Can a WhatsApp group provide professional development not found elsewhere?
I felt drawn to write this piece after, yet another uplifting experience borne out of my interaction in an incredibly special professional space. It is somewhere I feel I can leave and re-enter at will, count on the support of friends, seek advice, offer praise and support, and most importantly, share professional practices and concerns. The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Network private WhatsApp group is this niche where global majority members of the CSP have assembled since 2017.
As a member of the CSP BAME WhatsApp group since its inception, I have witnessed its enormous impact over its short existence.
Membership is open to any CSP registrant who identify as BAME. Laying aside criticisms aimed at collecting data using the term BAME, data published in 2021 showed 85.5% of the CSP’s membership identified as white, while the remainder were composed of: non-responders, those who ‘preferred not to say’, and those identifying as BAME. Thus, the BAME or global majority membership is small and number approximately six thousand, of which only 183 are registered on the WhatsApp platform. Therefore, you might well ask why I am writing about this small collective.
A simple answer is that I know of no other professional platform or network of this size, either within the CSP, or other Allied Health Professions which has made equivalent impact and where mentorship, professional support, friendship, and guidance for individuals is the focus.
What has the CSP BAME WhatsApp group achieved?
Beginning with new entrants to the profession, including students and support workers, a warm group welcome is always assured. On many occasions, I have had to silence my WhatsApp notifications from the avalanche of greetings that ensue when a new member joins. For members who have been qualified for longer, some tentative about seeking guidance, about their next career move after years of disappointment, the welcome and guidance is always no less profuse.
Support and input for promotion applications are always available, often from those who have broken the ‘glass ceiling’ or have paved the way for others to enter new territories in the job market.
Members too scared to lift their heads above the parapet after being beaten down by a system that has devalued them through racism and discrimination, need only voice their stories. They are immediately uplifted by similar journeys shared from individuals who have overcome and have found their way onto new career paths. Any trepidation voiced by those attempting to achieve new positions of leadership within the Society, the NHS or elsewhere are immediately buoyed up by positive guidance and backing by the group.
The reach of the WhatsApp group extends beyond the boundary of the UK.
Many of the individuals within it have struggled to get a foothold into employment within the NHS and the UK after undertaking their professional qualification overseas often hampered by the inflexibility of employers, employment practices and discrimination. Their invaluable experience of how they succeeded in overcoming these barriers and suggestions and ways to gain the required experience to gain HCPC registration is always readily shared.
The professional developments I have witnessed within the group indicate that no challenge is too great for it to assist its members in some positive way.
Significant achievements from the help it has provided have resulted in workplace recognition awards, promotions to higher NHS Bandings, publications of articles, books, and research, regional awards, election to the CSP Council, committees, chair and much more.
Amongst its many functions, the network plays a vital role in signposting its members. CSP stewards are often battling to manage their own roles in their workplace whilst handling matters of conflict and discrimination for CSP members. It is the case that BAME members do not always feel they have the ears of their stewards and prefer to share experiences with those they feel a sense of communion, especially with those who may be stewards themselves. Whilst the network is not the place to manage matters of official grievance and discrimination, it has been an important port of call for sharing common concerns and for signalling to other CSP services.
Is the WhatsApp group the voice of BAME membership within the CSP profession? No, it is a minor one but, I would argue, it is powerful and influential in raising the aspiration and success of its members, and in influencing policy decisions both within the Society and in the workplace.
It aligns firmly with the aims of the CSP EDB Strategy ‘to challenge and remove any structural barriers within our organisation to achieving equity of opportunities and experience for everyone’ (Aim 7) and ‘by building a culture that makes people feel that they belong and adapting to meet changing individual preferences for how and when they want to get involved (Aim 5). I see limited alternative spaces within the CSP, the physiotherapy profession in the UK, or the Allied Health Professions, where a preferred mode for communal interaction is accommodated and where current collective discourse, views, and experiences of BAME members is focused in such a simple, impactful, and cost-effective way.
Still, it is important to recognise that there are inherent dangers in adopting a WhatsApp as a platform for professional discourse.
The most vociferous, engaged, and forthright individuals could dominate and steer views within the group which are neither representative nor truly reflective of the views of the majority. At the other end of this pole, there are also members who might remain silent, preferring to be onlookers not daring to raise objection or may only be interested in sharing the vibrancy and at times, stories of professional dilemma being expressed. The protocol for monitoring and managing the group is also separated from other CSP’s official Special Interest Groups (SIGs) including the BAME Special Interest Network, however, it is significant that the WhatsApp group gains significantly more traction and interaction than the BAME SIG.
What is not immediately apparent is, if the majority of CSP BAME members joined the WhatsApp group, whether it would become unwieldy and less effective. Invitation is always extended to all those who wish to join, and contribute and a request is always available through this link.
Effective professional development
Professional development through formalised structures is essential for career progression. However, if traditional structures within it continue to perpetuate historical inequity and retain barriers for certain groups to make progress, then change and new and effective interventions are necessary.
It is my belief that the outcomes and achievements of the BAME WhatsApp group has been instrumental in fostering and furthering career development for a significant number of the global majority within the CSP membership.
The literature shows clinicians use instant messaging because of its simplicity, timeliness, and cost-effectiveness (Mars et al 2020). Whilst the added value of adopting platforms such as WhatsApp for empowering professional development is unknown, where there is indications of success and impact, especially in the professional development of historically disadvantaged professionals, then to explore it further becomes a necessity.
Mars M, Morris C, Scott RE. WhatsApp guidelines – what guidelines? A literature reviews. J Telemed Telecare. 2019 Oct;25(9):524-529. doi: 10.1177/1357633X19873233. PMID: 31631763