Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

1946

The T-Group brings a participatory approach to workplace training

The Training Group, often referred to as the T-Group, began its evolution in 1946 and significantly changed adult education in the workplace.  It can be argued that the focus on skill improvement and training in the areas of communications, conflict management, group work, etc., represented the first time an educational component was deemed as an integral part of the work environment.  With the development of the T-Group, the concepts of "learning and change" took root and today, as a result, are embedded in adult learning and organizational practice (Laiken, 2002).

The birth of the T-Group was an accident. Its inception came in the summer of 1946, at State Teachers College in Connecticut, where a workshop was being held in efforts to develop local leaders. The training leaders of the workshop were Kenneth Benne, Leland Bradford, and Ronald Lippett.  The researchers were Kurt Lewin and Ronald Lippet along with three graduate students acting as research-observers. The workshop's members were mainly comprised of teachers and social workers along with a mix of individuals from other professions.  They were chosen with the goal of facilitating understanding and compliance among the community with a newly created statute called the Fair Employment Practices Act.  

The structure of the workshop divided participants into three small groups. Each of the groups focused on the analysis of the participant's individual back-home problems that they brought to the table through discussion and role playing techniques. Each researcher was assigned to a group in order to observe the interactions and behaviour that occurred throughout the discussion session.  It was originally planned that after each session the researchers and team leaders would meet in order to discuss, analyze and interpret the recorded observations. However, when participants expressed an interest in sitting in on these observation sessions, they too were included in the analysis process.

As a result of this open discussion and feedback, it was recognized that when participants contributed observations based on reflections of their own behaviour, they became energized.  The researchers noted this and found that much learning was derived through these sessions.  From this experience, participatory groups became regarded as a powerful tool in training programs. It was found that “understandings and skills of participation can be learned validly only through processes of participation in which the learner is involved” (Bradford, Gibb, Benne, 1964). Therefore, in this new type of training, group participants were led by a facilitator and encouraged to use data collected from their own interactions and reactions to one another in order to develop themselves. 

The idea of the T-Group was built upon and modified several times in laboratory settings in the following years to come.  It became a popular vehicle for training and skills development even though glaring deficiencies were found in the T-Group’s practical application. While much learning was derived from these groups, it was found that the knowledge gained in the laboratory environment was not transferable to the workplace. Participants, who had received valuable insights from these training sessions, were often left frustrated and angered by the process when it was discovered that their learning could not be utilized and put into practice in their every day lives.

Although this raised serious questions around the practicality of the T-Group process and propelled the exploration of other, more transferable, training and development methods, the T-Group was revolutionary in adult education and organizational development because of its social-psychological approach to organizations. It was a successful method because with the birth of the T-Group came the conception of the human element in the workplace. After several years of Taylorism (scientific management of labour), it was recognized for the first time that group dynamics and self-actualization were a potent determinant of productivity and job satisfaction.  This concept still holds true in today's workplace and as a result, many companies have instituted several of the basic tenets that evolved from the T-Group, ranging from feedback through performance evaluations to greater worker participation through flattened hierarchies and learning organizations.

Since its modest beginning in 1946, the T-Group theory and practice has grown considerably, significantly affecting organizational design and training programs. More and more organizations are implementing quality circles and quality improvement processes. These programs have evolved out of the T-Group because they utilize small groups of employees to analyse their work and suggest improvements to quality and productivity.  However, in its current use these groups are not formulated in an isolated laboratory; instead, they have been integrated into the system as “parallel organizations” (Mohram et al. 1989). These “parallel organizations” allow that the richness and creativity that flows out of the small group experience is not only relevant to the organization and to individual’s growth, but it is also transferable and can be implemented into different areas the system.

References:

Bradford, Leland. Gibb, Jack. Benne, Kenneth. (1964) T-Group Theory and Laboratory Method. John Wiley and Sons.

Laiken, Marilyn.(2002) Organizations and the Adult Educator: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on Organization Development. Manuscript. OISE/UT.       

Mohrman, Allan et al.(1989) Large Scale Organizational Change.  Jossey-Bass Publications.

Prepared by Ilana Zbar (OISE/UT)

2002

Citation: Author (2002). Title. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  http://fcis.oise.utoronto.ca/~daniel_schugurensky/assignment1/  (date accessed).

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Last updated on January 03, 2003.