Tiny House
More About The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation • Join Now!
Community News

Search Conference

A search conference is a large-group task-oriented ‘conversation’ (Emery & Purser 1996). Search conferences emphasize face-to-face interaction among stakeholders to create a new community. The process of meeting and discussion engenders new ideas. The venue and seating plan of the conference are designed to engender conversation and good relationship building.

Here’s how Barbara Bunker and Billie Alban describe a Search Conference in their book The Handbook of Large Group Methods:

“The Search Conference, developed by Fred and Merrelyn Emery (Emery and Purser, 1996), is a two-and-one-half-day conference for 35 to 40 participants who are members of a system. Diverse groups work together in discussions that scan the current environment and understand it, examine their history as a system, assess the present situation, and agree on a future. One-third of the time of the conference is devoted to planning for actions that will allow them to realize the future they have agreed that they want. In the model, conflict is acknowledged but not dealt with at length. The emphasis is on finding what is held in common and can be agreed to by all as the basis for proceeding.”

Search conferences have been used to help organizations to merge when they have differing visions and to bring together trade experts to develop curricula based on their tradecraft and skills. In a community setting, search conferences have allowed ‘ordinary’ citizens to use their local knowledge in developing plans for economically depressed regions.

Search conferences are held over one or more full days, during which participants explore ambiguity and difference in the interests of forwarding research and action.


  • Search conferences seek future plans or visions that are practical and implementable for an organization, community or environment.


  • The search conference will identify specific actions which must be taken. Empowering the people responsible to make these changes allows search conferences to produce much more useful results than standard strategic planning methods www.ccnr.net/searchconf/search.htm.


  • Develops creative and achievable strategies.
  • Produces collaborative and participative approaches.
  • Generates consensus.
  • Develops shared values.
  • Develops commitment to strategies formulated.
  • Combines formulation and implementation.
  • Integrates cultural, regional and/or value differences.
  • Achieves completion of a task in two or three days (and sometimes evenings) that would take months if left to specialized analysts and experts. (http://www.buzzblick.com/search.htm)

Special considerations/weaknesses:

  • Focus is on learning, not teaching.
  • Conflict and differences are acknowledged, but not dealt with.
  • Equal status of participants is supported.
  • Personal commitment and ownership are emphasized.
  • Self-managing teams are used.
  • Shared meaning is developed.
  • Can be logistically challenging.
  • Can be time consuming (2-3 days).

Resources required:

  • Publicity
  • Venue rental
  • Catering
  • Staffing
  • Engagement of moderator/facilitator
  • Engagement of experts
  • Recorders
  • Gophers
  • Artists/photographer
  • Audiovisual recording equipment and amplification
  • Overhead projectors
  • Data projectors
  • Video
  • Slide projector/screen
  • Printed public information sheets
  • Response sheets
  • Props for working in groups (pens, paper, pins, etc.)
  • Furniture

Can be used for:

  • Engage community
  • Develop community capacity
  • Develop action plan
  • Communicate an issue

Number of people required to help organize:

  • Large (> 12 people)
  • Medium (2-12 people)

Audience size:

  • Large (> 30)

Time required:

  • Long (> 6 months)
  • Medium (6 weeks-6 months)

Skill level/support required:

  • High (Specialist skills)
  • Medium (Computer & other expertise)


  • High (> AUD$10,000)
  • Medium (AUD$1,000-AUD$10,000)

Participation level:

  • High (Stakeholders participate in decision)

Innovation level:

  • High (Innovative)


Search conferences have three broad stages: pre-planning; the conference; and implementation.


  • First Planning Session: (6-8 hours) Determine whether a Search Conference will meet your needs. If it will, decide on the conference themes and purpose, arrange a venue and draw up an invitation list.
  • Secure keynote speakers. Their presence should break the ice and set the flavour of the event, but not dominate it.
  • Second Planning Session: (3-4 hours) This serves as a progress ‘check-in’ and a time to redirect efforts if necessary. Questions are answered and all conference plans are finalized. It is best to hold this session with the facilitator present, however, when travel costs are a major concern it is possible to substitute an extensive telephone conference call between the planning group and the facilitator.

The Conference

The Search Conference: (One full day or more). The participants will share information, discuss issues, and complete a series of small and large group tasks, which culminate in a strategic goal setting and action planning session. These tasks should encompass the following:

  • Analyze the environment (background, possible future, what is working/not working)
  • Analyze the’SYSTEM’, what routines, practices, restrictions, rules and structures influence the present known community issues, the community itself and its environment.
  • Plan how our system can best flourish, within our environment. (This should develop realistic action plans engendered through new understandings.)


  • Follow-up Session(s): This is a time to celebrate individual and group successes. Evaluate the ultimate success of the conference by how easily the action plans can be implemented. Progress is assessed and plans are modified as needed.
  • People are give roles and deadlines set.
  • The action plans are put into practice.


  • Centre for Community Networking Research (Oct. 2002). About Search Conferences IN Search Conference: Community and Information Technology: The Big Questions. (accessed 20/12/02) http://www.ccnr.net/searchconf/search.htm
  • Emery M. & Purser, R., (1996) The Search Conference: A powerful method for planned organizational change and community action, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
  • Emery M. (ed.), (1993) Participative Design for Participative Democracy, Canberra, Australian National University Centre for Continuing Education.
  • Emery, M. (1995) Designing and Managing Search Conferences and Participative Design Workshops, Course held at the IIRM Institute, University of New Mexico, Los Cruces, New Mexico. May.
  • Weisbord M. ( 1992) Discovering Common Ground, San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler.

Many of the resources in the “Participatory Practices” category originated in Coastal CRC’s Citizen Science Toolbox (www.coastal.crc.org.au/toolbox/). With permission, NCDD included the resource on our wiki so practitioners could expand upon the listing.

  More Resources  

Add a Comment