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8.1 Transformative conferencing

1. Reservations

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.