Living Culture at Fortis | An Interview with Alex Main

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Honourary Fellow and Fortis Consulting consultant, Alex Main, talks to us about the many roles he has played throughout his career.

We interviewed Associate Professor Alex Main this week to discuss the many roles of a consultant as part of our Living Culture at Fortis series. As an Honorary Fellow Alex’s skills and experience encompass two broad areas: cultural adaptation, and the design and evaluation of training. In recent years Alex acted as a consultant to the team involved in the National Competency Tool Project, and previous to that he was the Director of Educational Services and Teaching Resources and Associate Professor of Psychology at Murdoch University.

He currently contributes to undergraduate teaching in Community and Cultural Psychology, and postgraduate training in Counselling at Murdoch University.


Alex, you have acted as a consultant to many organisations over many years, here in Australia, but also in the UK and Canada. How would you characterise the role of the consultant?

I can only reflect on the roles I have been asked to play. I have been sought out by organisations, or sometimes by interest groups within organisations, for any of the following:

  • Advice
  • An independent perspective
  • Reflection
  • Contextualisation
  • “Wisdom”
  • Challenge

I have seen myself as a person who asks questions, such as “What if?” and “So what?”. I have also been very aware that, when I have been invited into an organisation, I have been there to respond, and not to initiate. I am somebody who has different skills from a manager. (Although having management experience has helped me take a broad perspective of the views and needs of a wide range of stakeholders).

I learned a good deal about being a consultant when, a few months after being appointed as an educational consultant to my own University, one of my academic colleagues sent me a cartoon. It showed a lecturer calling at the door of the college’s teaching consultant saying “I’m glad I came to see you. I am still confused, but on a much higher level now”.

Could you give some examples of being responsive in this manner?

Responsiveness is very much a matter of balancing the two roles: that of being an “outsider” to the organisation which has hired you and building on those skills and achievements which allow you to be (for the moment) enough of an “insider” to be trusted and believed in. Let me give you a couple of examples from my earliest couple of major evaluative consultancies.

Training of University teachers (late 1960s)

I became a de facto consultant to my own university and then to the consortium of eight Scottish universities. Role: to guide the tertiary education system towards the effective training of all university staff in teaching skills.

Lesson:  I was afraid that my position as an “insider” would be a drawback. However, the fact that I was both a member of the governing body of a major university and a senior member of the academic trade union turned out to give me credibility – I was clearly aware of both management and employee viewpoints and unlikely to favour one over the other. A decade later, I was appointed to coordinate training of university teaching across the United Kingdom. In that role, I was much more able to act as an “outsider “to University management while being an “insider” to stakeholders.

Instructional development (early 1970s)

The Council of Ontario Universities invited me to lead a review of the Province-wide programme for Instructional development, which involved my appraising the actions taken by all higher education institutions and professional bodies to improve teaching and learning.

Lesson: I was clearly chosen as an “outsider” to both the Province of Ontario and to each of its institutions and professional bodies. This gave me faith in my objectivity, but I was surprised that most of the members of both management and staff considered me as an “insider”. My reputation as a teacher and as an innovator in university education meant that I was known to be on the side of positive change. The Ontario programme was set up to bring about change, and I was regarded as someone who could document how successful change was likely to be, given the resources available. All interested parties regarded me as on the side of the angels!

We know that you played a key role in the restructuring of police training in the UK in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Did this insider/ outsider issue feature strongly during that period?

Indeed. I was highly conscious of being an outsider to policing. I had none of the experience or qualities required of a police officer, especially height and physical stamina. I was also a Scot who was asked to work with a police force of 29,000 serving officers, the majority of whom were selected from England. My own education and experience were radically different from over 90% of police officers. Early on I realised that I needed to become an insider. What sort of “insider”?

My first task was to lead an evaluation of the training needs of recruits and probationary officers. In brief, I set about creating a “presence” in the training process: this I did by spending three or four days a month over the basic 6-month initial training course in residence at the College, attending lectures and practical exams, sitting exams, eating with the trainees and socialising with their training officers and management. I also visited probationers on their first placements at police stations throughout London, finding out what the issues were that vexed new constables and their supervising officers. Although I did not know it at the time, this reputation for grass-roots contact gave my evaluation task credibility on the ground right through the ranks. It also gave credibility to the team of policemen and women whom I recruited to act as a wider evaluation team.

To cut a long story short, when I completed my first review of Met Police training, I was invited to report my findings to an open forum of serving officers of all ranks (as it happened, to an audience of over one thousand at the famous Hammersmith Palais entertainment centre). The ensuing Q & A session reiterated over and over again the same message: “Dr Main, you have done a great job – your report says everything that we on the ground have been telling management for decades.”  I am happy to say that management agreed with that.

I was then invited to become Educational Adviser to the Commissioner, and a support organisation of 200 experienced officers was created and given the status of an independent Police Branch. I and the senior staff of the Branch (D13) were then tasked of rolling out reviews of all training across detective operations, special branch (terrorist activity), royalty and diplomatic protection and senior management. I separately initiated a review of the need for continuation training for constables who did not seek promotion and therefore did not then receive any training beyond the basic. These long-term goals were slowly developed over a brief six month period until they were reconstructed as a result of a major community disruption in London. In April 1981 a confrontation between different cultural groups in Brixton led to what was described as a “riot”, revealing the widespread tension between the West Indian population and other groups, and calling into question the behaviour, skills and management of police. Lord Justice Scarman headed a major enquiry that, among other things, criticised police attitudes, values and training. Although I did not give evidence to the Commission, I was on call for senior officers who were grilled on training, particularly culturally appropriate training. Remember that I was not at any time an employee of the Met, had no management responsibility and was a “consultant”. I am happy to discuss specific details with you, but for the moment, I can reiterate what I have said before: at no time in my career have I been so aware of the complementary but often conflicting roles of the consultant as “insider” and “outsider”.

In the time left for this discussion, let me simply outline the enormous task that faced the Metropolitan Police in the aftermath of the Scarman recommendations, and which involved me as the “insider/ outsider” in the whole of the next five years:

  • The creation of a culturally-aware and culturally-oriented forward planning unit for training at all levels of the Force
  • Extensive consultation with ethnic groups, associations and grassroots organisations
  • A degree of “marginalisation” of existing academic and political “experts”, and greater emphasis on advice from community members with “lived experience” of culture and policing
  • Identification of already existing cultural resources within the Force, and giving those resources greater credibility
  • Training of key personnel in the cultural responsibilities of the Force, and concentrating on “people management” rather than on “task management”

These challenges which you describe were all in the UK and Canada. Are the issues for you as a consultant much the same here in WA?

Perhaps a good example is a role I played as a consultant to Melville City Council a few years ago in its bid to develop appropriate activities and services to what was then described as “Citizens from a non-English Language background”, including the needs of NESB youth.  Being aware of the relative contribution of “insider” and “outsider” researchers and developers, I recruited a team made up entirely of people with migrant and refugee backgrounds, who were also residents of the city of Melville. They were selected on the basis of being insiders in terms of the project’s target audience, and my role was initially to train them to be “objective” outsiders in terms of methodology.