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Organization of Meetings for Discussion of Complex Issues

Part D of Complexity: its constraints on social innovation. Preliminary report for Group 2 on behalf of Mankind 2000 for the Journées d'Etudes (Paris, 28-30 mars 1977) of the International Foundation for Social Innovation. Published in Transnational Associations 29, 5, 1977, pp. 183-187 [PDF version][French version] Parts of this paper were originally presented as part of a report to the 6th International Congress on Congress Organization (Kyoto, 1975) and were published in International Associations, 1976, issues 1 or 2. Other portions formed part of the introductory material for some sessions of the 7th Congress (Hamburg, 1977) which was subsequently cancelled.
Types of meeting requiring improvement
Aspects of meetings requiring improvement

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With the increase in the complexity of society and its problems and with the increase in the number of groups and institutions whose views must be interlinked to ensure an innovative response to any new issue, it is obvious that the role of meetings as focal points has become of considerable importance. But whilst the number of local, national ed. as has the variety of issues with which they deal, the form of such meetings has remained essentially the same. Although not applicable to all types of meeting (see below) it is nevertheless valid to note that the basic form of a meeting has not changed over the last half century or even a longer period -- despite increasing recognition of the complexity of the issues discussed and despite considerable increase in understanding of the psycho-dynamics of meetings.

It is still standard practice to rely heavily on what can be achieved in a plenary session governed by a rigid time schedule with the consequent emphasis on the contribution of main speakers from an organizer-controlled podium and with effective limitation of the open of commissions or small group discussions is used, there is still a major problem for participants to allocate their time between parallel groups on related topics, and for the meeting as a whole to receive and integrate the work of such groups once completed.

In a very real sense the content and results of the meeting are predetermined by the choice of :

  1. the main invited speakers
  2. the potential participants informed, invited, or even subsidized.
  3. the physicial constraints of the space for plenary, parallel and small group sessions.
  4. the geographical location of the meeting in relation to the location of potential participants,
  5. the time available,
  6. the constraints imposed by a multilingual audience.

As is well known, much is also predetermined by the ("behind-the-scenes") activities and intentions of the organizers and sponsors in structuring the programme and ensuring that the meeting "flows smoothly".

It should not be assumed that these are new observations, for already it is possible to detect the consequences of such abuse of meetings. Questions are increasingly raised concerning the real benefit to be obtained from holding a particular kind of meeting.

Consider, for example, the following extract from a letter recently published in International Associations (1976,1) :

I am writing to you on behalf of a group of international NGO executives who have just returned from a meeting of two hunderd persons from all parts of the world -- namely, the International Conference of... On the way back home we began talking about the effectiveness of such events. Some of us attend meetings like this regularly and we are questioning their value. This last conference on the... issue was just as sterile as the previous ones in spite of hopes that we could start afresh. One sees the same faces, only at different meeting sites; one hears the same positions defended and one sits in the same kind of hotel or conference room. Somehow we must find another process for such international gatherings.

As we talked on the way home, we agreed that such meetings of 100-200 participants (assembled at costs estimated at $100,000 as a minimum), are like eight cylinder engines running on only two cylinders. We estimated that 85 % of the group listened while 15 % spoke. Not only is this an extremely inefficient use of human resources, it means that many travelled all this way without ever having the opportunity to express their needs and ideas. The more aggressive persons, those speaking the conference language fluently -- the conference professionals, still dominate these events. Frankly we feel such meetings are often oppressive...

Many key individuals who used to attend meetings now find that they can allocate their time and resources to more beneficial forms of activity. (They use phrases like " there are too many meetings ". " all talk and no action ., - the matter has already been adequately discussed elsewhere ", " wh at is the use of another set of resolutions when nothing was done about those from the previous meetings ", etc.). Their absence reduces the quality of the meetings actually he!d and their lack of interaction with " novice-meeting- participants "means that the latter have to waste more time in learning the limitations of the meeting environment.

Clearly many meetings are simple "badly organized". But a significant number of conferences, whether national or international, may be judged a failure or a waste of resources despite the fact that :

  • all conventional physical, technical and administrative facilities and services are used competently with the guidance of experienced personnel;
  • the programme of the conference is well-planned and conforms to the interests and priorities of the different groups of participants;
  • the meeting sessions and the social sessions are " well-organized "and efficiently run.

The question to be raised here is the extent to which the conventional approach to organizing a meeting results in a relatively blunt and crude instrument for :

  • the clarification of complex matters
  • the interaction between groups and organizations whose relationship to the issue and to each other is to be clarified during the meeting.
  • the stimulation of the emergence of innovative and alternative approaches to the issues
  • the initiation of joint projects between the individuals or groups present.
cts between the individuals or groups present.

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