Featured Image: Merrelyn Emery Ed. Searching: for new directions, in new ways for new times, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University 1976.
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 4 August 2022
The Search Conference Fred Emery
Fred Emery, was an amazingly perceptive and prescient systems scientist, who was, without a shadow of a doubt, the father of the systems movement down here in the antipodes, to which he returned in the 1970s after a very distinguished career at the Tavistock Research Institute in London. (Richard Bawden, 1999)
My previous article an annotated version of Emery & Trist’s famous Causal Texture paper may have been too academic for some. To make amends I will try to make this description of the Search Conference much simpler.
I covered Fred’s biography in overview in my previous article. Fredrick Edmund Emery (1925-1997) first went to the Tavistock Institute in London 1951-52 as a UNESCO Research Fellow. He returned to the Tavistock in 1957 where he remained until 1969. He collaborated with Eric Trist, Russell Ackoff, Charles West Churchman, Einar Thorsrud and others during this immensely fertile theoretical and practical period of action research.
In 1969 he returned to Australia and remained in residence in Canberra until his death in 1997, whilst still collaborating widely in Australia and travelling regularly overseas. Richard Bawden (pers. comm.) remembers Fred for his boundless energy and undeniably forthright manner, as do many others.
Whilst in the UK, Fred’s ideas though diverse were integrated into a strong framework or discipline that was internally consistent.
These areas of concentration were the discovery and analysis of industrial democracy underground in the Elsecar Collieries by Trist and Bamforth. The development of the theory of sociotechnical systems based on this and on insights from psychology and the social sciences. The Norwegian Industrial Democracy experiments. Ideas on open systems and their environments. A developing understanding of the necessary and sufficient criteria for semi-autonomous and self-managing groups. Preliminary ideas on participative design. Approaches to the study of organisations with West Churchman and purposeful systems with Russell Ackoff. And, work on values, ideals and planning options based on this, which barely scratches the surface.
As part of this process early on Fred Emery designed the search conference in 1959 and further developed it in the early 1960s at the Tavistock Institute.
According to Bawden (1999) via Merrelyn Emery, the Search Conference process was not formalised until the mid-1970s. I also think that Merrelyn’s role in this later development should be acknowledged fully (see M Emery Ed., 1976).
The Search Conference
Fred Emery was involved in industrial democracy, socio-technical systems and other participative methods with groups.
He designed the Search Conference in 1959 for values-based participative planning by groups wanting or requiring organisational change. The Search combines normative planning (values) with strategic planning and active participation.
In part this was because of defining ‘turbulent environments’ as a dynamic new type of environment that organisations faced in the post-war. Much of this is explained in the annotated paper cited above. The salient characteristic of a turbulent environment is complexity and uncertainty. New ways of planning were needed.
The design was based on innovative research in behavioural psychology, group behaviour, social science and organisational planning from the 1930s to 1950s, amalgamated into an integrated framework.
Richard Bawden says:
Weisbord and Janoff (1995) … emphasized [that] Emery was quick to acknowledge the importance of social psychological theories, as well as system theories in informing his understanding of the dynamics of the work groups that he studied. In particular, he and his colleagues explicitly drew upon the consensus research of Solomon Asch (1952) and the group dynamic theories developed by Wilfred Bion (1961).
The Search Conference
The Search Conference was a vehicle to facilitate a way forward for autonomous and self-managing groups in planning and implementing change in a turbulent environment.
Fred Emery returned to Australia in 1969, developed a network of practitioners (a couple of years at least is necessary to train a competent facilitator) and diffused the concept widely in Australia from 1970.
From the 1970s to 1990s hundreds of Search Conferences were conducted in Australia for corporate and public organisations, community groups, political organisations etc. etc. Between 300 and 400 ‘Searches’ were run in Australia in the 1970s.
I ran and was involved with a large number of search conferences in Australia (and even in Northern Ireland) in the 1980s and a few thereafter.
The two most exceptional Searches I conducted were with the Australian Democrats in 1983 (on the weekend the election was announced) where David Young and I ran two parallel searches with over 100 Democrats in each; and, the huge Workplace Australia Conference in Melbourne in 1991 with about 20 parallel searches with more than 50 participants in each.
The optimal number for a Search is less than 35 participants, but much larger multi-searches are possible with non-corporate groups, such as communities or political parties or groups of groups (but they are not wholly responsible for the change envisaged and this is an issue).
By the late 1970s Fred & Merrelyn Emery were conducting Search Conferences in other parts of the world — Holland, Norway, Canada, India and the USA.
Search Conference Description
The Search Conference is a participative design workshop lasting two-and-a-half-days (the early ones lasted longer).
As mentioned, Fred Emery designed the Search Conference in 1959. The first Search Conference was conducted at Barford in the UK to help amalgamate two hostile aircraft-engine companies Bristol and Armstrong Siddeley, under intense pressure from their only customer the RAF. (According to Fred, Eric Trist’s role in the first Search was as an observer. He was there to confirm Bion’s Basic Assumption Groups.)
Fred also conducted a Search Conference for the National Farmers Association in the UK with 50 participants and the process suffered as a result (see case study II in the Emery and Trist paper for more information).
Fred Emery came to the conclusion that the optimal number of participants should be less than 35 (this is when the participants actually can self-manage and are the key individuals necessary to carry the change forward).
The concept of ‘social island’ conditions (away from home and family for the entire process) is also optimal.
Fred Emery carried out another eleven Search Conferences in the UK before returning to Australia in 1969. Perhaps the most unusual was to intervene in an international dispute between Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. He found conflict resolution could be achieved once the parties stopped trying to tackle key conflict areas and shifted their attention to areas of common ground.
The diffusion and the practical implementation of huge numbers of search conferences grew in Australia and overseas from the early 1970s.
Why and How
The initial conference at Barford in 1960 took 6-days, though successful, it caused severe overload and exhaustion of participants and facilitators. Two-and-a-half days were later found to be about optimum.
The Search Conference is ideal for any organisation or group desiring to change and wondering how to approach the future. The Search Conference typically begins on a Friday evening and finishes on a Sunday afternoon (a constraint of modern life). The two sleeps are a critical part of the process and participation is the key. The event begins with a process known as a Perspectives Sessions or futures scanning. (Futures scanning is covered in more detail in the Art of Prophecy.)
Basically in a Search the two facilitators are responsible for the process and the participants for the content. The search is shaped like a funnel: things begin broad and gradually narrow towards a purpose. After the search, the funnel begins to broaden out again as the participants begin to implement the planning and the community continues.
Everything is recorded on butcher’s paper, which festoon the walls until the end. This is to expose to participants that the process is open to scrutiny and that no one is trying to manipulate the process behind the scenes. (The converse is unfortunately not uncommon.) And, that all input is valued!
The two key elements or brainstorms at the beginning are the futures scan or search (external scan). What events, trends, things are happening in the outside world that will or may impact on what we are trying to do? And the internal scan: What is the history of the problem? Where do things appear to be going? What are the strengths & weaknesses of the current situation?
These two sessions and the entire process help participants to establish common ground. (The area where they can work together and perhaps where their world views tend to overlap.)
Following that the funnel narrows. What is the desirable future we want to achieve? What is the likely future without change?
What should we be doing to change and why?
What are the constraints? Testing against reality and original values criteria.
Moving to what will we do and when? How? What are the most efficient means of moving forward?
The design above seems rather simple but each design is unique and the process also. The questions and approach need to be modified by circumstances. The process should continue as a plenary session as long as possible, but frequently breaks into small groups, who then report back to the plenary. The facilitators control this at the beginning.
The process is open-ended and does not have to reach a final conclusion. Participants will find that after a search the practical day-to-day issues of achieving the organisation’s goals are relatively easy. There are few serious disagreements.
The ideal number of participants is theoretically 35 or less. (In a corporation or organisation, where the work group is much larger than 35, the concept of a deep slice through the organisation has been used successfully.) Much larger Searches have also been conducted successfully, but in specific circumstances and with modified aims.
The process is flexible. The procedure is not linear.
The facilitators are crucial to running the process at the start. They need to use their expertise to keep the learning and planning flowing. This is why they must remain in process mode and not intrude into content, except to summarise. The process is open and must be seen to be open to scrutiny, that there is no manipulation involved (which is why the walls are festooned with butcher’s paper).
At some stage in the process, there is a gestalt shift and the facilitators need to be ready for this. The facilitators are no longer needed and need to hand over the entire process to the group to self-manage. Hence the group moves from dependence (on the facilitators) to independence. Some facilitators in the past have found this situation to be emotionally difficult — they can’t let go. But such figure-ground reversal is necessary for the group to truly own the outcome.
In the 1970s some participants felt extremely uncomfortable with the process. The uncertainty (personal, group) and the turbulent environment emerging into consciousness exacerbated emotional responses and frequently led to over-the-top flight-fight responses.
In 2022 we have been over-exposed to such things and have learned to handle uncertainty (not that we are any better at planning how to deal with it).
Merrelyn Emery’s Description of the Mechanics
The information contained here is not sufficient to run a Search but should be enough to give you an idea of what a Search Conference was and how it worked. References are also given to the social, psychological, behavioural and organisational considerations underlying the design.
Merrelyn Emery’s 1976 description of how a Search Conference works provides a slightly different perspective. These four pages I found to be an essential reminder, when I was learning to be a Search Conference facilitator.
Excerpts from Merrelyn Emery, Ed. Searching: for new directions, in new ways for new times, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University 1976, pp 18-21 (I have removed the endnote references)
- HOW TO SEARCH.
There are two forms of search, the search conference and the introductory ‘futures search’ as just a phase of various types of workshop.
The Search Conference.
This is neither a technique nor one part of a teaching package. A Search Conference is a planned and purposeful whole. Its leading principle is to identify and support structures that best enable the collective learning processes of adaptive planning to occur. It is not intended as a device whereby any particular plan or point of view may be pushed by an expert, nor is it yet so simple that those unskilled in the organization and management of dynamic open learning environments should be tempted to use it. Because it is designed to be open ended and to produce a self-generative learning community it is demanding of staff resources and skills. It can create anxiety in staff who have not learnt to cope with either group emotional forces or openness in a severely task oriented situation, particularly those who are wedded to the concept of “expert”. Similarly the notion of openness to possibility as well as probability creates tension in participants as most people abhor such a degree of openness, and behave irrationally when confronted with it. They are not likely to put up with such a confrontation unless given ample time in which to search, freed from the compulsion to arrive at explicit decisions and denied the escape into ‘urgent’ demands of work and family.
It is this latter consideration which has led to the use of ‘social islands’ as the venues for search conferences. The participants are brought together under conditions where they can form an isolated community for as long as seems necessary for them to do their searching. This temporary night and day community not only affirms that the over-riding purposes must be important because such conditions are proved, but also provides psychological support to the individual. It represents a return to the older wisdom of the Persian tribes, reported by Heredotus, that no group decision reached in their night-time state of mind was binding unless reaffirmed in the harsh light of day, and vice versa.
Venues should be chosen to guarantee some degree of social island conditions for the participants and internally a maximum of freedom and comfort for face-to-face interaction, or for solitude when an individual feels that he needs it. To our knowledge the first in the modern mode of consciously designed search conferences was held in 1959. It was designed to create a higher quality of human interaction and greater progress towards task, than was being achieved by committees, working parties and the like. It was designed and managed by Fred Emery and Eric Trist, who quite explicitly, over some three months, designed for a face-to-face conference which would embody the implications of Bion’s notions of group emotional processes, Selznick’s concept of organizational character and Asch’s theory of shared psychological fields. The report of that event is the first in Part III. Since that time many search conferences have been held, for corporate planning, for community development, town planning, solving international conflicts etc. The diversity of the reports in Part III, illustrates the scope of the concept, but also makes obvious that the essential unifying feature of design and management is that individuals are enabled to move to a level of shared responsibility for their own affairs.
The Conference Design is the point from where a search conference succeeds or fails. A conference does not become a search conference because its organizers decide to label it as such, or because they wish it to engage in a search. Simply wishing does not make it come true.
Design can be separated into structure and process.
(a) Overall Structure.
To appreciate the structure of a search conference is to appreciate the difference between planning and programming. We eschew any programming of the learning that will take place in such a conference. The plan or overall structure is presented, and if accepted by participants as appropriate, is intended as a minimal set of signposts to enable them to get back on course or recycle when they so wish, and to help them assess their own progress.
The structure consists of a series of phases toward completion of the task and will finally be determined by the requirements of the task, as it progresses.
It is impossible beforehand to time the phases of the task and no restrictions are placed on the group returning to the work of earlier phases if it is felt that they need re-working. The following figures clarify the search structure with two real examples in a community planning context but it should be stressed that while these diagrams illustrate the plan for the task they do not reflect the erratic, recycling character of the natural learning process of a working group.
(pencil marks are mine and are intended for clarity)
Phase l. External Environment, or Futures We’re In.
The task is to search out all the possible trends that are occurring in society by building a shared list of recent events; these will be technical, environmental, social, attitudinal, demographic etc.
Phase 2. Desirable Futures.
Having decided that all movements have been considered the group constructs from this list a set of desirable futures, which will be based on an implicit or explicit list of agreed values. This will still be general in so far as this will not at this stage be saying let us look at a set of desirable cities.
Phase 3. Desirable City Futures.
The set of generalized desirable futures will be translated into a set of desirable city pictures.
Phase 4. Constraints, Testing against Reality and Original Value Criteria.
These city pictures will in some way determined by the group be reality tested. But the process will involve going back to the original list of trends and directions, and agreed upon values for checking that the proposed desirable cities do actually meet the criteria. Some may be modified or discarded during this process.
Phase 5. Purpose. The Present.
The group slowly moves back from the future to the present as it considers implementation of the city designs. From consideration of the present circumstances of building materials, the lie of the land, all necessary constraints, one or two of the desirable cities will emerge as the final outcome.
The Demise of Search Conferencing
The Search Conference began to die away from the mid-late 1990s. Although, Merrelyn Emery kept up the effort in the USA.
I suspect that Fred was responsible He didn’t want the diffusion to continue, because he suspected it would become a fad with less competent practitioners and a loss of integrity.
Those still with experience in running Search Conferences today are mostly old white men, who are probably too slow and hard of hearing to function well (Mike Gloster, pers. comm.).
The Search Conference may have had its day. Although I would not preclude its re-emergence in future, if needed. Its use as a tool in qualitative research and community engagement is much simpler. It is also far less difficult to train people to run search-based focus groups.
I’m hoping that well-thought through and meticulously conceived extensions of Search Conference methodology (such as, perspectives sessions — external and internal scans, and search-based focus groups) and continued understanding of the theoretical under-pinnings of Searching may still have a place in our future.
I’m not sure that Fred would agree with me. Despite, Merrelyn Emery’s valiant attempts to keep Searching alive after Fred’s death, I think his view differed. In the Epilogue of Merrelyn Emery and Ronald E Purser’s 1996 book on the Search Conference, Fred says:
It is true that when you give a little boy a hammer he tends to see everything around him as affording, nay, demanding a hammering. Unfortunately, this characteristic seems to be true of the applied behavioral sciences. The history of the applied behavioral sciences, and organizational development in particular, has been marked by an intense and faddish devotion to techniques. No sooner do they have a new tool in their hand than, like the little boy with the hammer, they start seeing the solution of every sort of problem as requiring this tool. Like the little boy they do not stop to wonder about what objective requirements the tool was invented to meet. (p 283) …
… Search Conferences, as a new tool, might well become a professional fad and suffer the fate of other fads. That fate is destined to occur when a tool is used far beyond the circumstances for which it was designed, and then it is judged by its inevitable failures. (p 284)
This is the same person who energetically, forthrightly and partly single-handedly diffused the concept and practice of Searching far and wide from the late 1960s to 1990s in the UK, Norway, Scandinavia, Holland, Singapore, Canada, India, Australia and the USA.
I think that the Search Conference may well re-emerge as a powerful tool when circumstances merit (and it may well be misused occasionally in the interim).
Key Words: Search Conference, Fred Emery, Frederick Edmund Emery, Merrelyn Emery, Eric Trist, Richard Bawden, Tavistock Institute, London, Australia, Norway, USA, Holland, Canada, India, Russell Ackoff, Charles West Churchman, Einar Thorsrud, turbulent environment, industrial democracy, Elsecar Collieries, Longwall method of coal mining, Ken Bamforth, sociotechnical systems, Norwegian Industrial Democracy experiments. open systems, environments, semi-autonomous groups, self-managing groups, participative design, organisations, values, ideals, planning, MR Weisbord, S Janoff, Solomon Asch, Wilfred Bion, Philip Selznick, Ronald E Purser, social island, common ground, world view, Barford, organisational change, futures scan, facilitators, participants, funnel-shaped, open-ended, butcher’s paper, gestalt shift, figure-ground reversal, uncertainty, flight-fight, collective learning process, adaptive planning, expert
Search Conference Information
Merrelyn Emery, Ed. Searching: for new directions, in new ways for new times, Occasional Papers in Continuing Education No 12, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University 1976.
This is a terrific booklet on Searching by Merrelyn, which is the formalisation Richard Bawden above mentioned that occurred in the mid-1970s. (Unfortunately, CCE republished a larger book of exactly the same title in 1982, which though containing much more information is really only for the academic scholar. I find it quite impenetrable otherwise and at my age the small type is very difficult as well.)
Merrelyn Emery and Ronald E Purser The Search Conference: A Powerful Method for Planning Organizational Change and Community Action 1996. This book published by Wiley is also excellent. It represents an update of Searching into the 1990s with emphasis on Merrelyn’s work in the USA in the 1990s and is well-worth reading.
Merrelyn Emery The Power of Community Search Conferences Journal for Quality and Participation. p1-11, December 1995. This is also a terrific little paper that summarises some of the Search Conferences held in Australia from 1972 to 1995. The first 5 pages are on community search conferences and has some pithy information on how community searches are designed and run, on how to select participants and on how to implement beyond the search because there is frequently no organisation to take the work on or alternatively, inappropriate structures for implementation. Pages 6 cover search conferences based on national policies, particularly industrial relations and manufacturing, and document overlapping efforts to create change from 1973 to 1995. Page 10 provides information on indigenous searches in the Torres Straits during 1992-3 which aided disenfranchised communities to plan for their own futures but many were concerned about the level of support they’d receive to achieve results. The Torres Strait became self-governing in 1994 which helped the process to continue. P 11 is a summary of learning and some references and resources.
Marvin R Weisbord and Sandra Janoff Future Search 1995. (This reference is from Bawden, I haven’t managed to access their book, yet.)
Other Literature Cited
Richard Bawden Fred Emery Oration Proceedings of the 17th International Conference of The System Dynamics Society and the 5th Australian and New Zealand Systems Conference, Wellington, New Zealand, July 20-23, 1999. PDF download: Bawden R, Fred Emery Oration, 1999.
The work of Eric Trist, West Churchman, Akoff and Einar Thorsrud is covered in my last article on Emery and Trist’s Causal Texture paper. Similarly, Merrelyn Emery’s reference to Selznick. The other two authors cited by Bawden and Merrelyn are:
Solomon Asch Social Psychology 1952.
Wilfrid Bion Experience in Groups 1961.
These are both pivotal books for the Emery ouvre.
Posted while recuperating in Canberra