The Conversation

Self-Organizing Research Teams

The heart of the ISI conversation process is disciplined, creative dialogue among stakeholders. Since its inception, ISI has believes that change occurs through changing conversations with others. That is, lasting, empowered, and fundamental change does not occur through mandates. Rather fundamental change occurs through learning and integrating new information at both general and personal levels, usually through meaningful conversation with others.

NOTE: Research teams are currently closed.

This disciplined dialogue advocated by ISI is both freeform and structured, using the principles and methods of participative social systems design. Fellows, members, and conference attendees learn from each other and create new knowledge by participating in conversation events organized by or facilitated by ISI. These events take many forms, such as

  • Online, asynchronous discussions on the ISI community forum
  • Global Open Space Webinars with key thought leaders
  • Telephone dialogues on selected topics
  • Face-to-face events conducted on various topics through the year
  • Conversation Conferences

Conversations organized by ISI can be about both applications of design–such as changing organizations or alleviating social problems–as well as about adding to systems theory or methodologies. These conversations occur through various forms, from face-to-face to asynchronous online forums. However, all the conversations follow a general annual flow, as described below.

Phase One: Theme Identification

Mid- to Late March: Fellows and members begin seeking to identify themes and topics, both large and small, that will animate a fruitful conversation. These themes and topics can come from discussion boards, email lists, or personal contact. ISI seeks to highlight possible areas of interest and encourage interested individuals to enter into discussion with each other.

Late March to Mid-April: The Conversation Planning Team, using input from conference registrants and others expressing interest, begins to clarify research teams and connect registrants with team coordinators. To facilitate the discussion, ISI will also seek to facilitate securing web tools, thought leaders, rooms, and other support for the conversations.

April: Team Coordinators send to all interested members an elaboration of the topic/theme that includes a brief history of the team’s work from previous conversations year’ round inquiry, as well as a list of recommended readings. This list will include earlier topic-relevant summary reports.

Phase Two: Preparation

The preparation phase of the research conversation serves a critically important purpose. Preparation enables participants to explore topic-relevant knowledge bases, and in so doing, come to the Conversation with a rich set of core ideas. Preparation also gives team members a chance to interact with one another, sharing background experiences and current systems design research interests. This early interaction is usually electronically mediated.

From Conversation experiences of the past 20-plus years, we have learned that the success of the program greatly depends upon the team’s generation of a substantive knowledge base prior to being together for the week. We are also learning that team interaction during the preparation phase has some positive effects on the quality of the conversation during the week we are together at the conference.

We strongly urge participants who are new to the design conversation process to identify a team early in the year, and begin the preparation phase with that team. If during the preparation phase, research interests change, it is always possible to change teams, assuming the team of interest is open to new members.


The Beach at Asilomar Conference Grounds

April-September: Participants (1) Explore the knowledge base of the research topic; (2) Prepare a “think paper” that (a) presents a brief personal introduction, (b) specifies personal interest in and previous work on the topic, (c) summarizes knowledge base findings, (d) states core ideas about the topic, and (e) states expectations for the learning and work of the team; (3) Mail copies of the input “think paper” to all members of their research team.

Mid September -Mid October: Team coordinators develop a preliminary, proposed agenda of their team’s “theme,” based on a synthesis the input papers and mail it to the members of the team. Members of the team continue to explore current knowledge sources and generate ideas that they will bring to the group work during the conversation week.

Phase Three: The Conversation

The face-to-face conversation happens over 5 intense days usually scheduled during late October or early November. During the first sessions of the Conversation, teams review their agenda and develop triggering questions that guide the conversation. The teams are encouraged to use generative and strategic dialogue methods. Periodically throughout the week, research teams report on their progress, and those interested in inter-team learning and dialogue may pursue that experience in the evenings. Another option for inter-team learning emerged at our conference five years ago, and this is a daily Roundtable Conversation, held before breakfast at an announced location.


Path Leading to Pacific at Asilomar

In the final team sessions of the week, each team decides whether members wish to continue to work on the theme, modify the topic or select a new area of focus. On the final evening of the conference, participants present their work and findings to the large group. They also announce whether or not the team plans to continue their research into another Year ‘Round Conversation Cycle. On the final morning of the conference, participants engage in a preliminary design and planning session for the following year’s conference and for the projects that may involve inter-team collaboration. Participants are asked during this last session to formulate their “valuations” of the Conversation experience.

Phase Four: Follow-Up

Mid November – Early March: Teams develop (1) A Summary report of their learning and substantive findings, (2) A summary description of program recommendations for the next Conversation, and (3) A final formative evaluation of the overall conversation experience.

Mid January – Mid March: Individuals develop and submit scholarly papers based on their work with the topic. The papers will be published as a compendium of proceedings and selected papers will be included in special issues of international systems journals.

Mid March on: We initiate the beginning phase of the next year’s Year ‘Round Conversation cycle.

Posted under

This post was written by Doug on September 28, 2008

Comments are closed.