Designing a Conference With a New Mindset

Klaus Scala


When the quickly established organizing committee of the conference (MOT, 2010) first met, each of us was full of ideas and eager to share them with the others. We were committed to plan and organize an international conference on the issues we were engaged in, but the exact title and the focus had to be yet decided. We were a group of colleagues, consultants and researchers linked to the Department of Organizational Development (OD) and Group Dynamics of the University of Klagenfurt in Austria with a long tradition of professional collaboration and team play. The public debate was dominated by the economic crisis—augmented by unpredictable ecological disasters (Gulf of Mexico, Hungary, and Fukoshima sometime later). The failure of organizations was obvious and showed a variety of faces. We as OD experts felt challenged to pick up the crisis as an issue about organizations, their capabilities, limitations and failures. We did not want to leave the debate only to the political forum, because for us the crisis demonstrated very well, how politics itself is limited in its actions and influence. So we decided to organize a conference to bring together CEOs, consultants, researchers, all experienced people in understanding and shaping organizations in order to better understand how and why organizations cope so badly with the challenges of rapid changes in a global society and to find out, what could and should be done in developing the organizations and networks.

We knew that in order to be successful we had to define our theme precisely and to select an important aspect of the whole issue. With the background of our professional experience working with organizations and their leadership we could easily collect a number of hypotheses together that helped us to find a sharp focus for our conference. We agreed quickly that in order to bring about change in the way organizations decide and act the leadership and the management has to be looked at.

The economic crisis was for us a symptom that a great number of seemingly "well trained" managers are not capable to run their businesses without crises. This evidence was very much in line with our professional experience of consulting and training leadership people. We could share the expanding challenges for the CEOs and the managers at all levels to handle complex and ambiguous situations and make decisions in contexts with great uncertainties. Through the years we had developed a concept of OD that incorporated values like sustainability, responsibility, systemic thinking, dealing with complexity, selective participation, awareness for side effects etc. We also had kept track of the growing professional and scientific debate about the change of paradigm in leadership and management (cf. Grossmann & Scala, 2012; Mintzberg, 2004; Mirvis, 2010; Wankel & Stoner, 2009; Wankel, & DeFillippi, 2010). Our main conclusion was that managers are usually not so well trained for the current situation and are being educated insufficiently and even in a wrong and for the complex reality too simple way. At that point we had found our theme and created the title for our project:

International Conference: Management Makes the World Go Around

Learning for the Future in Management and Organizations

The title emphasizes the role of management and leadership for the development of our society and it indicates the need for learning new concepts and practices of leadership. This frame made it possible to start the planning of the conference in detail. We had a message to convey and we knew we would like leaders, consultants, OD experts and practitioners to participate. The guideline was: core competences for responsible leadership versus streamlined business like usual programs of management education.

So we invested some time in unfolding the global issue in some specific topics that would underline the dimension of a real paradigm shift. We collected through "brainstorming" a bunch of key words to characterize the new paradigm of leadership: awareness, self-reflection, brain and heart, sustainability, resilience, creativity, arts, networking, software forms hardware, education linked to practice—practice linked to reflection, learning from inside, values, systemic views, considering system and environment, participation, and so forth.

For the keynote speeches we planned to invite experts in OD and HR from universities as well as from big enterprises and pioneers in developing new concepts and methods in management education, all dedicated with great experience and enthusiasm linked to our topics and goals. In order to emphasize the radical shift in the mindset about leadership we also put a renowned scientist of brain research and neurobiology on the program. To develop a new concept of individual and organizational learning was one of our main goals and therefore it should be looked at profoundly in different ways and from different complex perspectives: brain research, education, art, HR and OD and management.

We put together the program following the usual design of conferences: keynote speeches, plenary presentations and debates, workshops, paper sessions and some social events to support the engagement and the enthusiasm of the international community of participants. In order to get a broad picture about what is going on in organizations and enterprises as well as in business schools, that would illustrate changes in leadership, we identified a larger group of OD practitioners, scientists and artists with experience in organizations, whom we wanted to contribute to the conference. So we prepared the call for the paper sessions and workshops.

In the first public announcement we presented the purpose and the concept:

Financial crisis climate change or the oil disaster in the gulf of Mexico: It is increasingly assumed that managers share the responsibility for these developments.

How can managers learn the lessons of the crisis and how can responsible leadership be actively lived in organizations?

What kind of knowledge do managers and organizations need to meet these challenges?

What, where and how should they learn in order to take responsibility for the whole corporation and its impact on its social and ecological environments?

The conference will discuss new challenges for management learning in the light of economic crisis and climate change and will highlight key experiences from both the practice of learning in organizations and new ways of teaching management and leadership in different parts of the world.

During our planning sessions we gradually became aware that we had to design our conference according to our topic and the messages we wanted to convey. The principles of new leadership would have to be the guideline for our design: self-reflection, participation, learning inside, brain and heart, and so forth. Our message of giving those principles a better stand within the leadership practice and education would only come across, if we succeed to live these principles at the conference. So we also emphasized in our announcement the aspect of the collective discussion.

The idea of giving the communication process a lot of space inspired us to expand our goals: To provide a strong appreciation for the collective effort of reflecting, exchanging and discussing, we created the idea of a "white paper" that would put the results on record and extend the impact of the conference on the debate of the issues in the future:

The aim of the conference is to initiate and provoke a critical and reflective discourse on the responsibility of institutions, organizations of management education and management learning for the future.

All participants shall share their expertise and exchange their reflections. They shall get involved and engaged in a process of communication with the goal to summarize the key results in a draft of a white paper that will stimulate the debate on the issue of management learning for the future.

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