In the early 1980s, when I arrived in Australia, I found that the search conference was popular with some federal government departments for assessing the likely effects of policy changes. As one of the inventors of the method (Fred Emery) was Australian, it's not surprising they became popular there. In a typical search conference, about 40 (carefully selected) people meet, from Friday night till Sunday afternoon. After being involved in a few search conferences, I became very impressed with the way they worked, and the conclusions they produced.
A search conference (like the future search method, derived from it in the USA) is not a research method as such. You could (loosely) call it a type of planning method. You can read more about search conferences on this page by Merrelyn Emery, widow of Fred Emery, and author of several books on the topic.
Dissatisfied with the way that traditional research methods always look to the past, and with the lack of direct contact between research clients and their audiences, I came up with a new sort-of-research method based on the search conference. Originally I called it (to acknowledge the Emerys' contribution) a discovery conference, but on finding that label used in medical research in a different context, I changed it to the co-discovery conference,which gives some idea how it works.
A co-discovery conference usually runs for two half-day sessions: one afternoon and the following morning. The first half is loosely devoted to research, and the second half, loosely devoted to anticipation. ("Planning" isn't quite the word here.)
Like a search conference, a co-discovery conference takes place in one big room, with a lot of wall charts that summarize the progress. Again like a search conference, it works best with about 30 people. But while search conference participants usually represent a wide range of people from one community or organization, co-discovery conference participants are usually 40% from the media organization, and 60% from its audience.
Ordinary audience surveys (and market research) work like this:
1. Client has a problem, and commissions researcher.
2. Researcher listens to client, and produces a questionnaire.
3. Members of the public answer the questions.
4. Questionnaires are collated, entered into computers, and analysed.
5. Report is written from the analysed data, and passed to the client.
As you can see, there are many steps in this process, many chances for something to wrong, and many heads between the client and the respondents.
In contrast, a co-discovery conference tries to encourage direct brain-to-brain contact between client and respondents. By carefully selecting the client's staff to be involved, the audience participants (no longer just "respondents") and the process, both groups attain a clear understanding of the other. And that's just in the first half-day session. In the second session, now that they know each other well, they can discuss ways of improving the programs.
This very short account has left out a lot of detail, but you can read more in chapter 15 of Know Your Audience. Audience Dialogue has done about 10 co-discovery conferences now, and we are steadily improving the technique. We love doing these - so if you want to commission us to organize a co-discovery conference, we'd be delighted to help.