Academic journal article Organisational and Social Dynamics

Learning from Experience: Group Relations Conferences-Danish Design II

Academic journal article Organisational and Social Dynamics

Learning from Experience: Group Relations Conferences-Danish Design II

Article excerpt


In this paper the learning concept of group relation's conferences are discussed. The authors have worked with group relations conferences (GRC) in different contexts for many years-mainly as a part of educational programmes for managers and consultants (OPU at IGA Copenhagen, MPO at Roskilde University and NAPSO2). Seen from the horizon of their experience some of the basic concepts in the theories about GRC need clarifying, revision, and development. The GRC is a part of the learning from experience movement and as a consequence it stresses the underlying basis: learning is personal so everyone decides for themselves what makes sense and what does not. This principle sometimes works as a defence against a closer examination of the two questions: do GRCs provide relevant experiences to learn from, and what is it you learn or can expect to learn at a GRC. Here the learning concept of the GRCs presented and discussed and two later contributions are presented: Barry Palmer's theory (Palmer, 1979) and Junell Silver and Ruthellen Josselson's study (Silver & Josselson, 2010). The learning concepts of the GRCs are found to be too general and too far from organisational life. As an attempt to move forward, four new targets for learning and skills that it would be reasonable to seek in relation to GRCs are proposed.

Key words: group relations, learning, transference, valence.


The learning concept of the group relations conference, which has not been extensively worked on from a theoretical point of view, is built on a blend of "learning from experience", systems theory, and psychoanalysis. At the same time, the conference promises to provide conditions for learning about a theme-for example, "Authority, leadership, and organisation", which over time has been the most frequently used at the Leicester conferences.

The simple basic idea of the working conference is that if you want to learn about organisations, then why not create an organisation whose task is to study and research into itself? The participants have paid, and the staff receives their salaries, for the creation of a temporary organisation, which is to produce learning for the participants. This is an immediate link to the "learning by experience" tradition. Learning by experience draws on a tradition going back to Aristotle, who distinguished between practical, scientific, and technical knowledge, through William James, who extended this distinguished "knowledge about" and "knowledge by acquaintance"; John Dewey, who argued that experience and learning should be connected; and Kurt Lewin, who developed the T-group method and the laboratory method; to Donald Schon's "the reflective practitioner", who not only can reflect "on action", but also "in action"; and David Kolb's learning cycle (Stein, 2004). In Denmark a strong influence has been exerted in this connection by the circle around Oskar Negt, with the principle of exemplarity, and later Thomas Leithaiiser with the everyday life perspective (Meris, 2006).

Learning by experience is anti-authoritarian in its aims. Why should anyone put up with a teacher, parents, a manager, or professor saying that something is like this or like that, when one can study it for oneself in reality? Thus learning by experience does not challenge the predominant truths with other truths, but sets aside the didactic authority as such, and places the true authority out in reality and in practice. This endows learning by experience with a special aura of passionate neutrality-neutral (apparently?) in relation to the content of truth, and passionate in relation to the method.

In her paper on "Learning from experience and the experience of learning in Group Relations Conferences" (2006), Olya Khaleelee describes an important experience at a working conference:

At another conference when I was a the young staff member, I recall being so paralysed by the end of the opening plenary that I feared I would not be able to get up and leave the room at the time boundary. …

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