and well-orchestrated presentations, and then it was my turn.  Saddled with long-haul-flight-related fuzzy thinking, my only solution to the problem (15 minutes for a 30-minute presentation) was to speak twice as fast.  I also lost two minutes at the start because people needed an 'air break' (we were in quite possibly the stuffiest little room on the planet) and so that meant i actually had to speak a little more than twice as fast as normal.  Well, given that I always speak as fast as possible, speaking at twice that speed was never going to work.  And the time soon melted away.  So I had to start skipping slides.  Which of course was a bit like skipping chapters in a book - you'll quickly lose the thread and point of the narrative.  And then the speaking clock (a pox on his clocks) gave me 5-minute and 1-minute countdowns which increased the drama.  And then he shut me up.  Awful.

Result: a rambling, incoherent narrative which I imagine was about as instructive as someone trying to listen to three different conversations at once and wondering if there is any common link.

I spent the rest of the day reflecting on this catastrophe, which I presume, given the venue, was 'character-building'.

I did get a moment to reflect on things other than my own stage-death.  And in this initial reflection (I reserve the right to amend my views in the fullness of time and sleep), I noticed that the people in the room did not necessarily have a common understanding of what 'personalisation' actually is.  This is interesting given that the personalisation agenda seems like the main event in the UK at present, and presumably social workers will be fairly heavily involved with it, given their role working with vulnerable people.

And I'm not sure that there was any advancement towards this common understanding by the day's end, partly because the time constraints (it is potentially a MASSIVE topic, after all) and partly because a lot of the conversation was about the nature of social work, wherein lay some uncertainty also.

If indeed there is a lack of common understanding about what 'personalisation' actually is, and what technologies, habits and values comprise it, then it is highly likely that it will just become the latest skin for existing practice.  In which case, the last thing the disability community needs is to have to look at the fabled 'emperor's new clothes'.

So we have to be crystal clear about what we mean about personalisation.  That may involve a very long conversation, so here I'll just make a couple of comments.

First, it is a means to an end, not an end in itself.  People don't aspire to being 'personalised'; they aspire to having fulfilling lives characterised by things like relationships, love, contribution, growth and joy.  So,for people living with disability, 'personalisation' is where the support they access is highly personalised to their circumstances, struggles and aspirations, as they seek that fulfilling life.

Second, let's try an analogy.  A tailor-made suit is a good example of personalisation, where the customer's dimensions and preferences are fully charted prior to the suit being made. The alternative is a suit that you buy off-the-peg.  It's far less likely to be the perfect fit, or have all the features you might choose in a suit. In the world of disability support, the 'off-the-peg' suit may not even look like a suit, or at least not one that you would want to wear if you had the choice.

The outcome of a well-tailored suit is not the experience of the tailoring itself (although it may be indeed be enjoyable) but the fact that the resulting suit really works for you in terms of what you need, want and like. 

As it is with personal support.  So if you are offered 'personalisation' in disability support, then take a good look at the nature of the offer, and use the analogy of the suit.   Do you get to choose your tailor and to learn about their credentials (you're placing your trust in this person after all).  How do they take your measurements - is it thoughtful, considered, skilled?  Do you feel you're being listened to?  What range of options is the tailor putting before you - fabrics, colours, styles and so on, and can you build your own look entirely?  And when the suit is made, does it reflect all of the above?

If what you get back is isn't genuinely tailored to your preferences, then its just a stitch-up.


  1. Good on you Robbi for writing honestly about the nightmare presentation experience. Am sure there are many of us who could relate to this! But on to more pressing matters: I really agree with your points about personalisation. The perversions, such as that personalisation = having a plan, or even that personalisation = individualised funding, are alive and kicking certainly in Australia, and I'll be interested in your findings in the UK.

  2. Robbi - Sorry, but I did have a laugh at your expense! Having heard you speak several times, the thought of you going at more than double your normal speed did conjure up the image of watching news on fast forward on the VCR.
    But I always enjoy both your refreshing style of writing and speaking and needed a laugh, so thanks! Ronni