The Melting Pot , Not.

I'm talking at a conference on integrative health on next month. I have been wary of the concept of integration in the context marketing communication since the early 1990s. It has always seemed to me that integration, when one person or organisation controls it, becomes a semantic exercise - a Trojan Horse for an agency that wants to control the client's budget.

In my experience what is best for the client is less important than what is best for the customer.

The motivation to 'integrate' has to be considered very carefully. Responsibility lies with the client - whether they are the patient of a medical centre or client of a multinational advertising agency.

Something important has changed since 1994. Consumers have been given the most important tool in the history of economics. The commercial Internet made its impact felt in 1995. It has become a cliche but, since then, nothing has been the same.

The web has refuted the economic principle that 'the consumer cannot have perfect knowledge of the market' and turned it on its ear. Today we all have access to a mind-boggling amount of information, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I can check the web to find the best price for a product. I can find alternative suppliers. I can usually contact then directly, with no difference in the time of response based on geography. If I am the patient in a medical situation I can get a second opinion or formulate a second opinion of my own based on information sourced from the Internet - from both 'reputable' sources and patient peer experiences.

Of course the concept of 'perfect' knowledge will always be moot. Within the context of informed choice the choice dynamic is always going to weigh heavily on the person making the choice. That is a burden of responsibility that goes with the territory.

In many ways the Internet presents us with a conundrum. It is a powerful connective tool that can be wielded to great effect. Paul Weinburger, in his book 'Small Pieces Loosely Joined' sums it up with the title. The fragments make up a much larger picture. But the picture can never be viewed as a whole, or integrated impression. The web is chaotic and even anarchic. It is uncontrolled and owned by no one individual or organisation. The views of a lone blogger might carry as much, or more weight as those of a multinational corporation - and both can be accessed as easily by anyone wishing to consume the information.

Going back to the idea of integration I believe we need to have a purer, less ambiguous definition of the term 'integrated'. What does it mean.? Together? Cohesive? Homogenised? Does it mean there is an integral component that runs through a concept or set of practices?

I rather hope it doesn't mean homogenised. Evenly blending usually means blanding - whether we are talking about milk or the recipe for a multi-ethnic society.

It is probably more productive to use the multi-ethnic community metaphor of integration to consider the way forward for integration. Large-scale migration and comparative freedom to travel has turned the world into something of a melting pot. Perhaps you remember the lyrics of the song with the same name, suggesting that 'what we need is a great big melting pot - to take the world and all it’s got'. I can never remember lyrics to songs very well, but I do recall that the conclusion of the song was that we'd all be better off if we turned out 'coffee coloured people by the score.'

Coffee coloured people might be aesthetically pleasing in principle but it is a fairly unappealing idea to me in practice. It smacks of the blanding of society where we are all reduced to the common mean.

Is there another way? One of the aspects of New Zealand life that has been so interesting and dynamic is the influx of people from many different cultures. Migrants from Asia and Eastern Europe, parts of Africa and the Middle East have come here and, I believe, given an infusion to our society that it sorely needed.

When I was growing up it was rare to meet a child in school who came from any place more exotic than my own suburb. Sometimes there would be a Scottish kid (like me) or one from England. I once had the novelty of having a friend from Canada. But it was rare. Even Maori children were uncommon where I lived and I soon learned to speak without my Scottish accent with my friends - to fit in and not sound like Billy Connolly. In my own children's class it is common to have kids from all over the world - Korea, Russia, Somalia, South Africa, Australia, the United States...It is amazing the shift in demographics over the past 30 or 40 years.

Would I want all of those people to eat the same food as my family and me? Share the same faith? Enjoy the same music and entertainment? Not in a million years. The diversity is stimulating. Does it make me feel threatened? Not in the least (any more than the spectacular renaissance of Maori in New Zealand does) . Which, I suppose, brings me to a conclusion that cohesion is the most critical component for integration.

What tools do we have to develop cohesion? Perhaps language (and by extension communication) is the most critical element. To have a shared vocabulary promotes understanding. Understanding promotes tolerance. Tolerance allows parts to move freely and cohesively (if your car's engine wasn't designed with tolerances in the measurements +/- x%, it would be unable to turn over - it would seize).

The integrative medical model needs a common language that is understood by all of the practitioners who participate and their patients. Allopathic practitioners must develop a tolerance for other modes of practice (and, dare I say it, many of people who practice forms of care that have been called alternative or complementary, will need to develop a trust for the intentions of medical doctors).

As I said in the beginning of this post, integration cannot be viewed as a means of controlling the patient's budget - or husbanding people as though there were an economic unit, like cattle. The key is to place the consumer, or patient at the centre of the equation and make a genuine commitment to the concept of informed choice (with all of the imperfections that emanate from that). Both the practitioner and the patient base integrative health on better understanding of the choices that is available.

Can it be done? I would hope so.

Is there a clear and easily expressed benefit for all of the parties? I believe so.

Would it be a world first if we could pull it off? Without a doubt.

Could designing a new model with application throughout the world make New Zealand a One & Only brand?
You bet.

Will it be easy? I have my doubts. There is a lot at stake.

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