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Danny Sher

Book Review

Adaptation and Innovation: Theory, Design and Role-Taking in Group Relations Conferences and their Applications - Volume II

Edited by Eliat Aram, Robert Baxter and Avi Nutkevitch

(Karnac Books 2009)

In volume II of the series on the Belgirate conferences - Adaptation and Innovation: Theory, Design and Role-Taking in Group Relations Conferences and their Applications, the reader has the advantage of the perspectives of many authors grappling with the tension of adapting and innovating whilst remaining true to group relations. As I read the chapters of this book I find myself, along with billions of others, enveloped by the atmosphere of the World Cup 2010 - the "beautiful game". I cannot help but feel that what I read on the pages is actually a narrative of what I observe at the World Cup.

Four years ago, in the final of the 2006 World Cup, Italy defeated France. However, in the 2010 World Cup, both the Italian and French teams finished bottom of their groups. For both countries it was a dramatic and disappointing result causing shame and embarrassment. Particularly fascinating was the Italian manager's inflexible decision to exclude new, younger players from the team, relying on the almost identical successful team of 2006. It was a stark demonstration of how fear of change can lead to a group's failure in its primary task.

Coincidentally, Adaptation and Innovation emerges from the Belgirate Conference that takes place in Italy. It is the second volume in a series of books that documents the Conference. Unlike volume I, Reviewing and Exploring Theory, Design, Role-Taking and Application, which was an exploration of topics that emerged in the first Belgirate Conference, Volume II examines change, innovation, tradition and beliefs. The volume is divided into four sections - theory, design, role-taking and a final section on reflections on the Conference. Written from member and director roles the chapters explore innovation and change in the areas of authority, leadership, religion, finance, society and culture. Boundaries are tested, traditions are questioned, assumptions are challenged, ideas evolve and the unknown is explored. Readers are given a glimpse of the dilemmas faced by the authors and are invited to consider their own group relations experiences and difficulties. The publication conveys a sense of excitement and courage at having dared to challenge traditional ideas and create a distinction of its own.

In section I, the three chapters test key theories of group relations thinking; the Large Study Group, Leadership, and the place of the core psychoanalytic theories underlying group relations.

An example of how the theories of group relations are challenged in this section is clear from Chapter 3, where the authors question whether the theories of the "forefathers" - Freud, Klein, Rice and Miller - are still relevant to group relations, and whether group relations has adapted to changes in psychoanalytical thought. The chapter uses the Biblical question "Doth my father yet live?" asked by Joseph of his brothers about his father. Jacob is a provocative analogy to the relationship those in group relations may have had with the "founding fathers" of psychoanalysis. The chapter focuses on psychoanalytical theory and explores authority in the unconscious, the consultant's perception of authority and the validity of the consultant's interpretations.

Section II explores further adaption and innovation of group relations, demonstrating how the design of group relations conferences is influenced by globalization. Conferences in three countries - Italy, Australia and America, show how a conference's design needs to be adapted to the society in which it is held in order to achieve its primary task. New countries have new cultures, innovations, new struggles, and hence provide new learning opportunities.

An example of how a conference's design reflects the society in which it is held is illustrated in chapter 4, "Italian Group Relations Conferences between Adaptation and Innovation", which describes a group relations conference with reference to Italian tradition and culture. In contrast to the more restrained Tavistock model or Leicester conferences, the Italian conference embraces good food, beauty and warmth - softer boundaries around socializing, where distinctions between staff and members blur at meal times, with staff and members eating at the same tables, and where lax time-keeping is excused as loose Italian time-keeping. But there is tension between the Tavistock model, which is revered and honoured, and the distrust and ambivalence towards innovation. Introducing innovations in conference design is felt to be disloyal to the 'true' model. The chapter is a colourful one, as one imagines Italian conferences might be. However, questions arise whether the changes were actual innovations or simply a group operating within its cultural norms.

Section III contains four chapters which deal with adaptation and innovation in role taking and application and provides examples of how group relations is relevant and applicable to the exploration of many parts of society, from finance to identity to racism, all of which are pioneering efforts.

One could be excused for showing surprise at the application of psychoanalytical theory to the financial world, but in Chapter 8, "Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing", we see just how far group relations theory can reach. The authors describe a three-day group relations workshop in a South African bank, at a time when organisations were accommodating dramatic changes in societal boundaries and roles. The chapter highlights the issues that stymied the growth of the bank and the role that the group relations conference played in helping the bank to develop, to change its philosophies and leadership styles, and influence the growth of the company.  

It is encouraging to see a financial institution open to group relations at a time when most financial institutions were focused on bonuses!! Nevertheless we start to understand that although groups and industries are different, human beings as they associate in groups share in common fears, threats and dreams. When one considers the current financial crisis one can not but wonder what kind of dynamics and emotions were at work in and between financial institutions that contributed to the recent crisis.

In Chapter 9, "Exploring Jewish Identity, Belonging and Leadership through the lens of group relations: Reflections and Challenges", we see how far group relations theory can be applied when the author attempts to describe the difficulties in organizing an experiential conference that explores, not leadership and authority (although these subjects were prominent in the Conference), but rather Jewish identity in Israel and the Diaspora. The main concern discussed is whether "theoretical themes can be transformed into concepts". The author claims that group relations theory is applicable to the study of Jewish identity, groups, boundaries and minorities within a group and at the same time describes his trepidation that the 'new generation' has with innovation and the concern that they may have innovated far from group relations.

The impact of group relations theory on society both nationally and internationally is evident in chapter 10, "Identity, Leadership and Authority: Experiences in application of group relations concepts for dalit empowerment in India", where group relations theory is applied to a conference on racism. The author deals specifically with the Indian minority caste - the dalits (untouchables) - a class towards which there is entrenched discrimination in India, and argues that discriminated groups may play a part in perpetuating their own discrimination. The author suggests that the mindset of the oppressor and of the oppressed is the key to creating significant change. The author emphasizes her discovery in a group relations conference that the oppressed can be in cahoots with the oppressor, as a change in the status quo can be threatening to both parties that are locked in an immovable entanglement, neither understanding their own behaviour. The group relations conference provided important learning opportunities for the members to understand the unconscious reasons for their self-destructive and self-restraining behaviour within their organisations. The chapter gave a fascinating insight into how and where group relations conferences can be applied to resolve conflicts around the world. 

The final section of the book, section IV, "Post-Conference Reflections" deals with the capacity to learn through experience, an area which touches on the heart of group relations learning. Each chapter deals with experiences of people during the Conference itself.

Volume II, which deals with "Adaption and Innovation", could be understood as a book struggling with a key factor in organisations, the strict preservation of tradition by the older generation on the one hand, and the aspirations and ambitions of the younger generation on the other. In Chapter 11, "A walkout before mourning dawn: Reflections on innovations and adaptations at the boundary", the authors analyse their walkout during the Belgirate II. In a conference whose director was under forty and whose participants were mostly over the age of 50, age and generational differences where clearly illustrated. The authors, who walk out, bravely describe the role they played in the group as the "middle generation", afraid of being "skipped over" when authority is handed to the younger generation.

In the final chapter of volume II, "Learning from experience: The two international group relations meetings in Belgirate", the author explores not only "learning from the here and now", a key aspect of group relations, but also "learning from experience", the learning that occurs when one attends a conference for a second time and has a new vantage point. The danger of experience is becoming inured to the experience, the attitude of been there, done that, which can inhibit learning and ability to adapt and innovate. However, having read Group Relations Volume I, I believe Volume II has the maturity of a new perspective.  

Volume II attests to the willingness of people in group relations to continue examining themselves in their roles; to an awareness that mistakes are inevitable; that they are open to both adaptation and innovation. Whilst the value of preserving tradition, methods, culture and beliefs of group relations is strongly made in Volume II, it is not at the cost of new ideas and experimentation. Volume II is a tribute to the group relations field which is willing to take risks, explore, and face directly the challenges that an ever-changing society throws at it. The volume shows how group relations does not rely on formulae simply for their success in the past, nor does it maintain tradition for tradition's sake. Adaption and Innovation pays tribute to the values that lie at the core of group relations, and that is the desire to learn.