Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Lessons From Parliamentary Procedure

Written by johnleemk on 4:44:24 pm May 20, 2007.

Last year, I checked out a book on parliamentary procedure from the library. At the time, I had no idea about the lessons I would learn from it, nor their relevance to management.

You might think that these sort of manuals would be only useful to debaters in a major legislative or deliberative body. But in reality, they have relevance to just about any meeting of more than a couple of people.

Parliamentary procedure represents a distillation of the wisdom of debaters in various legislative bodies throughout the centuries. When you have to control a meeting of several dozen, or in some cases, a few hundred people, having a guidebook on how to do so makes a lot of sense.

But over time, this wisdom has proven to be relevant to almost any other type of meeting. The book I read contained several notes for those chairing meetings of clubs and societies, and even meetings of only half a dozen people.

As a member of my college's Pre-University Department Student Council, I've found that because hardly any of us are acquainted with parliamentary procedure, we have no idea how to structure our meetings — and as a result, nothing productive gets done.

Some brief attention is paid to the formalities — the secretary takes down minutes, for example — but these formalities don't serve much purpose. At the beginning of each meeting, the minutes of the last meeting are not read, so we have no idea how to pick up from the previous meeting.

No agenda is prepared for every meeting, so only the leaders go in with even the slightest idea of what we will be talking about. And because the discussion is not controlled by the president, who should be chairing the meeting, what often happens is that the meeting breaks down into subdiscussions among different groups of people.

Progress on meeting even short-term objectives is insanely slow, because every decision has to be made by the whole council — there are no committees tasked with specific assignments.

All of these basic things could easily be handled by anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of parliamentary procedure — and because of this, the council would be able to move along more smoothly.

Being a lame duck member of the council, as a class representative for a batch which will graduate next month, I have been content to sit on the sidelines and watch the council implode (although I of course supported efforts by the secretary and a few others to reform how meetings are run).

But it's been a valuable experience, because if I am ever in a position of leadership, I will at least know how meetings ought to be run, and what will happen if certain procedures are not observed.

I had actually learned some basic aspects of parliamentary procedure much earlier — over a decade ago, in fact — from a civics textbook of my father's. But I never appreciated the need for these things, which I saw as mere formalities.

My experience with school organisations didn't help things either — pretty much all the meetings I attended were chaotic, and very few had any structure to them at all.

That, I think, is a real shame, because extracurricular activities are meant to prepare you for dealing with tasks which require "soft skills". Knowing how a meeting ought to be run would be a lot more useful to me than learning the number of oil rigs in a particular state.

Parliamentary procedure is a valuable aid to running meetings of groups larger than three or four people. That it is something most people don't learn is regrettable — such leadership skills are more important than most of the knowledge schools try to cram you with.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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