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Transformative Conferencing: Problems and possibilities on the new frontier of high-risk gatherings concerning social development


Transformative Conferencing

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1. Meetings, and particularly international meetings are a vital feature of society. They are a principal means whereby different perspectives are "assembled"," meet " or touch each other, possibly following a period of separation ("reunion"). Through such occasions resources are brought together to bear on a question of common concern ("conference") or they may provide the environment in which unrelated questions can emerge spontaneously ("Forum").

2. Considerable efforts have been successfully made to increase the efficiency of meeting organization/operation through the use of management skills, communications technology and specially conceived buildings. The organizational skills have been professionalized and are available as a commercial service, whilst the quantity of meetings has given rise to a whole "conference industry" of significant economic importance.

3. Despite the ease with which meetings are held, and the increasing number of such events, there is rising concern that many of these do not fulfil the expectations of participants and of those whose future depends upon their outcome.

4. Some efforts have been made to move beyond a concern for the "mechanics" of meeting organization in order to facilitate those processes which are more congenial and significant to participants. These innovations have been for the most part experimental or implemented under special conditions and are primarily applicable to small groups. The majority of meetings has been little affected, if at all.

5. The fundamental problem seems to be associated with the fact that the apparent success at "processing" agenda items, participants viewpoints and documents is matched by only an apparent or superficial consensus whose impact if any, is frequently limited to one of short-term public relations. The meeting outcome is such that the collective empowerment is minimal as is the enablement of the participant.

6. Seen in this light current meeting procedures themselves constitute a principal obstacle to social change at least for the meetings in which this is a preoccupation.

7. The challenge would therefore appear to be to elaborate a new conceptual framework within which a meeting may be perceived. This should highlight the hitherto hidden dimensions of the problem and clarify more appropriate options. For unless a new attitude to the meeting process can be elaborated, it seems highly probable that concealed inherent weaknesses will continue to undermine and erode the value for social change of any meeting outcome. In a very real sense meetings model collective (in)ability to act and the (in)effectiveness of collective action.

8. An important question then is how to mature the power of a meeting to:

  • 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);
  • focus the variety of perspectives represented, without destroying it in some simplistic formula of superficial consensus;
  • transform the issues presented, and the organizational groups which take responsibility for them, into new configurations of operational significance;
  • act, or empower those represented to act, in the light of the level of understanding achieved during the meeting.

9. The task is therefore to discover of nature of the "compleat meeting " of the future, through which a new order may be brought into being.

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