Transformative Approaches Project
Dialogue: transformative conferencing
Transformative Approaches Project |
The concern in the following notes is with those large-group meetings
or conferences which are not:
- (a) Organized according to procedures considered reasonably satisfactory
by most of those directly involved, possibly on the basis of experience
of previous meetings in the same series;
- (b) Deliberately structured by the instigators to achieve a certain
objective, irrespective of the individual preoccupations of those who choose
to participate under such circumstances;
- (c) Conceived around a pre-defined set of topics, irrespective of any
other topics which may emerge during the meeting as common to a number
of participants present;
- (d) Deliberately unstructured as an environment for spontaneous exchange
between participants, but without any concern that such exchanges should
lead to the emergence of some larger pattern.
The main concern is with highlighting problems and possibilities relevant
to the organization of more mature meetings on the new frontier of high-
risk gatherings in response to social development issues and the global
problematique. Attention is only given to the "mechanics" of
meeting organization (covered in the many books available on such matters)
in so far as they directly affect the psycho-social dynamic of the meeting.
2. Meeting maturation
The topics are therefore oriented around the possibility of maturing
the power of a larger meeting to:
- (a) reflect the complexity of the external environment in an ordered
manner (representation), to reflect about that environment (conceptual
processes), and to reflect about itself (self-reference or self- reflexiveness);
- (b) focus the variety of perspectives represented, without destroying
that variety in some simplistic formula of superficial consensus;
- (c) transform the issues presented, and the organizational groups which
take responsibility for them, into new configurations of operational significance;
- (d) act, or empower those represented to act, in the light of the level
of understanding achieved during the meeting.
In line with the general theme of this project, there is a concern that
meeting innovation is being severely hindered by the limited vocabulary
by which meeting processes and structures are defined: programme, session,
speaker, participant, topic, organizer, etc. This is especially
the case in that most of this vocabulary focuses on the logistics and administration
of the meeting. The challenge is to find ways of enriching understanding
of the range of meeting processes, including "conceptual logistics",
moving beyond the limitations of that vocabulary, clarifying new distinctions
and reinforcing those new distinctions by a new vocabulary.
3. Envisioning the perfect meeting
In recent years many people have deplored the inadequacies of the visions
of society in the future. It is argued that credible visions offer a vital
guideline to long-term policy. Clarifying such visions is a useful focus
for debate. As a central process in society, meetings also merit this form
of concern. Indeed if the problems inherent in meetings cannot be solved,
is it possible to move toward any better society? What could constitute
a perfect meeting in the future? Adequate images of such ideal meetings
can guide reflection on present inadequacies and on how they may be overcome.
The following points identify aspects which can be usefully borne in mind.
(a) Inter-weaving resources: Rather than the present emphasis
on isolated participant contributions, the emphasis will be on interrelating
contributions to form a pattern whose form evokes further contributions
thus bringing about an appropriate balance of perspectives. Representatives
of each discipline or approach will strive for better ways to evoke that
pattern. Lengthy contributions (in time or on paper) will become secondary
to the contribution of specific ideas, values, facts, problems or relationships.
Those which significantly improve the emerging pattern will be valued most.
(b) Pace: Rather than the present hectic exercises in maximizing
"communication", many meetings or sessions will bear a greater
resemblance to a public game of chess or go. Periods of silence will be
interspersed with brief contributions to the emerging pattern on whose
evolution all are reflecting.
(c) Status and reward: Rather than status being accorded or acknowledged
by protocol and "prime time" privileges, it will be self- evident
from the record of the relative significance of the contributions made
to the emerging pattern. This will be the prime source of personal satisfaction.
(d) Process: Rather than the simplistic overt processes of present
meetings (made possible by a complex of covert processes), the range of
processes will be understood to interweave as they do in a complex but
healthy ecosystem - of which there are many types.
(e) Maturity: Rather than the present possibility of immaturity
in a meeting of the most eminent, the maturity level of the meeting will
be a matter of explicit concern and many will have skills to evolve the
meeting beyond the characteristic traps of the present.
(f) Roles: Rather than the limited range of roles in present
meetings, those of the future will be characterized by a rich variety of
supporting, guiding, informing, facilitating roles. The potential of a
meeting may well be judged by the "participant/supporting role"
ratio (cf the teacher/pupil ratio in schools) as well as the number
of "jargons" between which "interpretation" is provided.
(g) Modes: Rather than the limited range of modes now permissable
in a given meeting, it will be possible for a meeting to move flexibly
between many modes according to the energy requirements of the participants
- and without losing a sense of coherence.
(h) Conceptual environment: Rather than the crude (lack of) awareness
of meeting conceptual dynamics, participants will be much more conscious
of the "species" of each contribution made, the effect it can
have on the evolution of the conceptual environment, and the constraint
on its viability.
(i) Physical environment: To those involved in such perfect meetings,
the negative effects of the many subtle and less subtle design factors
in present conference centres will be obvious. Conference environment design
will focus on enabling the many aspects of conceptual pattern formation
rather than "processing" participants and inhibiting synthesis.
Flexible settings will adapt to the changing conceptual environment.
(j) Technology: Aside from the already evident move towards "electronic
meetings" between distant participants, much greater use will be made
of technology to enable spontaneous communication between participants
(rather than at them), to represent graphically the pattern emerging from
the contributions made, and to facilitate synthesis whilst protecting variety.
(k) New challenges: Because the environment will enable collective
reflection on much more subtle questions than at present, new challenges
will emerge - possibly to be recognized as of greater (or more fundamental)
significance than the often simplistic preoccupations of present meetings.
From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential