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The Glass Wall at ODN Europe: unleashing human potential through OD

Mayvin Directors James Traeger and Martin Saville discuss the Organisation Development Glass Wall track session they ran at the 2013 OD Network Europe Conference. We set things up for the Glass Wall at ODN Europe so that a group of five people in the middle of the room had a facilitated conversation about how Organisational Development (OD) can […]
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Mayvin Directors James Traeger and Martin Saville discuss the Organisation Development Glass Wall track session they ran at the 2013 OD Network Europe Conference.

We set things up for the Glass Wall at ODN Europe so that a group of five people in the middle of the room had a facilitated conversation about how Organisational Development (OD) can help to unleash human potential in organisations. We were lucky enough to have a group of sophisticated, enthusiastic and open practitioners willing to ‘have a go’ and join the experiment; an ideal participant group! Observing this conversation were the remainder of the participants – around another dozen people – many of whom were invited to tweet their comments about what they were hearing using the hashtag #C21L. For many of these people, this was their first experience of using Twitter, and we’d set up a number of dummy accounts for the purpose.


Outside the room, other interested parties were following the Twitter feed and making their own contributions. The feed was displayed on a screen in the conference room using ‘Twitterfall’ a website that enabled participants in the facilitated conversation to see what was being tweeted. There was a 'Twitter moderator' whose job it was to mediate between the conversation in the room and the one online. This was my job, and it was the first time I had participated in the experiment in this role.

We ran the activity for about 20 minutes, having done some initial context setting and preparations to help people get familiar with the technology. We then debriefed the conversation to make sense of the experiences of the various people involved from their perspective. More of these can be found in other blogs. Click here for a link to the entire collection.

Emerging themes

Here are some of the themes that came out of the debrief of the Glass Wall track session at ODN Europe:

  • Depending on people’s role in the activity, they had a very different experience of it.
  • Everyone found it engaging in some way, however the people who were simply observing the activity without also engaging in Twitter were noticeably less energised about the experience than those who were involved.  From their perspective, the experience was messy, hard to follow, disjointed and a bit pointless. (There may be some bias here, in that these people were generally self-declared Twitter sceptics, but then so were some in the other groups).
  • By comparison, those people who had been directly involved found it engaging, energizing and interesting.  In response to the challenge that they were surely missing much of what was happening in the 'real’ conversation, they remarked that they had made a choice as to what they wanted from the activity, and what to focus on, and that this focus helped them choose where to look and what to filter, and where to focus their attention.

Responding to what's possible

During the activity, it had quickly become apparent that it is not possible to take part in a live, face-to-face conversation, staying in contact and developing ideas together, while simultaneously following a Twitter thread. (As one participant pointed out, this has also been shown to be the case in recent research.) We therefore quickly we evolved into a pattern in which we periodically paused to review what was happening on Twitter. This enabled more focus and more choice about where to direct attention.

Richer and more wide-ranging conversations

We talked about the possibility of using this kind of approach to enable teams to have richer and more wide-ranging conversations. This led to a discussion about what ground rules would be necessary to make this work in practice. We developed ideas around cycles of live conversation, reviewing of the Twitter feed, reflection and then more conversation. It was clear that well thought through decision-making and conversation protocols would be needed. A bit like those that have evolved for conference calls.

Those participants involved on the Twitter feed talked about experiencing reality on multiple levels. They reported that the experience of the Twitter conversation was just another form of reality.

Rules of engagement

It became clear that if this approach was going to work in an organisation, there would need to be clear reasons and rules of engagement. People would need to know and decide and articulate how they were intending to use the Twitter feed and why. They would need to design meetings so as to ensure that that was the outcome produced. In this regard, the principles are exactly those of designing large group interventions and other OD work.

This led us to reconfirm the notion identified in previous Glass Wall experiments. That the world of social media is not dissimilar to the rules of good OD work. However, perhaps the need for clarity and sharpness of thinking becomes even more acute, when social media is involved.

Social media and OD

We also discussed many of the similarities between the worlds of social media and OD. For example, the way in which they both undermine traditional hierarchies; are reliant on network effects; and are democratic ways of unleashing human potential.  We believe they have a lot to learn from each other and to offer each other.  We think is a fruitful conversation to look into further and follow up.

Thanks to ODN Europe

Our thanks go to OD Network Europe for allowing us to come to play at their conference. And thank you to all the participants. Do take a look at the Glass Wall at ODN Europe tweets by searching under #C21L. The conference as a whole has a rich Twiitter record that can be found under #ODNEU2013.

About the Glass Wall Experiment

This post forms part of a collection about the Glass Wall experiment we developed with Training Journal. The experiment looks into what social media can teach 21st Century Leadership and Organisational Development. The most recent run of the experiment was at the OD Network Inaugural European Conference. The iteration for ODN Europe was slightly different in its set up, and also involved different people. This collection, Looking Again Through the Glass Wall, reflects the experience of several of those involved, from their perspective.

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