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Job descriptions and Christmas parties

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Please don’t ask me who I work for, please. Chris King  (pictured facing) on the perils of being an innovation leader at Christmas gatherings 

We are now deep in to that season of the year where we spend our free time trying to explain why we do in a working sense.

It pretty much happens every December. Sure, there are other times of the year where questions get asked, but December and the Christmas Party season throws up the confused looks and glazed expressions more than any other time across the past 12 months.

There are usually two key settings for this scenario to play out – one of which we will call the Christmas Dinner test. Where a family member not seen for the past 12 months asks us, again, “What is it you do?”.

So I explain. I work for the National Institute for Health Research Clinical Research Network. We support researchers and the life sciences industry in developing, setting up and delivering high quality research to time and target in the NHS in England. The driver for this work is that we believe clinical research should be an integral part of healthcare for all. Just like last year. And the year before.

I then breathe.

“So you don’t work for a university?”

“Kind of. We’re hosted by one.”

“I bet students are a pain to deal with?”

“I don’t work with students. I lead teams working on key IT programmes designed to improve how we support research throughout the NHS. Not students.”

“Can you pass the cranberry sauce?”

I then breathe.

The other setting is at networking events, where suppliers and organisations put on Christmas bashes to bring people together – to listen to what they have done over the past 12 months and to generate chat throughout the room. With name badge pinned to our chests we are cut loose to “mingle” (stand still in fear that someone might actually want to talk to us).

Welcome tonight’s contestant Chris to What’s. My. Line?

*Crowd applause*

Chris will now demonstrate what he does for a living by standing there with just a name badge on.

Contestant A: It has an acronym. He must be important.

Contestant B: It says Health and Research. Definitely important.

Contestant C: Does he have an “Ology”?

Contestant A: Errr

Contestant B: Hmm

Contestant C: Do you deal with students?

I take a breath. I explain, usually in that one breath, everything I have described above. I often feel the need to play down my contribution as I do. I mean, it’s not me doing the research, but the true value is in the information contained within the systems I help to bring to life. Yet as I talk, I find my smile widen, my hands move wildly – I explain that very few people know who we are, but how what we do means a great deal to me. That we should be more widely known, but then a lot of that links back to our drive to make research an integral part of healthcare for all etc etc, and if you have never been seriously ill or live with a long term condition, let alone considered taking part in research, then it’s not surprising really. I tend to introduce the Join Dementia Research platform and campaign that we support at this point, as something tangible for people to take away from our conversation. Like an in real life “Why we do research” hashtag.

People often look at me in a slightly different light once I’ve stopped speaking. Some in almost wide-eyed wonderment (I blame the free bar) that I am trying to make a difference every day through what I do by going to work, where as they, not always, try to see if there is an opportunity (money) to take, to make, from our conversation. Some merely look at me with that sad acknowledgement that I work in the public sector and have limited budgets, so they’ll go soft on me – won’t give me the full sales pitch.

And then we part. I breathe and start the game show all over again.

I could avoid such situations. I could decline the offers from the organisations I know it is highly unlikely that we will ever use their services, or buy their products; but I don’t. I don’t for those brief moments together where I get to explain what we do. Where I get to step out from the shadows of the behemoth that is the NHS or the Department of Health and explain who we are, how we fit in and how we help shape and make a difference.

It helps when you have something tangible like Join Dementia Research to work with. Where you can have a light hearted conversation with your aunt or uncle and remind them that this is the umpteenth time we have had this conversation, and enquire if they have thought about signing up, just in case – emphasizing that we need healthy volunteers as well. They laugh, I still show them the signup page on my smartphone. 

The real impact is when the free bar at the event is being packed away and you’re trying to work out whether to get the bus, a disruptive transport model or to walk back to your hotel, and someone comes up and actually remembers the conversation you had earlier. That they didn’t know we existed, but now they do and they are keen to have a chat – when heads are clear – about how they can help.

“Yes, I know budget might be an issue, but partnerships are not always about money.”

If only I had a tape recorder running. If only you all knew who we were, what we did and how you can get involved, so that we don’t have to have the same conversations every Christmas.

I’m not alone. There will be others reading this preparing to go through their own scenarios – their own, one breath, pre-planned speech. So as you prepare those lines, as you dust off your name badge and try to explain how IT works in a way that isn’t necessarily possible without a whiteboard and a tension headache, imagine that as you finish, the person opposite you says:

“Oh, you guys. Yes, I know about you”.

We can but dream. Well, it is the season for it.

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