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.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Believe in Doubt

Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.
~ Andre Gide

We live in a contentious world. Diversity of beliefs and values is the norm and we can expect to encounter conflict more frequently than consensus. The presence of conflict often stimulates each party or interest group to impress its version of reality on the others in an effort to achieve a change of mind and win agreement. However, even when agreement is reached there is no means for assuring that it is right.

One's understanding of the world is not based on careful reading and unequivocal interpretation of technical manuals but rather on socially derived and communicated knowledge and values. In the words of Peter Checkland, "Social reality is the ever-changing outcome of the social process in which human beings, the product of their genetic inheritance and previous experiences, continually negotiate and re-negotiate with others their perceptions and interpretations of the world outside themselves" (Checkland 1981, 283- 284). Giovanni Battista Vico said it more succinctly, "To know the world, one must construct it." (Shrage 1990, xvii).

Too often in the search for truth, too many are too sure too early. Most of us are too comfortable with our views, our status quo, and are reluctant to change. Our truth, our internally consistent system, supports and sustains us. Few understand, as did Anais Nin, that "We don't see the world as it is; we see it as we are." This insight leads us to a key paradox: because the truth in which we believe is unique to who we are, we should not trust its generality.

If we should not believe in truth, then in what should we believe? We could say, "believe in doubt." Indeed, in this world of multiple, conflicting realities we need far more individuals who willingly exercise doubt, cultivating more openness, more questioning, more learning; people who listen carefully to each and every perspective—to understand fully but to believe doubtfully—even to doubt that they really understood at all! Still, it is critical to strike a balance between believing and doubting: too much belief and there is no learning; too much doubt and there is no action. So if we "believe in doubt," on what shall we base our action? Perhaps we could "believe in groups"! Let's give this a try by making explicit two key premises and examining their implications:

1. Each individual in a group has the potential to make a valuable contribution.

2. Some group members might have more valuable contributions to make than others—more expertise, greater insight, better judgment—on at least a few of the tasks at hand.

The problem is that we rarely know which individuals are more expert at which tasks. There is no objective way to distinguish between one good contribution and another to determine which is better, or to know how to combine individual contributions to produce results that are better than any of the individual contributions taken alone.

Although we often rely on one person to integrate the group's thinking, this may result in that person's views dominating all others— and that one person might not have it right. Alternatively, we can allow the group to decide how best to make use of the contributions of each of its members. This requires that we help group members learn from one another, so they can correct one another's errors, enabling—at least theoretically—the group to perform better than even its most capable member. (Although this potential exists, such performance is rarely documented. For example, see Reagan-Cirincione 1994.)

To reach conclusion requires consensus, because this requires that everyone must come to terms with each and every person's unique contributions. We have no better potential for attaining the best possible outcome. A critical proviso of believing in groups is that groups be representative of all pertinent perspectives, interests, and expertise. Since it is so much easier to reach consensus with a homogeneous group, members are often selected for the similarity of their views.

To believe in the efficacy of groups to solve our most complex and conflictual problems, we must select group members for their diversity, for their unique constructions of reality. While we might believe in groups, we nonetheless should doubt whether the group is fully representative of all relevant interests, beliefs, and values. Consistent with this concern, we must keep in mind Norman Maier's admonition, "Reaching consensus in a group often is confused with finding the right answer." (Maier 1967, 241). Let's strive to bring together people representing all relevant points of view. Let's fully put to use group interaction methods that encourage tolerance and respect, listening and questioning, independent thought and group conversation. Believe in doubt; believe in groups.


Checkland, Peter (1981). Systems Thinking and Systems Practice. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons.

Maier, Norman R. F. (1967). Assets and liabilities in group problem solving: The need for an integrative function. Psychological Review, 74, 4, 239-249.

Reagan-Cirincione, Patricia (1994). Improving the accuracy of group judgment: A process intervention combining group facilitation, social judgment analysis, and information technology. Organization Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 58, 246-270.

Schrage, Michael (1990). Shared Minds: The New Technologies of Collaboration. New York: Random House.

This essay first appeared in Group Faciliation: A Research and Applications Journal, Issue 4, 2002, published by the International Association of Facilitators.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Superlative Task

One can hardly contemplate the passing scene of civilized society without a sense that the need of balanced minds is real and that a superlative task is how socially to make mind more effective.
~ Chester Barnard, The Functions of the Executive, 1938, p. 322.

While some might say that group facilitation is just an ordinary task, I believe that group facilitators tend to think of it as an important task, or even an extraordinary task. But who among us has the chutzpah — the self-righteousness — to assert that group facilitation is a superlative task? Better to turn to a venerated and impartial authority who can issue this bold proclamation!

Chester Barnard is such a person, a preeminent mid-twentieth-century corporate executive often called the "father of organization theory." His classic The Functions of the Executive was required management school reading for many decades following its 1938 publication. Though still in print, Barnard's occasionally impenetrable prose has limited the use of his book to only the more rigorous graduate programs, replaced elsewhere by more recent and easily-read authors. Nonetheless, Barnard still challenges us with pertinent ideas that have retained, if not increased, their relevance. In the concluding paragraph of this renowned book, Barnard highlights four very salient points.

Society is increasingly complex and organizations are more elaborate.

Even more true than in 1938, the idea that society is increasingly complex now is accepted axiomatically. Organizations are greater in number, size and geographical scope. We are more dependent than ever before on elaborate technologies and the equally elaborate organizations that create and rely on them. We are interconnected and interdependent; yet distinct and diverse.

The increasing specialization necessitated by such a society brings with it a diversity of methods and purposes that may be inconsistent and foster misunderstandings.

To manage our complex, technological world people must be specialized — in roles, expertise and skills. This makes effective communication, sharing of knowledge, and interpersonal understanding more difficult. This difficulty occurs not only at the level of substantive issues but also at the underlying levels of method (how people think about issues) and purpose (why they think about them). Misunderstandings occur between individuals, of course, and even more crucially between large groups of people.

What is needed are balanced minds that integrate feeling with reasoning, sense the net balance, and perceive the parts as well as the whole.

The difficulties brought on by the effects of complexity and specialization can be addressed. How? By incorporating the views of multiple stakeholders with diverse interests and perspectives; perceiving the specific parts of the system, as well as the system as a whole; and clarifying the expected results and desired ends. We need to integrate analysis and intuition, facts and values, objective and subjective, thinking and feeling.

Meeting these challenges — which will help groups to be more effective cognitively and socially — is a superlative task.

To meet these challenges we must be address the intellectual, analytical and cognitive demands of the situation. This is necessary but not sufficient. At the same time, we must help groups engage interpersonally, politically, emotionally and spiritually. As group facilitators we must, in Barnard's words, strive "socially to make mind more effective."* Toward this accomplishment we devote ourselves as group facilitators. Working together, we aim to strengthen our understanding — in organizations, communities and societies — of group facilitation, a superlative task.

* Here is the full quote:
One can hardly contemplate the passing scene of civilized society without a sense that the need of balanced minds is real and that a superlative task is how socially to make mind more effective. That the increasing complexity of society and the elaboration of technique and organization now necessary will more and more require capacity for rigorous reasoning seems evident; but it is a super-structure necessitating a better use of the non-logical mind to support it. "Brains" without "minds" seem a futile unbalance. The inconsistencies of method and purpose and the misunderstandings between large groups which increasing specialization engenders need the corrective of the feeling mind that senses the end result, the net balance, the interest of all, and of the spirit that perceiving the concrete parts encompasses also the intangibles of the whole.
Barnard, Chester (1938). The Functions of the Executive: Thirtieth Anniversary Edition (1968). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

This essay first appeared in Group Faciliation: A Research and Applications Journal, Issue 3, 2001, published by the International Association of Facilitators.