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The Tap Roots of ToP (Theoretical Basis)*

The Technology of Participation methods were co-created from the beginning. Their initial forms were developed through action research in the fields of community and organizational development. Since the 1960’s and the beginning of the Ecumenical Institute, the forerunner of the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA), group processes were carefully crafted to achieve certain objectives. 

The concern was to bring methods and spirit to a wide public. These processes were referred to as “the methods” and at the heart of the methods was phenomenology or existentialism. The methods emerged out of the practical demands of hands-on efforts at community building and an intense community study and dialogue with the writings of people like Kierkegaard, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Bonhoeffer, Camus and Ortega. The methods have always served to immerse people in the reality of their own situation and their own depths at the same time.

As the methods developed, they also benefited from the work of other authors:

Alex Osborn’s work on brainstorming, Olaf Helmer and Norman Dalkey’s Delphi Process, and Piaget’s writings on Gestalt psychology, for example, have all influenced the Consensus Workshop method.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s, the ICA and these methods moved around the globe and into many different cultural settings. The methods catalyzed community development efforts, impacted government agencies and introduced transnational organizations to participatory change processes.

Thousands of ordinary citizens were taught basic consensus formation methods in the 1970’s, first around the U.S. Town Meeting campaign and then with the Global Community Youth and Women’s Forums. Thousands of Village leaders across the world were taught participatory planning methods as part of the ICA’s Human Development Projects and the 55-nation International Exposition of Rural Development. Again more men and women in corporations and government agencies learned the methods through ICA’s strategic planning workshops and leadership training seminars in the 1980’s. Each of these opportunities provided occasions for refinement and reflection on the methods. In 1989, with the publication of Laura Spencer’s Winning Through Participation, the methods became known as the Technology of Participation (ToP).

This process of reflection and re-evaluation continues to this day. There are 140 active ToP Trainers in the United States, with courses offered in __ on a regular basis. They meet annually, stay in touch via e-mail and a Web site, and combine their training of others with their own direct engagement as facilitators. This effort of interchange takes place in many situations for ToP users both locally and nationally, and has proven to be a very effective tool for discerning new applications of the methods and sharing effective practices in the established uses.

There are active training systems in ToP methods today in the United States, Canada, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Egypt, Australia, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Vietnam, and Tajikistan. Course materials are available in English, Spanish, Croatian, French, German, Arabic, Russian, Dutch, Chinese, Portuguese, and Vietnamese.  

Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) and ToP methods played a key role during the late 1980’s and 1990’s in the development of the profession of the facilitator. Much of this was done through helping to bring into being the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) in 1994. The IAF, which now provides a mechanism for the professional certification of facilitators worldwide, continues to offer a vital forum for professional development and the interchange of a wide variety of effective methods in the field of facilitation.

* Written by Marilyn Oyler and Gordon Harper – Published as part of Chapter 10 – The Technology of Participation – pp. 157-158 in The Change Handbook: The Definitive Resource on Today’s Best Methods for Engaging Whole Systems, by Peggy Holman, Tom Devane, Steven Cady, and Associates, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. 2007.


Update Notes by Marilyn Oyler and Ester Mae Cox – 2 October 2012.

Between 1995 and 2005 more than 100 representatives of 32 countries traveled to the United States, and participated in the International Training of ToP Trainers for six weeks. This international training program spawned and has grown the presence of ToP methods globally. Participants came from these countries: Belgium, Benin, Bosnia Herzegovina, Brazil, Chile, Croatia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Germany, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Japan, Mexico, Nepal, The Netherlands, Nigeria, Peru, The Philippines, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Tanzania, Uganda, United Kingdom, USA, Tajikistan, Venezuela, Vietnam, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

In 2005, 17 ToP trainers were the first U.S. ToP Trainers to be certified as Certified ToP Facilitators (CTF) in San Antonio. That certification program has grown to have 44 Certified ToP Facilitators in the U.S.

Using a common set of competencies for ToP facilitators, these countries also have ICA-Certified ToP Facilitators: ICA Australia (10); ICA Associates, Inc. (Canada) 20; LENS International (Singapore) (7); and ICA Taiwan (8). The ICAI web site maintains a complete list.

ICA Certified ToP Facilitators are those who have earned the right to use the title of ICA Certified ToP Facilitator, ICA CTF, based on assessment of evidence of their competence in ToP methodology. They have demonstrated excellence in both skill and knowledge of ToP Facilitation

Currently in the United States, there are 113 ToP Trainers who offer public and in-house courses. Courses being offered currently are published at: https://icausa.memberclicks.net/

From 1993 to 2006, the trainers met annually to engage in many opportunities for reflection and refinement of the tools. Training is offered both in public courses and in-house courses.

In January 2010, the ToP trainers organized to be a non-profit professional 501(c)(6) group including facilitators and trainers, and to be a separate organization. ICA-USA and The ToP Network maintain friendly working relationships through a formal Memorandum of Agreement.