To enter into a dialog is to be human.

But dialog is difficult in many modern organizations, where large groups of people interact, time is a vanishing resource, and personal and professional pressures overwhelm. Education is a prime example.

Welcome to Rediscover Dialog, a blog dedicated to highlighting innovations around the fundamental interaction of dialog.

As the founder and CEO of Waypoint Outcomes, I have worked for seven years to improved the most broken aspect of the dialog process in education: teacher feedback to students. As Waypoint’s impact grows, and our understanding of the processes around feedback deepen, we are excited to enter into a larger dialog with the community.

One archetype of dialog in education is the Oxford tutorial.

The basic ingredients of the Oxford tutorial are legendary: brilliant dons (teachers), a short list of students, and an ancient room boxed in leather-covered tomes. We imagine these extended one-on-one conversations digging into complex topics, with the tutor (think C.S. Lewis or Tolkien) puffing on their archetypal pipe, and perhaps both tutor and student enjoying a stiff drink. Students must debate and defend their ideas week after week. Expectations are clear when there is no audience to hide within; assessment is irrelevant when the professor knows each student intimately, and has witnessed their intellectual growth. (For a highly instructional and less romantic view,  check out “The Oxford Tutorial” from the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Studies.) In the Oxford tutorial, feedback is continuous and natural, and assessment and learning unite in a seamless process. Think intellectual guide.

In a business setting, the archetypal dialog is the mentor- mentee. These relationships don’t develop through some artificial and formal ‘mentoring’ program, but in a traditional boss/worker relationship that verges on parent/child. The extended face-time provided by business trips, in-depth conversation, and in lengthy meetings again provides ample opportunity for feedback. Think workplace mentor.

But these archetypes, if they ever existed, are impossible today. Flat business organizations leave managers with 20+ direct reports. Budget pressures and the structure of higher education leave professors with 100+ papers to grade. K12 teachers have 30 students and a break-neck curriculum to get through. Personalized, conversational dialog would seem to be a thing of the past.

I recently took a shuttle to and from a hotel on a business trip. These two twenty minute-rides illustrate how dangerous it can be to draw cynical conclusions without any data.

On the ride from the airport, the van driver loaded my bags into the back of the vehicle, put down a step stool, and ushered me into the side door. I squeezed past a row of chairs and sat in the back row, next to a fellow business traveler. All the other chairs were filled, excepting the one remaining seat to my right. The van drove away, and we stopped at one more terminal, and an additional, 6′ tall traveler got in. We sat shoulder to shoulder, and in a particularly human and weird reaction, all imagined that the others weren’t there. The gent to my left read a novel the entire drive. Others checked email. I browsed Google Maps to discover how long it would take me to get to my destination. My hotel was first, and I got out. The only conversation had been between two riders who already knew each other, and discussed their scheduled flights out the following day.

Three days later I was back on the shuttle. Except this time, while the exterior of the van was identical, the interior was drastically different. When the vehicle pulled up, I wheeled my bags to the rear doors. But the driver ushered me back to the side. He put down the same  step stool, and I climbed up with my bags. The seats were arranged on the perimeter of the van, facing inwards, and the bags rode in the middle. The riders sat in a rectangle, facing one another.

There were four other riders, and I can still remember their faces: the mysterious businessman who had lived in the Italian Alps with his family, an OBGYN from Boston with a son in medical school,  a Manhattan resident who went to school with Atul Gawande, and a younger woman from Chicago who was born in India and had visited her homeland recently.

The twenty minute ride was an extended conversation ranging from personal stories to healthcare debate (it had taken a year for the New Yorker to feel comfortable riding the subway to Columbia; the Chicagoan witnessed the impact of the global economic melt-down through the destruction of call-center jobs in Hyderabad; the mysterious businessman’s son had open heart surgery as a child – and then moved to the Italian Alps) .

There was chemistry, and perhaps boredom – why not enter into a conversation when there is no TV, no fast Internet? But there was more to our chemistry, and it is perhaps easily reproducible:  the structure of the seating, the communal mixing of the bags, the time of the ride (would we have been willing to talk if it was an hour long ride?). These kinds of structural adjustments can be brought to bear on academic and workplace dialog to attain the most important and intimate of learning experiences: the human conversation. Twitter, Facebook, online discussions, Wikis, and similar are the technological versions of the shuttle van . But just like the van, they can be set up in ways that encourage dialog, or impede dialog.

We launch this blog to document our quest to rediscover dialog and to share best practices learned through our work with clients and the communities we serve.