Workplace Skills Away Day Review

Blog by Gavin Wren (MSc candidate in Food Policy, City University London) on the IFSTAL Away Day, held on Saturday 4th March 2017 at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.

On Saturday 4th March 2017, thirty keen students from around the globe, who all study at the UK institutions which make up IFSTAL, gathered at Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment to take part in the 2017 away day.

The day’s theme was workplace skills, something I was certainly looking forward to. Having spent the last two years working at a desk in my home office, with no colleagues except my beloved pooch, my workplace skills probably needed their socks firmly pulling up.

Arriving early gave me a chance to chat with students from the Royal Veterinary College and LSHTM, learning about their research projects over coffee. Shortly after, we moved into the main room, to be welcomed by Dr John Ingram [IFSTAL Programme Leader], before being launched straight into the first team skills activity by the inimitably enthusiastic Rosina Borelli [IFSTAL Workplace Engagement Lead].

We were divided into two teams and each was presented with a stack of colourful cartoon pictures to solve – once we’d worked out what the question was. It didn’t take long to suss out that we needed to re-arrange the drawings into order, making a logical sequence of images. Shouts of “Beach! Beach!” and “City! Who’s got city?” echoed around as 15 pairs of hands clamoured at each set of images, whilst a few watched on, clearly understanding the meaning of the phrase “too many cooks spoil the broth”. It was a high energy, fast paced way to explore team interactions and kick started my Saturday morning brain into action.

Facilitating and writing about multi-stakeholder processes is something that Dr Jim Woodhilll knows all about. So who better to give us a whistle stop tour of multi-stakeholder partnerships; a process I understood as the subtle art of getting people to listen to each other, even when they don’t want to. Jim also gave an outline of Belbin team roles, along with the shocking news that contrary to our dreams, not everyone is the glamorous ‘Plant’, the free-thinking, creative, imaginative, problem solver.

We were now ready for the practical.

Divided into teams of around six people, we were charged with the heady task of outlining a stakeholder partnership in 65 minutes, a process normally assigned with days, weeks or months. My group chose the aim of improving diet, by reducing sugar and increasing vegetable intake of primary school children in the UK.

Understanding the problem and stakeholders, then translating that into a logical, coherent table of partnerships proved a substantial task to complete in the timeframe. Working through our individual ideas brought a lot of disparate information onto paper, which were clarified with analytical tools such as stakeholder analysis, theories of change and BATWOVE.

Towards the end of the exercise, we questioned who we actually were. We’d spent most of the time operating as an anonymous crack squad of ethereal food system fairies rather than adopting a quantifiable role. Re-purposed as an NGO, it became easier to understand how, and why, we were organising these stakeholders. This helped to consolidate our collective ideas into understandable relationships and ultimately, a 12 month timeline for stakeholder engagement.

After that systems-based cranial limbering, lunch was truly welcome, and manifested itself in a stunning spread of recovered food that had been adeptly transformed into a plethora of dishes fit for royalty. Talking about food sure is hungry work and lunch gave another great social opportunity to make some new friends.

The postprandial sessions kicked off with short talks from a range of speakers, direct from the food world, who included:

Bjoana Bajzelj from WRAP talked about the challenges and successes they’ve experienced reducing UK food waste, plus how we’re going to do the same in the future.

Tomaso Ferrando from University of Warwick talked about food, law and ultimately, what I saw as a sense of humility, the ability to get involved with the people and places during research, rather than just looking in, from the outside.

Graphic designer Ruth Sorroko teaches young people to cook, an idea that she hatched after a few glasses of wine in the pub. Today, she is the director of the Kentish Town veg box scheme alongside running Eat Club classes, teaching kitchen skills to young people who want to learn their way around the the cooker.

Ex-Coca-Cola employee Jake Backus told the encouraging story of affecting change from the inside of a large corporation, through his journey creating Coca-Cola’s sustainability department. He now runs his own sustainability company.

Alice Turnbull from Bayer was last, with a rundown of agriculture and how it’s approached, from the perspective of one of the key players in ‘Big-Ag’.

Introductory speeches over, we separated into small groups and gathered in break-out rooms for what was my favourite session of the day, a rare feat for the oft-drowsy mid afternoon slot. This was the opportunity to have intimate 30 minute audiences with each speaker in small groups. Having chosen my preferred three, these sessions provided a brilliant opportunity to throw questions at the speakers and fostered a sense of engagement on personal level which you don’t get with a large audience. I also felt the speakers were more relaxed and happily divulged fascinating information about the way they, and their organisations, are working within the food system.

Once the speakers had been thoroughly interrogated, we gathered back in the main room, where Rosina gave yet another tireless performance to wrap up the day, before we packed up our Sharpies and flip charts, grabbed a drink and studied the last system of the day; the transport system – home.

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