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NTL: Changing The World

The seeds of NTL were discovered in 1946, a short time after WWII when the world was experiencing an explosion of behavioural science research. Culturally, the world stood in the aftermath of a great struggle between totalitarianism and democracy. Democracy had prevailed and was celebrated by social scientists in the US for its relationship to scientific research,  knowledge development and power to act for the collective good.  The understanding of the power of groups had advanced before and during the war as a result of research and practice innovations, many of which were in service of the war effort. 

In 1946, Kurt Lewin, then Director of MIT’s Research Center for Group Dynamics, and a German Jew who had migrated from Germany and conducted ground-breaking research on influence in small groups, race relations, and inter-group conflict, organised a workshop in New Britain, Connecticut to teach skills in small group effectiveness and change to community leaders. Commissioned by the Connecticut Interracial Commission, the goal of the workshop was to develop local change-agents to promote fair employment in Connecticut.  The workshop featured the latest small-group training techniques, such as role playing, including group-process observers.  The staff met each evening to reflect on their observations of group and trainer behaviour.  Lewin, ever the curious researcher, welcomed workshop participants into these meetings after a number of them asked if they could attend. Soon the participants were adding their observations to the conversations, sometimes contradicting those of the staff. The staff were surprised and overjoyed by the energy and excitement these discussions generated, and the implications for participant self-learning in groups. They determined to carry on the work in a more focused way the following summer.  This was the genesis of NTL and the T-group.

Lewin died an unfortunate, early death before he could be present in Bethel, Maine for the first summer session of the National Training Laboratory for Group Development.  (The name was later shortened to ‘NTL’, and then eventually changed to the ‘NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science’.) The staff chose Bethel, a small village nestled near New Hampshire’s White Mountains, as the workshop location for its remoteness and slower pace.  It was viewed as a cultural island, allowing for separation from the usual distractions of personal and organisational life.  It was, apparently, a good place for NTL’s work. NTL’s relationship with Bethel lasted for over 45 years as staff and programme participants from the US and other parts of the world returned summer after summer – forever intertwining NTL’s history with that of the Bethel community; and Bethel with the life-changing experiences many had there.

Three scholar-practitioners, who had worked closely with Kurt Lewin to develop the 1946 New Britain Workshop, took responsibility for planning and conducting the 1947 NTL Workshop, thereby becoming the founders of NTL. The values, scholarship, and skills they brought to the birth of NTL remain central to NTL today.  Ron Lippitt, a social psychologist affiliated with the University of Michigan, had been a graduate student of Lewin’s, and co-authored a classic study of democratic leadership and group-dynamics.  Ken Benne, faculty member of the Teachers' College of Columbia, was a scholar of democracy and social change, reflecting Lewin’s linkage of democratic leadership and practice with small-group dynamics and social action.  Leland Bradford, Director of Adult Education for the National Education Association, was a leader in innovative adult education technologies. In the following decades, joined by renowned scholars, researchers and practitioners in summer sessions at Bethel, NTL developed concepts and practices in group training and development that are the basis of much of today’s understanding of group-life, and how to make groups more effective. As T-groups and laboratory learning methods spread throughout the US and the world, members took their small-group training expertise and the T-group to Europe, Asia, Africa and South America.  Many developed collaborations with other scholars and practitioners world-wide.  These collaborations included helping to establish the Indian Society for Applied Behavioural Science, which today conducts its own version of T-groups; and interchanges with the Tavistock Institute in the United Kingdom which had pioneered the use of group methods in the treatment of traumatised warriors during and after WWII, eventually developing its own experiential small- group training theory and methods. Today, NTL’s members are in many parts of the world, including the USA, Asia, Europe, Africa and South America.

The powerful learning experiences of NTL T-group participants led many trainers to attempt to adapt the T-group as an ’in-house’ training experience.  These efforts were mostly unsuccessful as their dynamics were different from NTL’s ‘stranger’ groups which were not constrained by the multitude of ties, and authority and competitive relationships inherent in organisational life.  However, the learning from years of T-group research and practice fostered a more targeted use of small-group dynamics and practices in the development of team-building methodologies commonly practiced in organisations today, as well as adaptations of group methods to race relations and inter-group conflicts. Other adaptations included intensive approaches to small-group and individual development that played a significant role in the personal-growth movement that emerged in the 1960’s.

Seeking to apply NTL change theory and practices, including action research, to larger systems, NTL members developed whole-organisation and community change methodologies which became the foundation for current practices in organisation development and large-system change. 

Kurt Lewin, the Founder of Modern Social Psychology and the Intellectual Roots of NTL

Kurt Lewin was born in Prussia to a middle-class Jewish family. He moved to Berlin where he earned a doctorate degree from the University of Berlin and developed an interest in Gestalt psychology.  He volunteered for the German army in 1914 and was later injured in combat.  These experiences had a major impact on his development of Field Theory, the notion that individual traits interact with the environment to cause behaviour, and his later study of group dynamics. After lecturing on philosophy and psychology at the Psychological Institute of the University of Berlin, Lewin was invited to Stanford University as a visiting professor in 1930, after which he emigrated to the US and taught at the University of Iowa until 1944.  Lewin is known for his statement that “There is nothing as useful as a good theory”. His connecting of research to action reflected his belief that research should have practical applications. Lewin and his graduate students conducted what are now considered to be classic studies of the influence of group practices and democratic leadership on change behavior. He applied his research in work with the US government during World War II, and in 1945 established the Group Dynamics Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Lewin was a prolific writer, publishing over 90 articles and 8 books.  Today he is known as the founder of modern social psychology, having influenced experiential adult-learning, group- dynamics theory and practice, human-interaction training, system-change methodologies, and  action research - the basis for the modern practice of organisation development. Lewin’s legacy to NTL is large as shaped by streams of work exemplified in the three founders of NTL – a theorist of democracy, a social psychologist, and an expert in adult learning. NTL, like them, reflects key dimensions of Lewin’s life and work.

  1. A focus on research and theory as a basis for action. In its first decades, NTL attracted top scholars and practitioners of psychology, social psychology, sociology and management to the intellectual and practice petri-dish that was Bethel.  These scholar-practitioners produced the theory and practice literature that remains the basis for much of modern approaches to the development of individuals, teams and organisations, as well as many of the foundational concepts underlying key aspects of human-resource management such as supervisory behaviour, motivation, reward systems, and leadership. This research-and-thought tradition is continued by NTL through its refereed academic journal, the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science and Practising Social Change, the Institute’s on-line practitioners’ journal that explores contemporary social-change concepts and practices worldwide. 
  2. A human development orientation. NTL’s work is predicated on the potential of individuals for personal growth and change.
  3. A research-based belief in the power of experiential learning. The T-group remains a continuing experiment in the power of experiential, collaborative learning about Self and groups. The T-group is a central learning focus for NTL’s Human Interaction Laboratories, and has fostered NTL’s development of laboratory learning methods for teaching organisation development, leadership, and personal growth.
  4. A belief in the value of diversity and inclusion across differences, and the importance of justice for individuals and groups. These beliefs were guiding forces behind the New Britain Workshop which birthed NTL. NTL remains committed to these values in its organisation and its programmess, and NTL members continue to do important diversity, inclusion and multi-cultural work in organisations and communities in the US and throughout the world.
  5. A continuing emphasis on innovative thinking and practice in organisation development and change. NTL members, working though NTL, universities, and in their own practices, have been thought-and-practice leaders for advances in collaborative approaches to change in organisations and communities. They have been active leaders and participants in the development of approaches such as Large Group Interventions, Appreciative Inquiry, Complex Adaptive Systems, and Dialogic Organization Development.

NTL in the Contemporary World

For over 60 years NTL has continued to hold its original values and streams of action as important touchstones, honouring human development, research, experiential learning, inclusion, diversity and democratic values.  These streams of action, the basis of those initial exciting evenings in New Britain, were reiterated for decades in Bethel, and are carried forth by NTL in a contemporary world-context, more interdependent and multi-dimensioned - some would say more challenging - than ever before.  Through its training programmess, publications and individual member-practices, NTL strives to live out the timeless values and commitments which have been its foundations for over 60 years. 

Author: Dr Ted Tschudy


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