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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 over 30 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.
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Posted while recuperating in Canberra