Friday, January 29, 2010

Information Technology for Groups

The aim of the workshop, underway in a classroom at the State Teachers College in New Britain, Connecticut, was to achieve a practical understanding of the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act. As the session proceeded, the workshop facilitators recorded the group's ideas on the classroom chalkboards. They were delighted with the productivity of the group, but soon became frustrated as the few chalkboards filled up with notes. To preserve the older notes they quickly transcribed them onto notepaper and then erased the chalkboards to make room for more. Desperate to maintain a visible record for use by the group, two of the facilitators—Ron Lippitt and Lee Bradford—hurried off after the day's session to the local newspaper and acquired the remains of a roll of newsprint. They spent the evening unrolling the newsprint and cutting it into usable-sized sheets. Using masking tape, they attached the sheets of paper to the walls and chalkboards of the classroom. The next day, instead of writing with chalk on the boards, they used grease pencils on the paper, and everyone was able to see the complete record of ideas. The year was 1946. Two facilitators, adapting information technology to meet the needs of groups, invented the first flip charts (French and Bell 1999, 33-34; Benne 1964, 81).

Cam Peterson, a consultant at Washington, DC-based Decisions and Designs Inc. (DDI), found himself working with customers whose problems were sufficiently complex as to benefit from "back-room" analysis typically performed by decision theory experts using computers running sophisticated software. He was asked by Westinghouse to apply these analytical approaches to the design of their new technical center. Cam asked Westinghouse for just a few experts to attend a two-day meeting to develop a framework for the design, and brought in his DDI colleague, Ken Kuskey, to be on the consultant team. Instead of just a few experts, the entire executive team attended the meeting! Adapting to the situation, Cam facilitated the group discussion while Ken ran the IBM 5100 and conducted the analysis. The "decision conference," combining group facilitation with computer-aided decision analysis, was born. The year was 1979. Decision analysts and group facilitators, adapting information technology to meet the needs of groups, were the first to bring computers into the conference room (Ring 1980; Kuskey 2003).

Group facilitation is dependent on information technology: blackboard, whiteboard, flip chart, paper roll, sticky paper, sticky wall, overhead projector, teleconference, videoconference, computer projector, Local Area Network, Internet … Technology innovations continue to shape the ways groups work and the ways group facilitators try to help them.

What's next?


Benne, K. (1964). History of the T-Group in the laboratory setting. In L. Bradford, J. Gibb, and K. Benne, eds. T-Group Theory and Laboratory Method: Innovation in Re-education. New York: Wiley.

French, W., and Bell, C. (1999). Organization Development: Behavioral Science Interventions for Organization Improvement, Sixth Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Kuskey, K. (2003). Personal correspondence, 28 May.

Ring, R. (1980). A new way to make decisions. Graduate Engineer, November, 46-49.

This essay first appeared in Group Faciliation: A Research and Applications Journal, Issue 5, 2003, published by the International Association of Facilitators.

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