The role of “dialogue conferences” in the development of

“learning regions:”


doing “from within” our lives together

 what we cannot do apart


John Shotter and Bjørn Gustavsen


Publication of

The Centre for Advanced Studies in Leadership

Stockholm School of Economics

Saltmätargatan 1317

P.O. Box 6501, SE113 83 STOCKHOLM, Sweden

Phone:  +46 8 736 96 20

Fax:    +46 8 33 72 90


Draft, August 22nd, 1999




            Preface...................................................................................................    4

            Introduction............................................................................................   6

            An understanding from within the ‘inner life’ of a region.................      9

            The emergence of the idea of “dialogue conferences”.........................     14

             From implementation of theory to developmental discourse..............    15

             ‘Setting the scene’ for dialogue                                                   15

       ‘From ‘seeing like a state’ to ‘seeing like a regional participant’                 20 

             The “learning regions” program......................................................        26

                         “Learning regions” conferences                                                     26

                                     Example 1: The Skåne conferences                            26

                                     Example 2: “Before” and “after”

                                                 - the Western Småland conference                           34

             Concluding remarks....................................................................         38

             References..................................................................................          42

             Notes..........................................................................................          42







“[Social forms] become social consciousness only when they are lived, actively, in real relationships and moreover in relationships which are more than systematic exchanges between fixed units. Indeed just because all consciousness is social, its processes occur not only between but within the relationship and the related” (Williams, 1977, p.130).


“The word in living conversation is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answerword: it provokes an answer, anticipates it and structures itself in the answer’s direction. Forming itself in an atmosphere of the already spoken, the word is at the same time determined by that which has not yet been said but which is needed and in fact anticipated by the answering word. Such is the situation of any living dialogue” (Bakhtin, 1981, p.280).


A plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices is in fact the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky's novels. What unfolds in his novels is not a multitude of characters and fates in a single objective world, illuminated by a single authorial consciousness; rather a plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with his own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event” (Bakhtin, 1984, p.6).


 “The origin and the primitive form of the language game is a reaction; only from this can more complicated forms develop.

            Language - I want to say - is refinement, ‘in the beginning was the deed’” (Wittgenstein, 1980, p.31).

“A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about’” (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.123).

“It is, I think, a characteristic of large, formal systems of coordination that they are accompanied by what appear to be anomalies but on closer inspection turn out to be integral to that order... [a] nonconforming practice is an indispensable condition for formal order” (Scott, 1998, pp.351-352).



In this monograph we describe both the conduct and the role of “dialogue conferences” within the “learning regions” program currently being conducted in Sweden. Crucially influenced by Wittgenstein’s (1953) remarks to the effect that nothing is hidden from us in our conduct of our social practices, and Bakhtin’s (1981, 1986) claims, both that we exhibit our practical understandings of one another in our spontaneous responses to each other and that such understandings are inevitably novel, we argue for the creative role of such conferences. Something very special happens when people from a region come into living contact with each other, face-to-face. In responding not only to each other’s uniqueness, but also to the unique features of their shared surroundings, they create between them, first-time events that are a rich mixture of all these influences. Aspects of these events can, if they are attended to and developed, function as the beginnings of new and productive relations in the region. Researchers can help regional members set the scene for such meetings, help to draw attention to the creative events to which they give rise, and, by an appropriate use of language, help participants articulate their relations to their surroundings in ways which take account of local particularities and details. Researchers in this sphere, thus, assume a somewhat unusual role. Rather than as external observers seeking to understand radically hidden processes that can only be understood inferentially, through the terms of a theory, researchers become interested partners in the process of development. As such, they come to work, not in terms of concepts, principles, or theories worked out in laboratories or seminar rooms ahead of time, but in terms of the selfsame dynamic, scenicsense of the region as a “relationallandscape of developmental opportunities” as all the other participants within it. It is this shared overall scenicsense of the region that researchers help participants develop in the “dialogue conferences” they facilitate. This kind of shared, dialogically-structured, synoptic sense of a region, shared between all those actively living and working in it, is quite different from what has been sought in the past. Previous, monologic attempts to construct overall “synoptic” visions of a region (or a State) have led to the production of documents, or other kinds of pictures, maps, or representations, which officials in central offices can “read” without any “lived experience” at all of life out in a region. But, as Bakhtin (1984) puts it: “It is quite possible to imagine and postulate a unified truth that requires a plurality of consciousnesses, one that in principle cannot be fitted within the bounds of a single consciousness, one that is, so to speak. by its very nature full of event potential and is born at that point of contact among various consciousnesses. The monologic way of perceiving cognition and truth is only one of the possible ways. It arises only where consciousness is placed above existence” (p.81). We seek in what follows below, to replace the single orders of connectedness sought in centralized, “administrative” views, with the richly structured scenic-sense of a region that all those participating in it can achieve between themselves... if only they can be brought into living, responsive relations with each other.




A new mode of “research:” knowledge formation in interactive cooperation with practitioners


This monograph deals with a whole network of inter-related topics that can all be considered aspects of two major concerns: regional development and the role of research, of professional intellectual inquiry, in this context. In recent years, “regions” have  to an increasing degree emerged as core reference points for development, be it industrialeconomic development or improvements in welfare and the quality of life. Within all societies there are differences in terms of ability to fulfill goals within these areas, and such differences can often be seen in a regional perspective. The interest in regions has created a flourishing literature on such issues as, what characterizes a successful region, and under what conditions can it be expected to emerge. While demonstrating a broad panorama in terms of characteristics and explanations  there are also some emergent common perspectives, in particular a tendency to stress social relationships as the perhaps most important dimension, together with the ability to organize processes of joint learning (see, for instance, the overviews by Amin 1998, and Asheim 1999). A successful region can, as a point of departure, be identified in terms of dense, manysided horizontal relationships which are activated in learning processes.


But how might such regions created? What is involved in a group of people all coming to see themselves as participants in such a set of dense, many-sided, horizontal relationships? Some will argue that successful regions can be generated through conscious, planned action, i.e. through the administrative and research activities of public agencies for regional development. While others will argue that they can not be “created” in any other way than through natural historical processes. We must just wait while history takes its course. The choice would seem to be between natural causes or rational planning. No other way seems possible. The authors of this paper, however, will take an inbetween position on this issue, not a blurred average of the two, but a radical in-between position. Indeed, we will argue that there is a third realm of human activity, a real of joint or dialogically structured activity of a kind unto itself, quite different from either the realm of behaviour (to be explained by reference to natural causes) or action (to be explained in terms of people’s reasons).


Until recently, this realm of socially distributed activity has remained unnoticed in the background of our lives together. Under the influence of a modernist philosophy, as Toulmin (1990) points out, there has been a preoccupation with “starting again with a clean slate” - “any new construction is truly rational only if it demolishes all that was there before and starts from scratch” (p.175). But now, we are beginning to realize that we cannot do that: “The idea that handling problems rationally means making a totally fresh start had been a mistake all along. All we can be called upon to do is to take a start from where we are, at the time we are there: i.e., to make discriminating and critical use of the ideas available to us in our current local situation, and the evidence of our experience, as this is ‘read’ in terms of those ideas” (p.179). It is in the course of dialogically structured activity between ourselves and the others around us in this third realm, that the ideas (and knowledge) available to us in our own local situation are manifested.

Thus, rather than “starting with a clean slate,” regional development is a matter of those within the region finding points of departure already in existence in some sense, either explicitly or implicitly, between them. No “intervention” be it from a developmental agency or anyone else can hope to transform something from being, say, a lowincome high unemployment area into a mushrooming economy overnight. On the other hand: in the social field there are  no “natural processes” in the sense that they occur without conscious acts from human beings. Participants must start from the opportunities available to them where they are, at the time they are there. And among these opportunities, they will find some that are supportive from a development perspective, while others will be destructive. Whatever is the case, the question now becomes, not “can a learning region be created or not,” but, in its creation or development, what kind of acts are called for and by whom.


This brings us to the role of research. Obviously, research can describe and analyse regions, but can it help promote the emergence of more and stronger regions? What kind of research is developmentally helpful?


We believe that research can be helpful, that reflective intellectual effort is of great importance, along with the more traditional activities of collecting and compiling statistics and other data, but that special attention must be paid to what kind of research is appropriate in what context. To move from the role of an external observer to that of a coconstructor, i.e., to a role as co-participant along with all the indigenous members of a region, demands a reconsideration of several major dimensions of the research process. Central to such a reconsideration, is a re-positioning or re-situating of intellectual work. Rather than an autonomous activity of a general kind conducted in special institutes set apart from everyday life, aimed at producing fresh, foundational principles from which to make a new start, it takes on a much more mundane, but quite crucial character: that our helping us at certain moments within the flow of our ordinary, everyday practices, to draw each other's attention to aspects of them previously unnoticed. Attending to such previously unnoticed features of our practices is the major way we elaborate and refine them. Indeed, it is crucial to us learning them in the first place.


Below, then, in carrying out such a reconsideration, we want to do a number of things: We want to examine the role of dialogue conferences as just such a special moment in forming a set of somewhat independent regional actors consisting of persons running enterprises, union officials and workers, those in regional authorities and municipalities, in educational institutions, and other such interested parties, along with a body of state funded researcher/facilitators into a community of collaborative practitionerteachers, practitionerlearners, and practitionerresearchers, all able to act as resources for each other. For, as we shall show in some concrete detail below, something very special occurs when people are involved in dialogues with each other. In spontaneously responding to each other’s living expressions, new relationships emerge both between them, and between them and their surroundings. This is the power of dialogicallystructured joint action (Bakhtin, 1981; Gustavsen, 1992; Shotter, 1980, 1984, 1993): when responsively linked to each other as “voices” in a living dialogue, resourceful and actionenabling relationsbetween them begin to unfold.

In other words, within the arena of the conference, previously unnoticed ways in which regional actors can help each other become publicly visible new “relationalfacts” of this kind (opportunities, say, to liaise or coordinate with other actors in quite specific ways which would otherwise remain unrecognized) can come into existence in no other way. But more than facts of this kind emerge, many other, previously unrelated details of the life of the region crucial to its development, known only locally, also become shared regionwide, and thus available for interconnection where and when appropriate. In other words, in the course of such conferences, a shared sense of the region as a “relationallandscape” of previously unrecognized “relationalresources,” can emerge. The participants can come to share between them a scenicsense of the region as a dynamic arena for industrialeconomic development. Rather than simply an inert and neutral container for their individual activities, which they must coordinate according to the external dictates of a rational plan, they come to experience their region as a living entity with an “inner life” of its own and “from within” this sense of their region, each can come to appreciate the part they can play in relation to all the others in its development. It is this social power of a group of people in dialogicallystructured, living contact with each other to create a shared, shaped, and vectored sense of their surroundings, a sense that enables them all to orient towards the future in a coordinated way that we want to explore below.


Besides giving some examples of dialogues conferences and outlining the practicalities involved in both setting them up and running them, we also want to say something about the special role of researchers in staging such conferences, and about the special status of conferences within the life of a region. Indeed, we want to go even further, and to interweave into our explorations here, at appropriate points, remarks and comments, mainly from the works of Wittgenstein and Bakhtin (and from others also), that we think will be helpful to researchers orienting themselves towards such a task. For, unlike in descriptiveanalytic research, or in experimentally oriented action research, in the developmental activities involved here, “researchers” cease to be investigators in search of new knowledge. In preparing for and in facilitating dialogue conferences, they become (along with all the other members of the region), resourceful participants in an overall development process within which a region can develop continuously into a selfresearching and thus a selfdeveloping region. A sensitivity to events of a dialogical-relational kind, the ability to draw participants attention to them, and the possession of a vocabulary for use in helping participants refine and elaborate the new beginnings they offer into workable relationships within the region, are precisely the resources that researchers can bring into the dialogue situation - resources that can help other participants to become aware of the resources the have to offer each other. Brulin (1998) has outlined this as the new task - “the third task” - of Swedish universities: knowledge formation in interactive cooperation with practitioners.


It is this shift from research “conducted by outside experts” to research “as an inner moment of activity within the ongoing life of region,” that we want especially to emphasize in what follows below. By making the shift to working “from inside” a region, we want to try to avoid the results of a tendency, noted by Raymond Williams (1977), that arises from academics always giving their descriptions and analyses “in an habitual past tense” (p.128). “The strongest barrier to the recognition of human cultural activity,” he continues, “is this immediate and regular conversion of experience into finished products... relationships, institutions and formations in which we are still actively involved are converted, by this procedural mode, into formed wholes rather than forming and formative processes” (p.128). The shift from a concern with systematic knowledge, expressed within the propositional forms of a theory, to a kind of knowledge that has its being only within people’s practices within a region, does not mean that the knowledge generation function is abandoned, but it is necessary to critically reassess the kind of knowledge we, as researchers, can help to create. We will return to this issue later, when we have said more about the “inner life” of regions.



An understanding from within the “inner life” of a region


In an earlier article, one of us outlined transformations occurring over the last forty years or so in social science research aimed at social change and reconstruction (Gustavsen, 1998). Especially in the Scandinavian context, there have been a number of major shifts: in the location or site of such research, in its style, and in its ownership. While in the 1960s and continuing on into the 1970s, there was a focus on field experiments aimed at producing scientific knowledge in the form of theories “owned” by researchers for implementation by practitioners, from the 1970s there has been a shift to a much more “participatory” or “collaborative” form of research. Rather than a group of expert researchers from “outside” the sphere of working life in question “discovering” (or inventing) a scientific theory suggestive of possible new activities, there has been a steady shift towards the study of already existing social practices “from within” their own ongoing conduct and a continuous improvement of these practices.  Although to some extent with complementary roles relative to other actors (Gustavsen et al 1998) researchers function as copractitioners and practitioners as coresearchers, and all share in the goal of refining, articulating, and developing practices already existing in the workplace and its surroundings in ways that are agreed as more effective.


Accompanying this shift in perspective has been a shift in “unit of change.” Again, the shift has been gradual and complex but there is an overall drift away from working with single organizations and towards units of  a growing size, or “mass.” Indeed, work of this kind has been extended to develop relations between enterprises within a region into a network of selfdeveloping social practices, thus to large scale “development coalitions” or “learning regions” (Gustavsen, 1998).


This paper, then, will deal with “regions.” However, no effort will be made to analytically define the concept. Although the kind of social processes we deal with are, in this context, linked to regions, they overlap strongly with processes in other contexts, such as in single organizations or smaller networks of organizations. From the brief historical overview given below, it will be seen that the dialogue conferences have their point of origin in single organizations. Successively, they have been developed and transformed to function in new contexts but there are no strong discontinuities in this process. This means, furthermore, that a “learning region” can not in itself be unequivocally defined in terms of structural characteristics. To be able to learn is the same as to be able to transform oneself: a learning region is by definition a region in transition, always on the move.  It is also possible to take “region” in a metaphorical sense, as a social landscape where actors confront other actors and can choose different ways of relating to each other. Indeed, as we shall see, dialogically-structured, joint activity is, by its very nature, an indeterminate mix of very many influences - and thus it cannot (with justice) ever be fully characterized. As a third realm of human activity of a kind unto itself, we shall find that its central defining feature is its openness to being refined or further specified only by those involved in it, in different ways according to the different interests and concerns of those involved.


The cooperation between  research and regional actors can thus give rise to a whole assortment of results shared between them all. Instead of the production of academic texts solely for an audience of academic colleagues, the primary result of such collaborative research is the joint production of new practices within the region with dialogue conferences often being a part of these practices. Intertwined with them may be pieces of writing and other forms of communication, e.g. videos. All taken together they can be thought of as a region’s development organization. The production of more academic texts, in which researchers try to promote the “carrying across” of developmental practices “carried in” one region’s practices into other regions as we are attempting to in this paper must be a secondary and much later development. In other words, rather than on or aboutpeople, research of a collaborative nature, development research or action research within the context of development coalitions, is research together with the people those others who are its subjects.


The change from outsider to insider and from single organizations to networks and regions might easily be seen merely as a set of refinements in an essentially unchanging form of action research. But to view them like this would, we believe, be a grave mistake. As we see it, almost every basic assumption in terms of which research has traditionally been conducted needs to be changed. For, in shifting from an objective, scientific, “outsider’s” stance towards those we study, to a participatory stance, a major change of a qualitative kind occurs: for, as we move into the role of a participant, as we become an “insider,” our focus must shift from a concern with patterns or forms to practical meanings; from things of a general, externally related nature to a set of internally interconnected particularities to do with the region for it is in terms of these particularities that members must make sense of the opportunities actually open to them. Thus, in particular, as researchers, we must turn from a concern with regularities and repetitions of past events to unique, “onceoccurrent events of Being” (Bakhtin, 1993), i.e., particular occurrences which, on appropriate occasions, can give rise to the beginning of new social practices for these are the incipient beginnings of possibly new relations from which regional developments can emerge. In other words, on becoming an insider, instead of being concerned with arriving at a final, completely correct but static “picture” of a region’s structure, our aim must be to promote amongst all its members a shared, dynamic scenicsense of the openings in the region for development where they are placed and the relationships among them.


Instead of a formal, representationalreferential understanding of the region’s actual structure (that might be viewed by an outsider as just another neutral object in his or her surroundings), we seek what might be called a relationalresponsive understanding of its “inner life,” i.e., a shared, felt sense of what, in practice, given certain momentary surroundings, we should do for the best.


As Bakhtin (1986) notes, while representational understandings are passive, in that they do not call for a response, in the actual practice of moving backand forth in a living conversation, “all real and integral understanding is actively responsive, and constitutes nothing other than the initial preparatory stage of a response (in whatever form it may be actualized)” (p.69). In other words, such an active kind of responsive understanding “from within” or “from inside” the life of a region allows each individual participant, not only to gain a sense of their present place or position in relation to all the other relevant actors around them, but also, a sense of the particular openings or invitations offered them by the regionfor their own future actions. Thus each participant can, from their own unique place in the “relational landscape” they all share, make a unique contribution to the region’s development in a way that fits in with those of all the others.


We say that such a shared sense is a shaped and vectored sense, or a dynamic sense, because the openings or invitations it offers each participant will be perceived by them, not as static and neutral objects to grasp and to use as they see fit, but as “callings.” From within the life of a region, just like players in a game of tennis, participants will spontaneously sense the specific openings and invitations offered to them in their part of the region as “calling for” a specific range of responses from them. It will be as if each move open to them has a “grammar” to it (Wittgenstein, 1953), so that only certain moves will fit with the region’s development, while others will not. Hence, rather than having to act “out from” their own inner plans or desires (or their own individual interpretations of a rational plan), they can responsively act “into” openings offered them by their surroundings. This is what is involved in a group of people coming to live “inside” a living human reality together. Again, say, like actors in a play, they do not each separately encounter “the play” as a neutral, inanimate object of knowledge standing over against them, to which they each must orient individually. As they craft between them a way of acting the play which expresses all the interrelationships between its myriad details, a dynamic scenicsense of “the inner life” of the play develops between them once this occurs, then rather than them each having to try to act the play, they begin to find the play acting them. Indeed, as we shall show, it is as if “it” the living reality created by a human group in its activities comes to have “a life of its own” with its own requirements. When this occurs, all involved in “it” come to coordinate their activities together in, so to speak, being answerable to its “calls.” When united into a living whole of this kind, participants can gain a sense, not only of how they might contribute towards what they agree to be the region’s development, but also, a sense of how their “voice” might count in modifying and developing that goal further. They can do this because, under the appropriate dialogicallystructured conditions, the shared dynamic sense of the region they create between them is not of a dead and finished, objective actuality, but is a sense of an living, unfinished, and still developing whole. Such a whole offers to all those involved in its creation, a shaped and vectored sense of what is yettobe achieved within it, a space of possible activities in which they can all participate.


Central to the structuring of dialogue conferences are a set of thirteen criteria, or what we shall call orientational directives. Although in presenting these, we may still seem to be arguing for a set of basic rules or principles which must underlie and govern people’s actions if they are properly to communicate dialogically for we do indeed seem to be making statements of a general kind this will not be so. For once inside a living human reality, rather than as foundational principles or fundamental propositions, such statements will be seen as serving a very different function. In Wittgenstein’s (1953, no.89 and no.127) sense, they work as a set of reminders a set of “resourceful reminders” which can function to remind us of features to which we must pay attention, in the situation in which we are now involved, if we want to coordinate our talkstructured activities in with those around us in an unconfused fashion. And furthermore, but again only if used at an appropriate moment within a flow of activity with others, such remarks can also serve another important function in development: to draw people’s attention to possibilities, to possible but yet unnoticed relations between aspects of their joint activities and other events in their shared surroundings. Thus, rather than a set of general underlying principles to which participants are meant to conform, these orientational directives can function as an overlay, as a special kind of extra linguistic practice which can work to supplement existing social practices. At certain crucial moments, they can work to bring to public attention, unnoticed tendencies already at work in people’s spontaneous ways of working with each other, thus to refine and elaborate them further. Rather than in any way foundational, when arrayed as a set of criteria, they can be seen as a set of reminders working to orient participants towards what a “dialogue conference” is.


Our purpose in conducting our explorations in this manner in terms of detailed concrete examples and orientational directives is not simply to be persuasive, to try to prove the worth of the approach we outline, but, in fact, to raise some very fundamental questions as to how the whole enterprise of establishing regional dialogue conferences should be undertaken and understood. For, to repeat, we are not concerned with establishing a general theory, but with establishing social practices, and, as Wittgenstein (1953) points out, in teaching a practice, “giving examples is not an indirect means of explaining in default of a better,” (no.71); it is a proper part of how we do in act help each other learn and develop practices. For, as we have seen, as a joint activity, a social practice is coordinated in terms of a shared scenicsense of how we are each positioned upon “its” relationallandscape. And, just as we must walk the streets of a new town or city if we are to learn how to move about within it with ease and assurance, so must we also move from each concrete example to another, with each as an orientational landmark, if we are to build up a similar practical sense of the relationallandscape of a social practice.


The development of this inner sense of the internal relations constituting a living whole is crucial, and we can only do this by involving ourselves in a living, responsive relation to it; we cannot do it by standing over against it, merely observing in an uninvolved way, the patterns or forms it exhibits in its behaviour. Indeed, this is why it is impossible for a nondialogicallystructured human group to reconstruct itself into a dialogical community, as a material structure might be constructed, brickbybrick, from the ground up, according to an external blueprint. For, to coordinate the group’s activity around a blueprint, we must assume that the group’s members can already construct between them a shared sense of the practical meaning of the blueprint for each of them, and to do that, they must be able to dialogically respond to each other in some minimal way, i.e., to build on events which come into existence only in people’s relations to each other.


In discussing these kinds of difficulties in establishing dialogicallystructured communities, Bernstein (1983) reflects a somewhat similar stance: “a community or polis,” he remarks, “is not something that can be made or engineered by some form of techneor by the administration of society... The coming into being of a type of public life that can strengthen solidarity, public freedom, a willingness to talk and listen, mutual debate, and a commitment to rational persuasion presupposes the incipient forms of such communal life” (p.226). Although “a typical modern response” has been “the idea that we can make, engineer, impose our collective will to form such communities,” he continues, “... the attempts to do so have been disastrous” (p.226). The results have been disastrous because, as we shall show, all such attempts to channel or direct people’s activities into preestablished forms eradicate the one thing that makes dialogical conferences so special: people’s freedom to meet others who can spontaneously “call out” unique, firsttime responses from them that they could never call out from themselves, responses which can create relationships of precise relevance to the region’s development. In a dialogue conference, a group of people who until now have been somewhat strangers to each other, as long as they are uncommitted to any prior systematic theories, can work collaboratively to point out some of the previously unnoticed features in each other’s circumstances and practices, and to suggest possible ways in which these features might be linked or related to other crucial aspects of people's lives in the region.


Indeed, attempting to ground our communicative relations with each other in a systematic theory or a preestablished plan could be an impediment in such a process, for, in claiming to already know the “correct” or “true” way to proceed, we would be automatically refusing regional participants the right to modify and update the whole process in relation to what they see as the region’s needs. This does not mean, as we shall show, that in moving beyond theory (Toulmin and Gustavsen, 1996) we also wish to move beyond all use of reason, reflection, or rationality but it does mean, that we want to forestall the temptation once again to move to an outsider’s position, “above it all.” Thus, rather than beginning completely from scratch, as the grounding of a practice in a new theory seems to require, we want to suggest a very different kind of approach: the putting of a new practice into people’s already existing social practices, a new practice in which unnoticed relational features of their own current practices are brought to their attention, i.e., features to do with how their activities can link and connect with their surroundings in previously unnoticed ways. For this is what we feel people can learn in their participation in dialogue conferences. It is this public noticing and acknowledgment of possible relations existing between people’s current practices which we feel is crucial. These acknowledgments are the beginnings from which new, regionally shared practices can be developed[1]. These crucial new beginnings occur, however, only among regional actors in the practical setting of the conference itself they cannot be conjured up by outside experts, no matter how imaginative theoretically.




The emergence of the idea of dialogue conferences


When the Norwegian Federation of Trade Unions and the corresponding Employers Confederation in 1983 made an agreement on development one of the measures to be introduced was conferences (Gustavsen, 1987; 1992; 1998; Ennals and Gustavsen, 1998). The conferences were intended to function as a meeting ground not only between labour and management in a traditional sense but actually between all the major levels and/or groups of actors into which a modern enterprise organization can be divided. The main purpose of the conferences was to explore the possibilities for joint development efforts: efforts where management and employees could work together to improve on conditions within their organization and/or its performance in relation to its environment. In principle, any topic could be made subject to efforts under the agreement but a preference was expressed by the labour market parties centrally for including the issue of work organization and the issue of local cooperation as such.


While it was expected that conferences would as a rule be organised on the level of the single enterprise there was nothing against organising conferences where a number of organizations participated simultaneously. In the period from the agreement went into force and until 1992 the board that was established to make decisions under the agreement made 478 decisions about support to conferences, economically and/or in terms of advice (Gustavsen, 1993, p.147). Since one and the same case could come up before the board more than once the number of conferences held in this period was probably somewhat lower, say about 450. After reaching a high degree of popularity throughout the 1980s the conferences fell into a period of decline after 1990 not because they lost their purpose and functions but because other forms of development organization started to emerge, taking over some of the functions of the conferences (Engelstad, 1996; Ennals and Gustavsen, 1998).


While these conferences were made subject to a rather sketchy set of design criteria a series of conferences organised as a part of the LOM program in Sweden running from 1985 up to and including 1990 were more highly elaborated in this respect (Gustavsen, 1992 (LOM is short for the Swedish terms for Leadership, Organization, and Determination). Altogether about 60 conferences were organised within the framework of this program (Naschold, 1993, p.65). While single enterprises were the main users of conferences within the Norwegian program although with some reservation for efforts to create branch programs (Pålshaugen, 1988) most conferences within the LOM program were organised for clusters of organizations, ideally four (Gustavsen, 1992, p.42).


Since LOM was a program with a finite time frame there was no direct carrying on of the activities of the program. If there had been, the use of conferences would probably have shown the same pattern as in Norway, successively being overtaken by other arenas, not least permanent development activities within each organization as well as across organizational boundaries. After the middle 1990s conferences have emerged in a new context. Typical of this is the program “Learning regions” in Sweden. As the name indicates, the conferences are used to bring regional actors together to explore the possibilities for cooperation on a network or regional basis. The actors come from enterprises but also from regional authorities and municipalities, educational institutions and others. 12 such conferences have been organised so far.


Below, focus will be on how these conferences function and how they are to be understood: within what kind of framework should they be interpreted? The presentation falls into three parts: First, an overview of the points of origin of the conferences will be given. Second, some snapshots from conferences within the “Learning region” program will be presented Third, we will conduct a discussion of how this kind of event is to be understood are the conferences for instance “theoretically structurable” or must they be understood primarily as forms of practices? If they are to be seen as forms of practices what does this imply?




From the implementation of theory to discourses on improvement

“Setting the scene” for dialogue


The Norwegian agreement on development went into force in the early 1980s and reflects issues, needs and ideas as they were seen by the labour market parties, with some support from research, at that time. In brief, the 1960s and 70s had been characterised by much debate on issues like industrial democracy, health and safety, job satisfaction and much else pertaining to the role of work in people`s lives.  Several efforts at actual reform had emerged as well, particularly notable was a series of field experiments with new forms of work organization conducted in the latter 1960s (Emery & Thorsrud, 1976) with ensuing diffusion programs, and the work environment reform of the 1970s where considerations of health and safety were brought out of what was primarily a controlexpert context to be linked to issues like work organization and worker participation (Gustavsen, 1981; 1989; Gustavsen & Hunnius, 1981).


Along with the debates and actual efforts at reform a number of theories, or more or less general ideas, about “the good work” were argued. The sociotechnical school confronted the labour process school and these in turn whatever remnants existed of the older human relations school. Theories of democratisation entered into more or less uneasy relationships to biologically oriented ideas on human stress; efforts were made to reconcile ideas on optimal production systems with ideas on job satisfaction, and so on. The theories and ideas all tended to claim general validity and the period was, consequently, characterised by much confrontation between different schools of thought.


What set of ideas emerged as victorious?  As a point of departure: none. When the labour market parties entered upon the agreement on development they endorsed no specific set of ideas concerning “the good work” and “the good organization”. What they did was just the opposite; to establish arenas where these issues could be made subject to discussion. These discussions were, furthermore, to be performed directly between those concerned and on the local level, implying, for instance, that different workplaces could choose to be guided by different views. The agreement gave process precedence over content.


However, process can also be steered by general theory. Not endorsing a specific view on what constitutes “the good work” does not mean that a view was not endorsed concerning “the good conference.” And, clearly,  such a view was expressed. There were, for instance, several theoretically founded conference models available: confrontation conferences, visiongenerating conferences,  search conferences, and more. While these and other conference models played some role within the broad landscape of views and experiences that came to influence the agreement and its associated practices, it is also clear that the main ideas were drawn from the history of the labour market parties themselves:


Traditional negotiations between employers and unions came to be seen as “discourses.” As such, they have certain characteristics. They are, for instance, conducted between representatives, they are set up in an adversarial form, and they concern clearly identified issuesand topics. What was done in the agreement on development was essentially to negate these characteristics. The discourses should in principle include all concerned, be cooperative rather than adversarial, and allow for diffuse topics and openended outcomes. It was thought that since development seemed to be rather different from traditional negotiations, the discourses needed to perform development should depart from characteristics opposite to those prevailing in traditional negotiations.


When the Norwegian agreement went into operation, further criteria or orientational directives were added to those mentioned above in the light of issues and problems emerging when unions and employers locally started to use the agreement. Since these further directives emerged out of largely undocumented practices it is difficult to reconstruct their emergence in terms of time and context. Instead, we will turn to the Swedish LOM program, where a broader set of criteria was made explicit from the beginning: the LOM program arose out of an agreement on development similar to the Norwegian agreement, but with some crucial differences. While the Norwegian agreement was implemented through a central apparatus set up between the labour market parties themselves, with some support from research, the Swedish agreement came to rely much more on intermediate agencies. Lacking a central apparatus for implementation, institutions like the Work Environment Fund where the labour market parties were well represented on the board came to act as such mediators. In this context the LOM program was launched, in 1985, as a combined research and development program to support the implementation of the agreement (Gustavsen, 1992; Naschold, 1993). Following the same general line of reasoning as in Norway, the program placed its focus primarily on process and, in this context, on the notion of democratic dialogue as the medium in which development processes were to be generated.


The idea of “democratic dialogue” was operationalized in terms of a set of 13 criteria, or what we shall now call “orientational directives:”


                    Work experience is the point of departure for participation (concrete examples are important in particular, “moving” events that one has been “struck by”).

                    All concerned with the issues under discussion should have the possibility of participating.

                    Dialogue is based on a principle of give and take, or twoway discourse, not oneway communication (participants must be responsive to each other).

                    Participants are under an obligation to help other participants be active in the dialogue.

                    All participants have the same “rank” in the dialogue arenas

                    Some of the concrete experiences possessed by participants on entering the dialogue must be seen as relevant.

                    It must be possible for all participants to gain an understanding of the topics under discussion (time must be spent in achieving this).

                    An argument can be rejected only after exploration of its details (and not, for instance, on the grounds that it emanates from a source with limited legitimacy).

                    All arguments that are to enter the dialogue must be expressed by the actors present.

                    All participants are obliged to accept that other participants may have arguments better than their own.

                    Among the issues that can be made subject to discussion are also the ordinary work roles of the participants noone is exempt from such a discussion (something unique can be seen from every position in a relationallandscape).

                    The dialogue should be able to integrate a growing number of differences (indeed, it is precisely from their integration into a living whole that a sense of the region’s relational landscape emerges).

                    The dialogue should continuously generate decisions that provide platforms for joint action.


From where did these criteria come? As indicated above, they are seen as directional directives rather than as a theoretically founded approach to the one and only best way in which to conduct dialogues. Their main source was already existing practical experience. In performing workplace experiments, for instance, much of the effort actually consists of discussions with the workplace actors. In the experimental period, these discussions were seen as means to an end the end being the redesign of the workplace and hence their dialogic importance in creating relationships, remained unnoticed in the background. However, with the developments in the 1980's, they moved into the foreground.


While the sources of the orientational directives were practical experience rather than theoretical derivation, theory was not absent. When criteria emerged out of practice, they were confronted with theory; in particular, of course, given the time and the context, with Habermas’ (19841987) theory of communicative action. The purpose of such a confrontation was not to decide on which criteria were “most true” or “most valid.” Rather, it had to do more with perceptual than with cognitive matters. As Shotter (1993, and see also, for instance, Giddens, 1990) suggests, confrontations between theory and practice can have a number of other purposes than establishing a “true” or a “valid” interpretation of these practices. As we pointed out above, when used in a context, at a particular moment, rather than as a grounding for a practice, theoretical statements can offer useful orientation. They can draw attention to important but often unnoticed details, especially those with only a fleeting existence within the ongoing flow of a continuous process. Most crucially, they can draw out responsive reactions from those to whom they are addressed - the possibility of people being able, spontaneously, to responsively relate to the expressions of the others around them is central. The crucial importance of such responsive moments in the functioning of dialogue conferences cannot be overemphasised.


Although most of the criteria cited above emerged out of trial-and-error experiences with what is needed to make workplace and enterprise dialogues function, with hindsight, it is possible to formulate good reasons for their usefulness. For instance, the first orientational directive - the demand that work experience form the point of departure - leads people away from talking in abstractions, and towards talking in terms of concrete, personal experiences: a way a talking to which others can readily respond! Indeed, if the overall aim of a dialogue conference is to provide opportunities for all those concerned with a region’s development to create a shared sense of their previously unnoticed resourceful relations to each other, then their living responsiveness to each other is crucial. As we noted earlier, like actors in a play, rather than each separately experiencing “the region” in which they live and work as a neutral, inanimate object, standing over against them, to which they must orient themselves individually, in their responsive relations to each other, it comes to have “a life of its own.” When this occurs, all involved in “it” come to coordinate their activities together in, so to speak, being answerable to its “calls.” But this is only possible if all involved play out aspects of their roles with the others around them in responsive attendance.


Hence, it is not surprising that many conferences, that start with such general questions as “How to define the environment of an enterprise, its location in markets, supply chains, access to resources, and the like?” will tend to create highly unbalanced discussions. Since people in the outwarddirected roles of the organization mostly management will not only have more knowledge of such matters than, say, ordinary workers, but ordinary workers will be responsively excluded form participating in such talk. This does not mean that one should not focus at all on the issue of an enterprise’s surrounding environment, but only when the dialogue is going so well that all participants are able to play an active role in its discussion. And even then, such talk should be in terms of actual concrete events experienced by participants - “There was this time when....!”


Given these 13 criteria, the next step was to work out a set of more specific design criteria for the various types of arenas where the idea of democratic dialogue was to be applied. Among such arenas, conferences were seen as important, but not as exclusively structuring the whole process. A fruitful development process needs a number of different arenas for different purposes (Engelstad, 1996). And in the section below, on the Swedish “Learning regions” project, we shall note that many other activities involving pieces of writing or the showing of videotapes having their origins in the conferences, continue as a part of the region’s development outside of the conference arena. Here, however, we will continue with our focus on conferences, and turn to their design. The main criteria for the outline design of conferences were and are as follows:


                    The duration time for a conference is flexible, but a point of departure is one and a half working days including an evening for social purposes.

                    The location should be a conference centre or similar, where the participants can stay together for the duration of the conference.

                    If the whole organization can not participate, the participants should constitute a vertical slice so as to ensure participation from all major levels and groups.As a point of departure, the discussions are to rotate around four main topics: aims or visions for the future; challenges to be met; ideas concerning how to do it and, finally, how to organise for action.

                    Each theme is discussed in groups, discussion time about one hour.

                    The groups can be composed differently: the main pattern is to use homogenous groups for the first theme, diagonal groups for the second, freely composed groups for the third, and groups composed of those that need to work together to continue the process after the conference for the fourth. By homogenous is meant that all participants have the same kind of role in their organization, i.e. as employee, supervisor or manager. By diagonal is meant that for instance management in one part of the organization meets workers from another part or management in one enterprise workers from another, if more than one organization participates.

                    Each group presents its main views in a plenary session; presentation time for each group around 5 minutes.

                    The plenary presentations constitute the “public” part of the event, and should express those points that are to steer further activities. In this way a clear separation is made between, on the one hand, the discussions and their organization in terms of settings that allow for deep participation, and on the other, the operational outcomes that have to represent syntheses, condensations, or other forms of operational statements that are accessible to almost everyone.

                    Number of groups depends on number of participants. In the LOM program, conferences were thought to ideally encompass about 40 people, giving four groups of 10.Time is a scarce resource and should in principle be shared equally between the participants.

                    The scarcity of time and the need to emphasise that the conference is a discussion implies that it is important to go straight to the first group discussion immediately upon opening the conference. In this way a sense of urgency is emphasised together with the principle of equality, the idea of dialogue, and the idea that it is the participants who constitute the resources of the conference. Lectures or other forms of establishment of authorities are to be avoided.

                    All “official” tasks, such as chairing or reporting from groups, are subject to rotation.

                    A conference staff of, for instance, researchers, takes care of organization, composition of groups, the putting together of the conference report and similar, but generally does not intervene in the discussions, at least not in the early phase of the process where the constitution of the workplace participants as actors in dialogue is a main objective. There is one exception: The group discussions need to be made subject to some degree of monitoring in the initial phases participants may need reminding of the 13 orientational directive above and interventions may be needed to ensure the principle of equality.



From these ideas about “basic design,” actual developments have gone in various directions. As we outlined above, this kind of conference has come into a fairly broad use, as one of the main tools to be applied to create development. This broad use has, of course, also implied modifications in a number of different directions. If conferences are used, for instance, not to launch a process of development but to coordinate ongoing processes, several of the directives mentioned above can be taken more lightly, sometimes totally skipped. For instance, rather than around an overall vision for the future, more limited goals may be set. The important point, however, is to apply these criteria rather strictly until a dialogue is well established, and all participants feel that they have a secure position within it. With the broad use of conferences within different types of processes it also follows that this particular kind of arena can become absorbed by, or transformed into, other types of arenas like project groups, workplace meetings, general meetings, evaluation conferences and so on characterising modern development work (Gustavsen et al, 1996).


From “seeing like a State” to “seeing like a regional participant”


Our central concern in discussing “dialogue conferences,” to repeat, has been with how those involved in them can gain an overall ‘inner sense’ of their region as a resourceful environment. How can they gain a sense of it as offering or affording them a whole range of ‘invitations’ to possible, economically advantageous actions? The beginnings of such a shared sense can be found, we have suggested, in the spontaneous relational-reactions of regional members to each other, in the course of the conference, beginnings which once noticed can be elaborated and refined. Indeed, something very special happens in the meeting and intertwining of two or more living, responsive consciousnesses with each other that cannot happen in any other way: a new ‘world’ is created. As soon as a second living human being enters into a responsive relation with a first, so that what the second does is partly ‘shaped’ by the first (and the first’s acts are ‘shaped’ by the second’s), then a strange and complex unity begins to emerge between them. It is, as Bakhtin (1984) puts it, a “unity... of unmerged twos and multiples” (p.289, our emphasis). This oxymoronic notion of a (dynamic) unity made up of a plurality of unmerged participants is pivotal to an understanding of what occurs in people’s meetings with each other. Just as when A and B shake each other’s hand, and A gets a sense of B’s mood in the process while B gets a sense of A’s, so in many other joint activities: when A as A, and B as B, actively relate themselves to each other, they each can gain a relationally-responsive understanding of each other’s nature. If they were to merge, to form merely a blurred average between them, the unique sense that they can gain of each other’s character would be lost. This, however, is only a part of the strange and complex nature of dialogically-structured events. Before examining them further, let us state some of their essential characteristics in summary form:


Dialogically-structured moments:


                    What people produce between them in their spontaneously responsive relations to each other is a very complex mixture of not wholly reconcilable influences - as Bakhtin (1981) remarks, at work within it are both ‘centripetal’ tendencies (inward towards order and unity), as well as ‘centrifugal’ ones (outward towards diversity and difference).

                    Influences from sight, touch, hearing, taste, and smell, as well as our body senses, our own and our responses to those of others, are all mixed in together[2].

                    Moments of joint action give rise to a complex mixture of many different kinds of influences.

                    This makes it very difficult for us to characterize their nature: they have neither a fully orderly nor a fully disorderly structure, neither a completely stable nor an easily changed organization, neither fully subjective nor fully objective character.

                    Indeed, we could say that it is their very lack of specificity, their lack of any pre-determined human order, and thus their openness to being specified or determined yet further by those involved in them, in practice, that is their central defining feature.


Indeed, given the lack of either reasons or causes for its appearance between them, the ‘dialogical reality or space’ people spontaneously construct in their joint actions is experienced as a ‘third agency’ with its own (ethical) demands and requirements - “Each dialogue takes place as if against the background of an invisible third party [an ‘it’] who stands above all the participants in the dialogue (partners)” (Bakhtin, 1986, p.126, our addition). Hence, to repeat, rather than having to act ‘out from’ their own inner, individual plans or desires (or their own individual interpretations of a rational plan), participants can responsively act ‘into’ openings offered them by the others around them in their surroundings; they can act as ‘it’, their shared background, requires; they can act ‘in answer to’ its ‘calls’.


If all goes well, then, participants in “dialogue conferences” can achieve between them, a shared, comprehensive sense of (certain aspects of) their surroundings. But isn’t this exactly what we have always sought in our intellectual inquiries - a comprehensive view of our world, a sense of how things hang together as a whole, a view that we can hold in common with others? Surely, our philosophers especially have always thought of themselves as concerned with this goal. However, given our outline above, of the distinct, sui generis, nature of dialogically-structured, joint action, we can now assert that there are two quite distinct ways in which we can approach this task, leading to two quite distinct forms of comprehensive understanding, with two quite distinct motives:


                    1) One approach is from the outside as observers of formal patterns. It aims at the form of understanding we seek in our traditional theory-centred philosophy. Above, we called it an understanding of a representational-referential kind. It aims at ‘fixing’ the object of one’s understanding within a medium of representation - usually, in written language. The urge to express our knowledge (especially of human affairs) in this way, in terms of hierarchically ordered schemes of logically interlinked propositions, a system, although rhetorically justified by appeals to equality and the disinterested objectivity of science, leads - as both Foucault (1979) and Scott (1998) show - to just those kind of kind of “regimes of knowledge” required in the central administration of a State. The synoptic ‘view(s)’ of the affairs of State such an approach arrives at, exists not in terms of a perceptual sensitivity to local details, but in terms of single, complete and closed orders of connectedness, represented in various schematic artefacts, that can be ‘looked over’ as aids to planning in a central office.

                    2) The other way in which we can arrive at a comprehensive view, a scenic-sense, of the whole responsive order within which we live and share our lives with others, is through participating in with them all in creating that order - but participating in it in certain special ways that help us to acquire a reflexive awareness of some aspects at least of its nature. Our explorations here have been of that kind: they have been aimed at increasing our awareness of our own involvements in creating, elaborating, and refining such an order. The form of understanding to which involvements give rise is, to repeat, that of a relationally-responsive kind. Unlike the view from the centre, it is a kind of understanding democratically distributed throughout the whole order within which it has its being. It is an understanding of a much ‘fuller’ or ‘deeper’, i.e., more ordered kind, than that given by a system of propositions imposed upon it, externally.


Following Bakhtin (1984), we can call the two approaches respectively, monological and dialogical. As he sees it, in being “finalized and deaf to the other’s response” (p.293), traditional scientific forms of thought and interaction are monologic. They give rise to systemsof thought which can be understood and contained in a single consciousness. Such system is put together, like a machine, out of separate parts, ingeniously related to each other externally. “These ‘no-man’s’ thoughts, faithful to the referential world, are” says Bakhtin (1984), “united in a systematic unity of a referential order. In this systematic unity, thought comes in contact with thought and one thought is bound to another on referential grounds” (p.93). They are not internally related as part of a living, dialogically-structured unity of living, unique individuals.


Bakhtin insists that this monological, systematic notion of knowledge and truth has been mistaken as the only one. In a key passage in his Dostoevsky book (which we quoted in the Preface) he observes:


“It is quite possible to imagine and postulate a unified truth that requires a plurality of consciousnesses, one that in principle cannot be fitted within the bounds of a single consciousness, one that is, so to speak, by its very nature full of event potential and is born at  a point of contact among various consciousnesses. The monologic way of perceiving cognition and truth is only one of the possible ways. It arises only where consciousness is placed above existence, and where the unity of existence is transformed into the unity of consciousness” (Bakhtin, 1984, p.81).


Here, then, there is a unified truth that cannot be captured with a single consciousness, with the head of an individual. Indeed, the fundamental units are no longer separate ‘no-man’s thoughts’, but the idea  - where: “The idea is a live event played out at a point of dialogical meeting between two or several consciousnesses... Like the word, the idea wants to be heard, understood, and ‘answered’ by other voices from other positions” (p.88). Elements of this kind - “voiced-ideas” as live, dialogically-structured events - cannot just be ‘nut-and-bolted’ together into a mechanical system, but are internally related to each other in terms of their event potential, i.e., in terms of the possible responsive relations they might have to each other. Thus, when two such voiced-ideas come into contact with each other in a dialogue conference, they may produce new responses, giving rise to new dialogues and new forms of life. They never result in a “merging of voices and truths in a single impersonaltruth, as occurs in the monologic world” (p.95). Thus, in the resulting dialogues they occasion, the “unity” arrived at is a “felt unity,” not a thought of thought working in terms of a propositional system with a single order of connectedness. Monologic thinkers, on encountering such a felt unity, try to extract just such a finalized system from it, but in so doing, as we have emphasized repeatedly, they render crucial creative events within it invisible.



If this is so, if the basis (the standards) for all our claims to knowledge and to truth are already present to us in the common background flow of spontaneously relational-responsive activity within which we are all embedded, why are we so dogmatically persistent in still seeking such systems of representational-referential knowledge? As we intimated above, the answer can be found, we feel, in the writings both of Toulmin (1990) and of those such as Foucault (1979) and Scott (1998). As Toulmin (1990) remarks, as young academics, we were all trained “to see Modern Science - the intellectual movement whose first giant was Isaac Newton - and Modern Philosophy - the method of reflection initiated by Descartes - as twin founding pillars of modern thought, and prime illustrations of the strict ‘rationality’ on which the modern era has prided itself” (p.ix). Such forms of knowledge, as Toulmin shows, have also served a central function in the disciplinary ordering of societies - indeed, the advantages of a rationally ordered society has been one of the great dreams of modern times. But if a society is to be centrally controlled, then an overall, synoptic, already ordered view of the relevant features requiring control must be available to those at its centre. For such purposes, the kind of detailed familiarity with a thousand and one uniquely local peculiarities and particularities, useful to regional participants seeking unnoticed opportunities for new, resourceful ways of relating themselves to each other and their surroundings (that we have been concerned with here) are useless. Such (potentially resourceful) local knowledge and local know-how, if it departs from the requirements of a centrally planned order, must be eliminated.


However, as Scott (1998) very comprehensively shows: “Designed or planned social order is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order... [And] schematic authoritarian solutions to production and social order inevitably fail when they exclude the fund of valuable local knowledge embodied in local practices” (p.6). Scott focuses on urban planning, rural settlement, land administration, and agriculture. He shows, not only how

maps and other spatial schematisms were developed, which could be ‘laid over’ a region to make its controllable features “readable” in central offices, but how the urge to make a region or a State “legible” often acts back on its natural and social ecology to completely restructure it[3] - often, to render it no longer self-sustaining. As an initial illustration of his point, Scott uses the invention of scientific forestry in late 18thcentury Prussia and Saxony - and in a moment, we will try to show what he illustrates in his use of this example. However, as his account emphasizes the importance of small, local details (as we do, also), we shall find it difficult to do full justice to it here[4].

As economic exploitation of forests became to the fore in the 18th century, ‘wild’ forests, with a diversity of different trees, undergrowth, all manner of animals and insects, were regimented: “The forest trees were drawn up into serried, uniform ranks, as it were, to be measured, counted off, felled, and replaced by a new rank and file of lookalike conscripts... At the limit, the forest itself would not have to be seen; it could be ‘read’ accurately from tables and maps in the forester’s office” (p.15). It took about a century for troubles with such ‘stripped down’ forests to become clear. A new term, Waldsterben (forest death), entered German vocabulary. An exceptionally complicated process involving soil building, nutrient uptake, and symbiotic relations among fungi, insects, mammals, and flora - which were all disrupted, and which are still not all well understood - had, unwittingly, been eradicated by the planting of single-species, simplified, and ‘cleaned up’ forests. The organization of the forest in terms of the production of a single commodity, implacably eliminated everything that was deemed as interfering with that aim. By replacing the forest as a natural habitat with the forest organized solely as an economic resource, to be managed efficiently for profit, the unnoticed ‘ecological capital’ that had been developed and accumulated in the ‘wild’ over many generations, was eliminated within one or two. But the administrator’s forest can never be the ecologist’s forest. Even if the ecological inter-dependencies at work in ‘wild’ forests could all be identified, they would constitute a reality so complexly intertwined and variegated as to defy easy schematic description.


Scott calls the urge to view one’s surroundings indirectly, in terms of such simplified, stripped down, ordered schematisms, thus to render them amenable to being administrated by those in central offices, “seeing like a state.” The dreams that generated such urges and compulsions, originating at the time of Newton and Descartes, assumed, of course, that reality was fundamentally mechanical, and that everything that occurred within it could be understood as a cause-and-effect process. What changes as we move beyond that modernist world, into the world of Bakhtin and Wittgenstein, is that we move from a dead, mechanistic order of one-way cause and effect relations, into a living responsive order of two-way, dialogically-structured relations. As with ‘wild’ forests, these living, responsive, background relations in terms of which we live our everyday lives, have always been there; we do not need, rationally, to create them. Indeed, as Scott (1998) points out: “By themselves,... simplified rules can never generate a functioning community, city, or economy. Formal order, to be more explicit, is always and to some considerable degree parasitic on informal processes, which the formal scheme does not recognize, without which is could not exist, and which it alone cannot create or maintain” (p.310) - but which, to repeat, it can act back upon to destroy.


Like Scott, Putnam (1993) has drawn our attention to the importance of already existing social and civic conditions existing in a region - in its ‘wild’ state, as it were - relevant to creating within it, responsive and effective representative institutions. But rather than ecological capital, Putnam sees the already existing “social capital” (Coleman, 1990), in particular, trust, as crucial. And again, we can note, it is only too easy for formal, administrative procedures - because of their orientation only toward efficient production - not only to eliminate trust, but also to eradicate the conditions conducive to it. Dialogue conferences can help to reinstate those conditions.


Indeed, in their “original” form, conferences seem to have their most important function in the early part of a development process. This is when people’s spontaneously responsive relations to each other can come into prominence. When actors are searching for cooperation partners, interests are identified, initial coalitions considered, and the like, people who would not otherwise meet with each other meet facetoface for an extended period of time. They smile, shake hands, ‘do small talk’, and get a sense of each other as trustworthy, worthwhile people. Participants are offered unique opportunities to acquire an active, responsive understanding of each other that can be acquired in no other way. The initial very basic, living reactions that people have to each other in such conferences are the crucial beginnings from which further, more well articulated relations can be developed[5]. Because of this, because they can work to provide the beginnings for many new kinds of relationships, and networks of relationships, the kind of process upon which the conferences are brought to bear, have been shifting over time. While largely being taken into use by single enterprises and other organizations in the early period, they have more and more come to function as arenas for networking between actors/organizations, recently with a continuously stronger element of regional development added, as represented by the “Learning regions” program in Sweden.



The “Learning Regions” program


In the post World War II era, the economicindustrial pattern of Sweden has been characterised by two major sets of actors: on the one hand a strong “social democratic” state with its bodies and agencies, and on the other a group of large enterprises. Relative to the size of the population of about 8 million, few societies have hosted a comparable group of  industrial enterprises emerging as sizeable even in an international perspective (Volvo, Ericsson, Electrolux, SKF, ABB, Astra, Stora, SCA  and others). Industrialeconomic policies have, directly or indirectly, tended to emerge as a dialectics between these two sets of actors. When in the 1990's, problems hit the Swedish economy, with the emergence of substantial unemployment, the recognition emerged that the statelarge enterprise dialectics was no longer sufficient to keep up the momentum in the economy. Focus moved towards small and mediumsized enterprises and associated sociopolitical contexts, such as the country’s regions.


Taking a region as a framework for industrialeconomic development was, of course, nothing new in the Swedish context. In the earlier phases of the process of industrialisation the regional context was probably more important than the national. Even under the policy umbrella emerging after World War II, there continued to exist numerous links and relationships that could be seen as elements of regional economies. What is new in the present context is that the significance of a regional perspective is being more recognised and that specific efforts to generate regional dynamics are becoming a part of public policies: the “Learning regions” project is a part of  this picture. It is being developed in cooperation between the European Program Office in Sweden (an organization created to organise the Swedish part of the programs initiated by the European Commission) and the National Institute for Working Life.


The program has two main points of departure:


1) The implementation of several of the European development programs such as the Objective 4 program for competence development in small enterprises demands the involvement of several groups of actors, ranging from the labour market parties and to educational and other public institutions. When a large as well as heterogenous collection of small firms is the object of the effort it is necessary to organise the relationships regionally.


2) This is reinforced by many of the relevant public resources also having a local/regional character rather than a “national.” Consequently, what is called “partnerships” have been formed in all the 24 regions into which Sweden is administratively divided to handle policy and advisory functions pertaining to the execution of the European programs.




“Learning regions” conferences


When the European Commission declared 1996 to be “the year of lifelong learning” it was decided to offer a “conference service” to the partnerships and, at the same time, to launch a research and development effort pertaining to how to initiate and promote industrialeconomic development on a regional basis. The first of the series of conferences to emerge out of this initiative occurred in the region of Vasterbotten, one of the geographically very large but thinly populated areas in Northern Sweden; followed by conferences in various settings, ranging from municipalities to new “large” regions, at the time of writing (December 1998) altogether 12  conferences have taken place. Vignettes from some of these conferences and their aftermath are available on a video called “Learning regions” (with subtitles in English, French and German).


Example 1: The Skåne conferences


In the process of establishing regions as political units, the government has initiated several developments where regional authorities take over a number of the politicaladministrative functions previously performed by the state. One of the emergent large regions is Skåne, in Southern Sweden. With Malmø as the capital, the region has a population of 1,2 million. While the emergence of new regional policies and processes is far from linear,  the forward momentum is quite strong in Skåne. The reason is the building of the new bridge across Øresund. This bridge will link this region directly to Copenhagen and to the region surrounding the capital of Denmark. A conscious effort is made to create the first “crossnational”  region in Europe.


Altogether four conferences have been organised as a part of this process. The first of the conferences pertained to economicindustrial issues; the second to transport and ecology; and the third to culture. While the first three conferences were organised on the initiative of the regional government the last one came about upon initiative from people involved in the development programs emanating out of the efforts of the European Commission. While the first three conferences were “Swedish” the fourth had a 5050 mix of Swedish and Danish participants.


How can we make sense here, in this paper, of events “carried in” actions occurring in a conference in a way that readers might usefully “carried over” into their own practices? Overall, a conference is a “mass of words.” On tape, an ordinary conference would be close to 15 hours, distributed on three sequences of group discussions, one hour each, four groups each time, plus three plenary sessions of one half to one hour each. Such a mass cannot in itself function as an instructive example of anything within the context of, say, a paper or other form of written presentation. Consequently, some kind of synoptic presentation is required, selection and abbreviation is necessary. We must, unavoidably move away from the original material. In writing about such material; researchers often try to produce an accurate representation of it: the one true, objective view, exhibiting a single, logical order of connectedness. In so doing they have observed certain criteria, to do with objectivity, repeatability, balance, representativeness, and the like. Here, we shall work in a different, much moreresponsive way: we shall treat the expressions of participants as being uttered by them in response to ‘calls’ coming to them from their context, while seeking in this, a sense of the region as a whole. But rather than an objective view of it as a whole (exhibiting a single, logical order of connectedness), we seek to convey the felt sense of the region as exhibited by the participants in the conferences: for, while they talk of it as offering them various opportunities for development, they also experience it as full of complexities and uncertainties, as presenting various unresolved tensions and dilemmas to them. Let us add also, that in writing here about their expressions in response to anticipated calls coming to them from their context, we also are writing in response to anticipated calls coming to us from our context the academic world of action researchers looking for some pointers from us as to how our work, if valid, might be of use to them. And this too is an influence on us in our fashioning of what we have selected for presentation here.


With these preliminary comments in mind, let us now turn to the Skåne conferences. The first session in all the four conferences in Skåne concerned formulating set of aims or visions for the region. As a point of departure, the session began with the question: “How should Skåne be in 35 years time, to be on its way to a prosperous and ecologically sound region in which to work and live?”


The first group in the first session on the first conference concentrated its plenary report into three main points:


                    It should be the most dynamic region in Sweden

                    It should be established as a “free region” (this is a politicaladministrative concept referring to the possibility of being exempt from more or less of the rules and systems that ordinarily apply to Swedish regions)

                    It should actively utilise internal pluralism


In this answer lies much of what emerged also in other group discussions: the emergence of regions as politicaladministrative and economic units is associated with the creation of a new dynamism; this, in turn, is linked to being allowed to “go outside” the existing system of politics and administration as well as to the ability to utilise internal differences to create and sustain regional dynamics. Differences are, in this context, seen as assets as something that will play a key role in creating a forward momentum.


An element lacking in this answer but which can be constructed from the other group reports is new kinds of external relationships. As a region Skåne can choose to increase its interaction with a number of other regions, in this context the following appeared:


                    Other selected regions in Sweden

                    Copenhagen, with surrounding areas

                    The Baltic states and related areas, such as St.Petersburg

                    Pomerania, the name of a new potential region encompassing areas in Poland and the former Eastern Germany

                    Regions/areas in Western Denmark, Western Germany, etc.

                    The socalled “banana” going from Copenhagen, via Skåne and the Swedish West coast to Southern Norway, with Oslo

                    Other networks and regions since it is no absolute requirement that they are geographical neighbours, i.e. regions further south in Germany or in Italy


Obviously, it will not be possible to develop all these relationships with the same interest and vigour. At the time of the conference they were with an exception for Copenhagen and surroundings possibilities in the relational landscape rather than actualities. Some selections and assignment of priorities will eventually have to take place. An important point to note is that  no effort was done during the conference to achieve this.


The next topic was: “What important hindrances and difficulties do we encounter when making real a (new) vision for Skåne?” The list of hindrances is taken from one of the group reports in the conference on culture:


                    Differences (cultural and otherwise) between different parts of the region

                    Differences between state institutions and regional institutions and actors

                    The process of institutionalisation in general which means that a large number of boundaries, demarcation lines and so on are drawn, such as between  different public agencies, different municipalities, different districts, and so on

                    There is also a “sectorial” problem characterised by a combination of organizational and professional conditions, i.e. “the social sector,” “the economic sector,” and so on.

                    Differences between generations

                    Differences between approaches within the cultural sector itself, i.e.,between those who see culture as a process of continuous creation versus those who see it as primarily maintaining historical objects

                    Lack of integration of culture and politics

                    Politicaladministrative boundary maintenance

                    Lack of recognised collective interests and feelings

                    Loyalty towards one`s own group.


Contrary to what emerged from the discussions of the first theme, differences and pluralism here appear as hindrances, or problems.


The third group discussion focussed on cooperation for development. Their task was: “Propose at least one effort/initiative/project that can improve on  the relationships and cooperation between the actors in the region.” As an example, we take the many proposals offered by one of the conference groups in relation to issues of transport and ecology:


                    Establish a local radio and TVstation.

                    Get more “regional news” into the media.

                    Create new dialogue arenas where representatives of the different types of transport railways, buses, bridges, ferries, roads, and so on meet to discuss cooperation and interplay.

                    Promote better cooperation between the municipalities (there are altogether 33 in the region) in their planning.

                    Improve on cooperation between enterprises/branches and the regional politicaladministrative bodies.

                    Improve on cooperation between the regional authorities and the units within each municipality which are responsible for promotional activities in relation to enterprises and businesses.

                    Improve on cooperation between the regional politicians and the various agencies for environmental protection.

                    Create a system of specific agreements for actors who are willing to undertake concrete responsibilities within the framework of the prevailing plans for protection and improvement of the environment.

                    Coordination of all public transport in terms of connections, travel information, prices and ticket sales.


The hindrances as well as the proposals appear as a list, or a “menu,” rather than as an organised and logically structured “map.” It appears as an “additive” list, which it also is. It reflects contributions from many different people, mediated and adjusted relative to each other in group discussions but to a large extent also added to each other. The point that the list is an addition implies, of course, that not all participants stand equally strongly behind all the points. In fact, it is reason to believe that there are rather far reaching differences between the participants concerning what factors to hold forth and what priority to assign to those factors that appear out of the group discussions. There is, however, also a recognition of the point that if “I am to get my items on the list, others must get their.” A further characteristic of these lists is that they are not highly original almost anyone who is asked to give an overview of hindrances in a regional development process or proposals for improvement could come up with something similar.


After the last group report there was a plenary session where a main point was to decide on coalitions for further work. To some extent such coalitions were present from before since the regional authorities had set down a number of work groups to deal with the various issues and areas that emerge in the process. These groups were generally able to take some of their work one or more steps further during the conference. To some extent new groups were formed to tackle new combinations of topics.


How should we see, or understand, this kind of events? How should we orient ourselves towards them? How should we place or position ourselves in our attempts to make sense of them?


We would be hard put to construct a single, coherent theoretical framework for doing this if we by coherent, were to imply a framework that can link all activities and expressions on the conferences to a single thought, or idea, to link them in terms of a single logical order of connectedness. It may be possible, but it is not easy to see what this order could be, unless we move deep down below the surface of what we can see or hear to look for supposed “underlying structures.”


We might, for instance, see these conferences as extensions of the idea of search conferences (Emery and Emery, 1978). They could be understood as collective processes of searching. But searching for what? On the surface, for a lot different things if we look at the proposals to emerge. In the epistemology behind search conferences there is, however, the assumption that all elements existing in a situation constitute a definable configuration in terms of a “systems pattern” (Emery, 1981). One may imagine that the process is a search for this pattern. Then, however, we assume a relationship between what we can see or hear on the one hand and something which is radically hidden on the other, and can only be known indirectly through the inferences suggested by a theory. The problem with the radically hidden is, that as something hidden, it is never possible to know whether it has been fully characterized in one’s theories, whether crucial details of it still remain hidden, and so on. Indeed, its nature is only ever known to us in terms a whole range of prior assumptions is its basic nature structured in mechanical, organic, or system terms? Some researchers find this approach perfectly acceptable. We, however, do not.


Primarily, our reason for rejecting it is that, rather than wanting as outsider observers to see what is “really going on,” as possible coparticipants the conferences outlined above, we want to come to a grasp of what people are “trying to achieve” within them. We want to grasp the use of such discourses to those involved in them. What purposes can be served by a number of people expressing more or less disparate views, goals and preferences to each other?


Clearly, participants were not concerned with arriving at a set of general hindrances for regional development and a priority list for how to deal with them, but were coming to their own detailed understanding of each other in relation to these issues as “landmarks.” In their discussions of these issues, besides revealing where they stood in relation to them, they were all also revealing to each other many detailed facts about themselves facts which will enable them to orient towards each other much more easily in the future as new, yet unforeseen projects emerge between them.

The conference process provides arenas for exhibiting, presenting, or expressing oneself. The setting is a regional development process, and one point of rather obvious importance for each of the participants, is to set forth “who they are.” This can, of course, be done through stating name and address and work role. Another way in which to do it is, however, to make a statement in terms of what regional development or developments one would like to strive for. A participant who declares that “we need more and better education in Skåne” sends a signal to the other participants, namely that “I am interested in working to improve education in Skåne.” Why declare such an interest? Again a  rather obvious reason is to find other people who might be willing to share the interest. Such sharing can be done on the basis of parallelity  or ofcomplementarity: one may find others who are also interested in education with whom they can join forces; they may also, however, find others interested in complementary topics and relationships they may, for instance, team up with someone interested in industrial development and associated competence problems, or with a planner interested in “the sociology of education” as a part of, say, physical planning in the region. There are numerous such possibilities.


Simply by being present at a conference, it is easy to see how important just this search for “coalition or collaboration partners” is. The participants find themselves in a phase where new alliances are to be formed, new project groups put together, new networks launched. For each participant it is of major importance to “position oneself” in this context. From this perspective the organization of the conference, with successive groups, differently mixed each time, broken by plenaries, coffee sessions and so on, allowing people to “move around,” seem to be optimal. What such a conference design optimizes, is just this possibility of learning to find one’s “way about” in the region the criterion Wittgenstein (1953) suggests is an indicator of grasp (or lack of grasp) of practical knowledge. We lack the appropriate practical knowledge in a particular sphere if we find ourselves “stuck” and unable to “go on,” without the next step being clear to us. As we have already suggested, regional development can be viewed as a vast “relationallandscape” of actors and activities that is extremely difficult to grasp and overview. The conferences allow a selection of the actors to meet and to let them learn more about each other. “Learning about each other” is, however, not so much learning who we are “in ourselves” a topic to be left with those interested in the psychodynamic aspects of group processes as learning about “the relational terrain” presented to us by the others around us. When a participant from education meets, say, a businessman, the point is that both get to know more about, respectively, education and business, with a view to seeing how they can become better linked and interrelated.


Each participant not only brings along an interest, he or she also carries various unique lived experiences, often expressible in terms of brief but crucial moments which have changed their lives. How might such experiences be dealt with in these conferences?  As an illustration a part of a group discussion is reproduced, in a simplified form. The discussion pertains to public transport, the participants is one regional traffic planner (C)  and two people who in this context represent general interests but no specific knowledge of the field (A and B):


Person A: There is a need to work out a plan for integrated public transport in the (new) region.


Person B: What issues need to be considered?


Person A: Redistribution of traffic in favour of public transport is the core one.


Person B: To achieve this we will need better integration between different types of means trains,

     buses, ferries etc. as well as between, say, different bus lines.


Person A: We probably also need a unified  ticket system covering all public transport in the region

     where all ticket offices sell tickets to all public transport.


Traffic planner C: Agreed, but there are some problems. For instance, the two districts (out of which

     the new region is formed) pursued a somewhat different policy in this field: “ one going for

     high frequencies and high quality but also high prices while the other had more of a low cost

     profile. They do not automatically fit together


Person B: The policies need to be integrated, preferably around the high quality alternative which is

      more consistent with the most recent view on public transport.


Traffic planner C: Again, agreed, but not all patterns in the high quality district are easy to carry on

      and some may be counterproductive. For instance, in utilizing continuously more outoftheway

      land for housing development the politicians have often met the demand for access to public

      transport by letting existing bus lines take a detour. When this is done a number of times the line

      becomes like a corkscrew. Travel time becomes too long, people shift to cars and expensive buses

      are running empty.


Person A: The quality concept must cover travel time as well.


Traffic planner C: Often, this implies a shift in priorities, with corresponding reductions in other areas.


Person B: There is obviously a need for discussion, not least of priorities


Traffic planner C: But where?  Public transport is also a municipal issues of these we have 33 in the

      region. A decision by the regional government is not enough.


Person A: How to reach the municipal authorities?


Person B: Maybe we could organise conferences where, for instance, four municipalities could meet

    each other at the time, say, two who represent the high pricehigh quality line and two from

    the lowcost proponents?  Then they could work out something on this level and we could

    proceed from there.


In this conversation, the planner knows more than the others. His knowledge is, however, played in dialogically, as responses to a particular flow of conversation. He does not hold a long monologue, nor does he deliver a report. He makes points according to what emerges in the conversation. It  will be remembered that group discussions generally last for about one hour on each topic, and that there is a number of participants in each group (as many as 10, although 56 is more common). Given a principle of equality, this leaves a very narrow time frame for presenting experiences if, that is, they are meant as “full and well presented cases” serving as the background for the discussion. Indeed, there is a world of a difference between the “thick descriptions” argued for by Geertz (1983) and the sketchy presentations allowed each actor in a development conference.


A further point is that the complexities of the issue are unravelled in conversation A and B starts with the assumption that regional traffic can be dealt with in terms of traditional policy but end, in the light of the complexities (which in actual practice are far higher than illustrated by the example), with proposing a process.


This is a further point of significance inviting people to open discussions in dialogue form tends to lead them to propose the same procedure also for others.


While the formation of new relationships are at the core, they are not constructed in the abstract. Discussions leading to new relations have a content and the dynamics of the discussion of the content plays an important role as moving force in the generation of new relationships. In this sense, new relationships are linked to “new ideas” about what to do. However: what kind of new ideas tend to emerge in these events?


In the Vasterbotten conference (the first of the series, also present on the “Learning regions” video) two of the major issues were the problems of achieving development through the “prioritizing” of public efforts  and, secondly, the problem of arenas and meeting places for people working in the public institutions. It must be remembered that this is a thinly populated region with a traditional dependence on state driven regional policies for its survival and growth. During the conference it was, however, repeatedly mentioned that these policies were subject to some major limitations: To function as engines in modern development processes  it was argued that they should  function in support of certain “growth areas” within the region such as the regional capital Umeå. This, however, had proved difficult since the use of public resources is subject to strong demands for equal distribution: instead of being able to focus on some points with potential for growth the people working in the support system felt they had to distribute the resources in such a way that all parts of the region got an equal share. Then however, the growth potential became limited. A second thoroughgoing topic in the discussions was the need for more and better arenas for discussions between the agents of the various public policies and programs. The existing system for generation and execution of policies was seen as traditional, with a main emphasis on vertical relations and administrative rules and responsibilities. A need for more horizontal relationships focussing on other dimensions, such as coordination, exchange of experiences and the development of crossinstitutional policies was identified as more important in creating a “learning region”. If new arenas could be created it was thought possible to overcome some of the limitations of traditional regional policies.


In this example, the “new ideas”  pertain to relationships. They emerge out of a recognition of the limitations of existing regional policies; limitations that were widely recognized long before this conference but which emerge in a sharp and pointed form when people responsible for different public efforts and programs can meet and exchange experience. The ideas as such centre on “improving relationships”; a point strongly related to the experiences emerging during the conference. A number of the participants had been working in “neighbouring institutions” for years without ever meeting each other, far less having had the opportunity of discussing with each other. The conference experience demonstrated the advantages of this kind of discussion arena where they can relate to each other and respond, directly and across the table, to each other.


In this example, relationships between public institutions are at the centre. More or less, this is the case in all conferences. However, in all conferences the relationships between the public and the private sector constitute a core topic. It is generally recognised that a “learning region” is something that needs to be created jointly, through new forms of efforts and cooperation between all kinds of actors (in line, by the way, with what is today a general point in the literature on regions). Regional development is an issue that can not be fruitfully approached through “pure market liberalism” nor through “politics and public intervention” only. The actors have to open the door to each other; they have to see possibilities for contact and cooperation where they previously saw dividing lines and separation of tasks as the main principles of organisation. When numerous doors have to be opened simultaneously, they can not lead into the same old corridor. The terrain between the doors has to be restructured, the frequent mention of the need for “new arenas” pertain to this issue.


Numerous parallel examples could be offered.  They all demonstrate the relationalresponsive nature  of the process . Its various outcomes emerge as something generated in a process where issues, problems, experiences and ideas emerge are created in interaction. Four points are important in this context:


A:                1) It will be remembered that high among the orientational directives we presented for establishing democratic dialogues, was the idea that talk of work experience should be a point of departure for those participating, that people should talk as much as possible in terms of their own inner sense of a concrete lived experience.

B:                 2) In talk of this kind, rather than competing to offer a “lighthouse” example to which everyone should orient, each unique experience contributes to everyone’s sense of the relationalstructure of the larger terrain to which all belong. This means that each experience/case can be fed dialogically into the development process as appropriate moments within it arise. Indeed, as already mentioned, as relationallyresponsive events (Shotter, 1993), the dialogues emerging in the conference take on a “life of their own.” They call participants into a joint activity in which each senses that the point is to help “the development process” to move on. And it is the development process, with “its” own requirements, which moves to the fore, and people then feed their experiences into it according to their sense of what, at any one moment, is needed by the process. The stories they tell have their relevance in the moment in the unfolding process of conference, and taken all altogether, they each offer a resource that all the others involved will be able, at some time or other, to drawn upon in their lives also.

C:                3) This leads to the point that the significance of a story or a case does not lie in its “mass” or in its level of detail, but in its relationship to other such stories or cases. Relationally, a case is a case only when seen in the light of other cases. It is only by playing a number of cases into the discourse, each related to the next by being spontaneously occasioned by the telling of a previous story, that the characteristics and meaning of each contribution can emerge. The interrelating of such lived experiences into a meaningful whole is important in creating “resourceful communities” (Shotter and Katz, 1996; Katz and Shotter, 1996). The point is not to tell such stories in the hope that someone will learn something when “the whole story is told” (Palshaugen, 1996), but to interrelate a mass of small but crucial details of the region into a dynamic, scenic sense of the whole region.

D:                4) It is just the ability of dialogicallystructured processes to pull the participants together and steer their activities in certain directions in this way, that make them into what seems to be a successful step in network development, regional development, and the like where the efforts of many have to be brought into some kind of interplay with each other.


The ongoing, neverending “roadshow” character of the conferences is also of importance in this context: from the early days of the Norwegian agreement on enterprise development, and up to and including the learning region programme, the conferences played into processes that were by way of emerging, that were continuously in process. They were not used to create process from zeropoint where no forces, no actors are present. Furthermore, they were located within specific sociogeographical contexts to help promote processes in just this context. This means that “lighthouse conferences,” organized centrally to point out “new directions,” are not a part of this kind of thinking: the idea of letting some who have seen the light give keynote talks to the rest of us, who are then expected to embark on a completely new course, is anathema to the kind of development we present here. It is a type of event built on a wholly different epistemology, and a wholly different notion of what constitutes a fruitful strategy for change.


However, for the dialogue conferences to play a role, they not only need a “before”, they also need an “after”. They need to be part of an ongoing process, that not only builds on events occurring before the conferences, but continues after the conference in a form that is stronger, that is much more well articulated, both in practice and conceptually. To illustrate these aspects of the process, the development in Western Småland will be used.


Example 2: “Before” and “after”:  the Western Småland conference


For conferences of the kind discussed here to have important functions, they need to enter an already ongoing stream of events: there must be a “before” as well as an “after.” While this is, on the one hand, rather obvious, it is not quite so obvious what the relationships are: How are the events before and after a conference related? If, for instance, we take the 450 or so conferences that were organised under the LONHO development agreement in Norway in the 80s, those who worked with this agreement (including one of the authors of this paper) were able to identify 20 to 30 enterprises where more substantial effects could be seen to emerge out of the conferences, depending on how we more specifically define the effects. If we imagine “organizational development” to be a process of transformation, with the single enterprise as the unit of change, and the process of transformation to be characterized as successful to consist in a chain of events with a high degree of “causeeffect” relationship between them, these conferences did not have much of an “after” since little happened in the great majority of organisations. However, towards the end of the period quite a number of the enterprises launched development efforts or expanded those that were already ongoing (Gustavsen, 1998a). These developments emerged as simultaneous movements in a larger population of enterprises, more or less in the same way as developments in Sweden that led, in the first half of the 1990s, to the emergence of 25 000 projects under the umbrella of the Swedish Working Life Fund (Gustavsen et al 1996). In other words: the enterprises involved seemed to be driven by their relations to each other, more than by their own internal processes. Insofar as we want to identify anything resembling “causeeffect” relationships they seem to take the form of crosssectional movements rather than linear series of events.


But could a conference held in, say, 1986, have any significance for a process emerging in 1990? In most cases what the enterprises say is that the conference had its points but there were things lacking at the time that blocked the emergence of a development process. Later, however, when conditions were changed, it became possible to utilise the conference. And what they utilized, was not so much the specific points and conclusions created at the time, as the mode of work represented by the conference: the practice of creating relations and networks of relations.


It was actually experiences of this kind that led into the learning regions program since it could be seen that the emergence of development processes was linked primarily to new relationships within each organisation in combination with new relationships between organisations.


Returning to the “learning regions” program, the most clearly featured example of a “before” and an “after” is Western Småland. The centre of this region the municipality of Gnosjø is well known in Sweden as an entrepreneurial culture. With a population of 10,000 this community has 350 industrial enterprises; employment in industry is still more than 60 % and unemployment is close to zero. During the difficult first half of the 1990s, when unemployment exploded in Sweden, this community kept growing and ranks as number one of all Swedish municipalities in terms of growth in wages received by the inhabitants (only about 15 out of Sweden’s 288 municipalities had a growth in wages in this period) . Number two was Gislaved, a neighbouring municipality and quite high on the list was also Varnamo. Together with Vaggeryd these communities constitute Western Småland with a population of 80, 000 on most indicators, economically speaking, the most successful region in Sweden. In socioeconomic terms the boundaries do not correspond exactly to the administrative boundaries. Rather, Gnosjø can be seen as the centre of a set of powerful industrialeconomic forces which spread out to encompass the surrounding communities. While this culture has on the whole generated small and mediumsized enterprises it has also hosted some firms that have grown large and multinational: the most well known being IKEA, the furniture dealer.


According to the studies done over the years of this culture (Johannisson XXXX), historically, it is an almost perfect manifestation of Max Weber’s protestant ethic as a force in capitalism: with a strong lay church movement to link people to each other, the culture has emphasised independence, thriftiness, entrepreneurship and personal autonomy. In addition, however, a key to its success has also been a traditional stress on the value of mutual help and support, on “working together:” new entrepreneurs have received support rather than hostility, enterprises have shared business opportunities with each other. The dominant branches have been metal, plastics and furniture. Traditionally, most of the products have been simple and the use of education and knowledge in development of products and processes limited, although, of course, with exception. The institutions of higher education that surround the region such as in Gothenburg, Vaxjø and Jønkøping have been seen as remote. While the enterprises have taken care of their employees and on the whole received loyalty and motivation, the patterns of organization have also held a fairly strong element of paternalism. The simple products have tended to make work operations simple as well, creating a certain amount of stress and strain of the type generally associated with Taylorism.


During the 1990s, pressure started to mount. Many factors contributed, such as the movement towards more complex products with a higher knowledge element and the ensuing need for small enterprises to cooperate to ensure contracts. The growing significance of modern systems for logistics and quality control, combined with new demands for flexibility and customer orientation, generated a need for new approaches to internal organization and new demands for learning and competence. While the enterprises to some extent started to grapple with the new challenges individually, they did, in line with their own tradition, rather soon turn to the idea of working together. However, in the new context, they had to reconsider who had to be included in the network. It was recognised that the old type entrepreneurial network had to be broadened and supplemented with new types of actors, for instance, those representing research and education. Only by creating new types of links would it be possible to build new elements into the evolutionary dynamics of Småland[6].


The actor group to become operative in the first phase of the new context, was not in fact the established entrepreneurs, but the regional partnership created around EUprograms, in particular, around the Objective 4 program. This partnership covers much more than Western Småland, and includes regional union and employer representatives, representatives from education and other public bodies and institutions. The partnership, in other words, already carried some degree of resemblance to the type of pattern Western Småland had to move towards. Also, at the same time, the municipality of Gnosjø had taken an initiative to establish a socalled Industrial Development Centre (IUC), with 69 enterprises, some regional units of the Metalworkers’ union, and itself, as the Centre’s owners (Brulin 1999). Such IUCs have emerged out of an initiative from the Ministry for Economic Development, which provides state support for them. (At the moment, there are about 10, and more are under establishment.).


It was at this stage that the conference entered the process. The major outcome was an agreement to link the new IUC then under development to the task of creating new patterns of cooperation and entrepreneurship in Western Småland. Originally, the IUCs were intended to support small firms in product development, rather than undertake social or organizational functions. Gnosjø IUC, however, came to emerge at a crucial time in the new process of organisational reconstruction. Headed by a member of one of the entrepreneurial families in the region, it was decided to let the new centre focus strongly on building new bridges, links, and relationships: between enterprises, including new groups of enterprise actors, such as the engineers and union representatives; between the enterprises and research and education; and between these groups and the various public authorities that are involved in promoting industrialeconomic development. The significance of this way of utilising the new centre can be found in the need, mentioned previously, for new arenas, where new patterns of contact and cooperation can be maintained and further developed. To create a region, it is insufficient to only link existing institutions. There is a terrain “between” these institutions and there must be actors also on this terrain.


At the time of writing this paper, the new process is on its way. Along the road various results are beginning to emerge: A core project is the further development of the suppliercustomer type of relationship between enterprises. New relationships are being created to the surrounding institutions in Research and Education. Another example is a set of rapidly developing links between Gnosjø IUC and European development coalitions. The contacts with, for instance, the Italian regions (Tuscany, EmiliaRomagna, and Veneto) are already fairly strong and similar links are being forged in relation to other European actors such as in Germany. Two seminars one in June 1997, the other in November 1998 have been held between actors from Western Småland,  Lower Saxony and EmiliaRomagna.  In spite of the substantial differences in background, fruitful discussions are emerging. Through the kind of process unfolding in these discussions it becomes possible for the participants to learn from differences; to enrich their own understanding of themselves through looking at what they do in the light of what others do. In this way, regional dynamics is promoted mot by a theory defining “the best pattern” but through the active use of differences. With support form the European Commission`s ADAPT program, Gnosjø IUC was ranked as the best regional development effort within this program in 1998.


Some further “points of orientation”   comments on the “before” and “after” of  conferences:


Conferences or for that matter other kinds of “single event” cannot be used to create relational processes from zeropoint, from the ground up;  they can only work to refine and elaborate incipient forms of communal life already emerging. They take already existing, relationallyresponsive beginnings, and work to articulate them further, both in practice and discursively. In this case, the elements constituting these phases the early beginnings as well as the later articulations developed from them are clearly visible, and even (as to an extent illustrated above) well documented. It may, however, be worth while asking why this conference functioned as well as it did.


As repeatedly pointed out, the formation of new social relationships are at the core of regional development. In the Western Småland case it was, in particular, the extension of the network carrying entrepreneurial functions that was placed in focus, but from such a point of departure most aspects of regional development will soon follow. In this kind of process, the ability to “find their way” in new contexts and creating contexts as one goes along becomes the major issue. The emergence of the new IUC, however, gave this process a focal point: a future event that could be used as a reference point by all involved. Rather than traditional planning issues, like what branches or enterprises should be given priority when the centre moved into its operational phase, the overall core theme of the conference was the regional organizational role of the Centre a theme to which everyone involved could contribute, and in terms of which those involved could build coalitions. Branch and enterprise priorities were avoided since they easily create zerosum games and associated strife and conflict between the participants. In other words, the conference was successful in that orientation towards the Centre worked, first and foremost, to orient all involved towards the overall regional context, to locate each actor and his or her agenda straightaway in a new context in relation to possible coalition partners. The strength of a regional development organization or network is not necessarily that it is smarter than the individual actor or organization, but that it encompasses more actors and enables the development of resourceful relations between them. Thus, more ground can be covered, more experiences can be played into the process, learning by differences can be enhanced, and , above all, everyone can gain.


Historically speaking, the Småland culture has harboured the development of a number of different enterprises, branches, and valuegeneration chains. If the social conditions for successful formation and development of enterprises are present “before” a dialogue conference, these conditions can help to “pull” a number of different constellations of interests and actors together, into relation, in the conference. Should such conditions be lacking, however, few efforts will be successful irrespective of their abstract qualities. To repeat a theme that has been implicit in everything above, all the developments we have discussed have been refinements, elaborations, or further articulations of already existing activities and practices. And as such, rather than being founded in abstract principles and being rationally built from the ground up, they do not entail the putting into practice or discovering of any new ideas. They merely entail the bringing into new relationships of much that already exists within (and between) regions.



Concluding remarks


Raymond Williams (1977) characterizes the shared structure that gives “a shape” to life among a group of people constituting a community as a “structure of feeling.” He suggests that such a term is necessary to avoid the habitual tendency to talk of social life in the past tense, for, we must be “concerned with meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt... We are talking about characteristic elements of impulse, restraint, and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in living and interrelating continuity” (p.132). And he continues to characterize a community’s structure of feeling in a way very relevant to the purpose of dialogue conferences in enabling a region to become a selfresearching and selfdeveloping region, i.e., a learning region: For “it is a structured formation which, because it is at the very edge of semantic availability, has many of the characteristics of a preformation, until specific articulations new semantic figures are discovered in material practice” (p.134). It is precisely in the material practice of a regional dialogue conference that such specific articulations new semantic figures (not of a theoretical but of a practical kind) can be “creatively discovered” in bringing into public visibility already existing, but previously unnoticed, relations.


When focussing on “events occurring in the discourse” rather than on “hidden realities” that the discourses are supposed to be “about”, not only new issues but also new material options (possibilities) emerge in terms of how such events are responded to and understood. In people’s living relations to one another, it is not their general, theoretical understanding that matters, i.e., their representationalreferential understanding, but their relationalresponsive understandings of the unique details of their region, a matter of their practical rather than their reflective consciousnesses. And, as each detail is spontaneously enunciated in a dialogue conference in a responsive, living relation to a just previously enunciated detail, participants are able to sense the link of each to the other, and to link them all into a dynamic, living, scenicsense of the region as a whole. This practical understanding of their region, from within their involvement in it, is of a kind quite different to that usually articulated in our academic analyses. As we have already noted, such analyses are usually of a retrospective, objective, and disinterested kind. While the accounts we have offered here are of a prospective, relational, interested kind, in that they focus on quite particular, relational possibilities for the actual future development of a region. And furthermore, the possibilities we focus on are of a kind that the participants in the region themselves understand; they are an aspect of their own practical consciousness; they know how “to relate” to them. Thus it is in their power to articulate them further, both linguistically and materially.


If we imagine that a regional discourse should be “about” a regional action plan, everything that does not pertain to issues, priorities, and so on, within this plan, could easily be seen as a waste of time and effort. All the activities we have mentioned above, like people simply “getting to know each other,” “making relationships,” “swapping stories about life events,” “finding one’s way about inside the region,”“finding coalition partners,” and so on, would seem to be mere social niceties that should be indulged in only for leisure purposes or, at best, preliminaries to be followed by the “real settlements” of plans and priorities. If we believe, however, that the social organization of the regional actors is an important prerequisite for what kind of action can at all emerge, all these “trivialities” come to acquire a major significance. For these issues can only be dealt with in dialogicallystructured processes which fashion these trivialities into a meaningful whole, and this process of “social construction” conducted by all the participants between them becomes the leading element in the formation of the region. It is perhaps difficult to accept the importance of these seemingly trivial details, but they are of the essence.


In regional development processes of this kind, the actors must, by definition, be many and diverse. However, in actual practice there will be a sequence of dialogues and a range of arenas, rather than a single meeting in one place. Thus, in understanding discourses of this kind we also face a major problem of “mass:” many voices talk in many contexts. This confronts us again with the temptation to cut corners, and to try to reduce the detailed effort required by implementing what we think (according either to past experience or theoretical considerations) will be a sufficient or ideal dialogue like the especially picked samples in survey research or the “model situations” often described in action research. But again it is important to note that, if our task is to promote the understanding of the dynamics of regional development amongst those who must conduct it, the relevant dialogue conferences cannot be reduced to a dialogue between a “you and I.” nor to processes in a handful of groups that are thought to in some way or another represent all groups in the region. We cannot, by identifying characteristics of the dynamics of dialogues between ideal type actors, catch the main aspects of a dialogue conference appropriate to the promotion of regional development. The temptation to reduce the establishing of conferences to a technique, structured in terms of a few central foundational principles is very great. But it must be resisted. The point about a regional development, is just that each actor has to relate to a whole “mass” of other actors in a precise and detailed way, and this is only possible if the unique and particular differences between the elements in the mass can be articulated, if they can be displayed in public space. A mass in this sense can only be understood “on the surface;” its surface is what constitutes the manifestation of the mass as a “relational landscape” of previously unrecognized “relationalresources.” The dialogue conferences, like those applied within the “learning regions” program which we have outlined here, are intended to fit into this kind of situation.


As all this may sound to many as if we have abandoned the grand aims of science far too easily, we would like to offer these final comments: As the kind of research we have been discussing here is only a partner in the development processes of region (not the director!), this kind of research has to relate to the same dynamic scenicsense of the region as that shared by all the other participants involved. As a consequence, we have not sought, nor do we think that the possibility exists, to go deeply into all discourses to reduce them to one single kind of ideal type discourse. Indeed, if the dialogues in question are to remain “democratic dialogues,” this must not and cannot be our aim. For the essence of a democratic dialogue is, we believe, that it is only structured as such by all those within it bringing to bear from within its conduct what “orientational directives” they, at any one moment feel are appropriate to its democratic conduct. In other words, rather than being based on externally imposed, prior, abstract “organizing principles,” formulated by supposed experts on the basis of their reasoning or experience, we believe that regional participants must also develop a set of “orientational directives” appropriate to their own historical, geographic, economic, social, and political conditions. As one of the voices in such dialogues, the directives we have offered here are not offered as finally definitive of what a ‘proper’ democratic dialogue is we, like many others in a region, can only make offers which, in relation to a region’s needs can be taken by others in the region as a possible “resource.” Thus, we cannot take our main task to be that of creating an abstract, representational understanding of the “hidden meanings” that participants themselves are unaware of, for they are located “deeply beyond the surface” of their lives. We cannot take our ultimate aim to be that of providing themwith our “organizing principles.” We feel that we must stick with what we can hear and see and place from within the kinds of involvements that we can have as a interested partners in a region’s development. And offer what help we can as academics and intellectuals with some practice in linguistic and conceptual issues in creating sensible patterns among the events we can hear and see and place, with as little use of intervening principles as possible.




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 [1]. “Knowledge is in the end based on acknowledgment” (Wittgenstein, 1969, no.378).

[2]. Merleau-Ponty (1964) talks of the intertwining that occurs thus: “There is double or crossed situating of the visible in the tangible and that tangible in the visible; the two maps are complete yet they do not merge into one. The two parts are total parts and yet not superimposable” (p.134).

[3]. Scott (1998) puts it this way: “The shorthand tools through which... officials must apprehend reality are not mere tools of observation. By a kind of fiscal Heisenberg principle, they have the power to transform the facts they take note of” (p.47).


[4]. As an example of Scott’s emphasize on the importance of the small details of local knowledge, we can cite the following example: While the World Bank wants to make its loans dependent on the adoption of ‘scientific’ methods of agriculture, including the general and indiscriminate use of insecticides, Scott (1998, p.333) reports the following episode, to do with the elderly head of a household (Mat Isa) in Malaysia ridding the family Mango tree of red ants, which destroyed most of the Mongos before they could ripen: For a number of weeks, Mat Isa laid the thin curled up leaves of the nipah palm tree around in strategic places in the village. He knew that black ant queens would lay their eggs in the leaves. When he had accumulated masses black-ant eggs beginning to hatch. He then laid the leaves at the base of the Mango tree. Black ants are the enemies of red ants, but do not destroy the Mangos. The Mango crop was saved.

[5]. As Wittgenstein (1980) notes: “The origin and the primitive form of the languagegame is a reaction; only form this can more complicated forms develop” (p.31).

[6]. This idea was not in fact new, one of the authors of this paper had occasion to help create a networkoriented project to forge new links to the R&D system and the labour market authorities in the 1980s. This early effort, however, was premature, as the pressures for new patterns were still too weak (Gustavsen, 1992, pp.8892).