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


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. There was even a point at which my body felt so rigid that I thought that I might not stay upright and might fall sideways on to the staff member next to me.

This happened to me on a few occasions early in my "Group Relations career", as well as being terrified by the experience, I was very puzzled about what it meant. Eventually I came with help to the hypothesis that I was experiencing massive envy from participants, which, together with my own fright, was making me size up and preventing me from working. Once I had grasped this, I was able to offer myself the hypothesis when it happened and work with it openly. But this experience, from which I learnt a great deal, was extremely powerful and frightening in its intensity. It has, however, been very useful since. (Khaleelee, 2006, pp. 24-25)

What Khaleelee went through will probably be familiar in one form or another to most of those who have been members of staff at a working conference. Her learning is both personal and relational, and the usefulness of the episode later, with its transformation into learning by forming and testing a hypothesis about the meaning of the experience, does not consist of having formulated a common rule that can be generalised for everyone, but lies more in the fact that next time anxiety begins to work its way through her body, she can look into it and consider whether she is involved in any relationships where she is the object of envy. …

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