Monday, 7 April 2014

Welcome to the University of Spamford

Not all Business Schools are alike. For every Critical Management inquiring programme, there's a shonky institution dedicated to handing out gold stars to every get-rich-quick chancer who hands over their credit card. That's why mainstream economics departments entirely failed to spot the crash: they were essentially lending a patina of respectability to what amounts to alchemy, and hoping to make a few quid from 'consultancy' along the way.

So far, so normal. But when universities join the ranks of business's bottom-feeders, you've got to worry. I got an email today which looked like the kind of spivvy-spam that we all get every day.
Executive Courses from the University of Salford
Not being an executive (or a leader), I assumed that is was a phishing exercise, especially as the reply email address looked, well, phishy: 
Not a standard UK university address, but one generated by a mass-mailing organisation.

So what 'Executive Courses' were on offer? I was hoping for 'executive relief' (at 29.00), but sadly that was off the menu.

Ooh, look at those logos. I know that the Institute of Directors is a legitimate organisation (legal anyway: its economic and ideological positions are far from legitimate). I've never heard of The Pacific Institute (though its webpage and twitter feed look like what we call 'a load of old bollocks'), and I know that Salford University brutally slaughtered its humanities courses to pay – presumably – for this kind of rubbish. 

I've a short fuse when it comes to spam at the best of times. When it comes to universities, I tend to think that Business Schools should be (in a colleague's formulation) 'about business, not for business'.  These courses look pretty weak: the kind of rubbish institutions with little class use to generate a quick buck, but the use of spamming as a recruitment tool really makes me worry. Surely this couldn't be true? 

So I looked up the Executive Leadership Programme, carefully not following links on the email in case it led me to some Internet Oubliette in which I'd be stripped of money, credit and reputation. Lo and behold: it's real! For only £1499 I could learn all about Leading Through Change,  or Potential To Performance. See how many Bullshit Bingo words you can tick off in the course synopsis:
People are the cornerstone of organisational success, and Investment in Excellence® develops this most valuable asset. It is a powerful development experience that enables leaders to achieve much more of their potential by changing their perception of what is possible, and then providing the skills, knowledge and application to cause a change in what they actually accomplish.
This module comprises of the development of personal transformational skills to equip participants to address limiting behaviours, empower self and others to set and achieve consistently high goals, and to release untapped potential.
The starting point of this element is that performance is driven by behaviours which in turn are driven by beliefs. In order for leader-driven collective improvements in performance to happen, there needs to be time built in for them to work on their own beliefs and behaviours.  This is an essential stage in enabling them to become more personally effective and thereby creating the constructive cultures that enhance the performance of others. The learning process links back to, and builds on, the first module and the impact of the individual on organisational culture as a whole.
But don't worry. It's a University! There must be a core of solid research informing all this. What's 'Facilitator' Lynne Oliver published? Well, nothing as such but she did work closely with Rabobank of the Netherlands. And what a great job she did with their leadership:
Rabobank boss quits over £662m Libor rigging fine
But I was still curious. Was this real? How did they get my name? Surely a reputable university wouldn't be simply spamming people? So I emailed the Salford Executive Leadership Programme's contact address to ask if the email was genuine.
Could you confirm that this is a genuine message, and that I subscribed to your mailing list?
Yours, Plashing Vole
Back came a reply from Paul Bolton (not that he signed the email, but that's the name in the 'from' box':
Thanks for your email, this is a genuine email to your work email address. We have now removed you from our database. Thank you 
Not, you notice, an answer to the second question. So is a reputable university simply spamming? Or is it buying mailing lists from other organisations with a relaxed attitude to data protection. Last week I was on a course about Leadership in Higher Education. Surely the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education isn't flogging its mailing lists? I surely hope not. I've mailed Salford and the LFHE to ask.

I quickly got a reply from Paul.

As far as I am aware you did not subscribe, however we buy data from a reputable company and your email would have come from this. By law, we are permitted to email on a business to business basis, so long as we offer an opt out facility on the email.
I can see that the email did go to a non-personal email address and we did offer the unsubscribe option. I would however like to apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused.

He's wrong about the address, of course: it's my name followed by my institutional domain. I'm even less impressed by his defence: 'it's legal' and I can unsubscribe from something to which I didn't voluntarily subscribe in the first place. Wow. So many things are legal, without being reputable, effective or polite.

Why does this bother me? Because universities should be better than this. They should be better than striking brand-name deals with flaky organisations and they should know better than to besmirch their reputations by indulging in bottom-feeder behaviour like spamming. If this is the kind of thing they teach on their courses, you should save your money.

Stay classy, Salford!

Update: ironically, Salford's SPD unit also offers an Introduction to Digital Marketing for Higher Education including:
  • Considerations for establishing a Digital and Social Media Policy
  • Knowing Your Audience/Market
  • The importance of Customer Relationship Marketing
On this evidence, I'd be awarding a fail. 

1 comment:

Alan said...

You're quite right about the willingness of some business schools - probably most I'm afraid - to act as handmaidens of capital.
After getting a PhD at the Dark Place in '98, supervised by Paul Willis, at the grand old age of 51 and after being a senior shop steward for years, I landed a job at an institution I'll call the University of Hillingdon, in what was then the department of business and management studies. I said, during one round of discussions about what the dept should be called, that I studies management in the same way that a colleague in the history dept, specialising in modern Italian history, studies fascism. Examination doesn't mean approval.

I doubt that anyone teaching in the successor department today would readily express such a view in an atmosphere of rancid credentialism and "employability".