How I got interested in meetings

Over the years, I have talked to quite a number of people with whom I shared an interest in meetings and one thing that struck me was that almost everyone (including myself) told a story of how they were initially interested in something else and something then triggered their interest in meetings, i.e. to look at things from a meetings perspective.

It would be great to collect these stories here, so here is mine:

I started out studying decision-making in social movements (the Global Justice Movements, to be precise) with a background in theories of deliberation and deliberative democracy. As strange as it may sound today, I observed almost 200 meetings of various groups and mobilization contexts (especially Attac and the Social Forums) but I did not conceptualize these events as meetings for at least a year (if memory serves).

First it was deliberation, then I found that too narrow a concept to grasp the diversity of practices I was witnessing so I thought of it as “discursive practices” for a while. The context for both “deliberation” and “discursive practices” was the group, but I was never happy with the group concept because many of my meetings were not groups in a strong sense but rather representatives from various other groups, often fluctuating or rotating between meetings. So I started to think about second order groups (groups of groups), but most of what I read still seemed to assume a given (fully developed) group culture to explain what was going on in these meetings, while I felt that in much of what I was observing, group culture was constantly under negotiation rather than given (one of my conference papers was entitled “Meta-Democracy?” because people often seemed to disagree about how decisions should be made, giving rise to the question: “how to decide how to decide?”).

At the same time, my interest in the actual decision-making gradually shifted towards the conditions and procedures of decision-making, such as how turn-taking is organized. But I still lacked a conceptual framework that would allow me to get a grip on my data.

It wasn’t until I came across Helen Schwartzman’s book The Meeting that I realized: I’m studying meetings! Her credo that meetings are a social form in their own right and as such worthy of scholarly attention opened up avenues of thinking that I had not really dared to explore before or which I had tried to explore but with little progress, because relevant knowledge seemed scattered across disciplines and fields of study and often without explicit use of the concept of meetings.

In a way, this situation with scattered knowledge hasn’t fundamentally changed, but gradual integration of the field of meeting science (or meeting research) is starting to increase the room for dialogue and cross-fertilization (which is basically the idea of this forum).

So: what’s your story?

As the Total Quality Management (TQM) movement was taking hold in US industry many years ago, a major industrial company I was consulting with began to implement a variety of meeting processes to help their quality improvement efforts. I observed Quality Circle meetings, Steering Committee meetings, Design Team meetings, Process Improvement Team meetings, among many others. I helped my client maximize the effectiveness of such meetings, and in the process identified critical common denominators that spanned all such meetings (as well as interesting differences). Around the same time I was helping a research team with which I collaborate develop the foundations of what came to be called Behavior-Based Safety. One of the things we observed was that most of the factories that we studied had regularly occurring safety meetings, and that most of those safety meetings were not very effective. So part of our approach to studying occupational safety and consulting with companies to help them develop a positive culture of safe work was to help them make their safety meetings more effective. As I became aware of the growing interest in meetings per se as a topic of study, I drew on my applied experience and began to collaborate with researchers who were inspired by Schwartzman’s seminal work, and to contribute (I hope) to the knowledge base about effective meetings.

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