Saturday, December 29, 2007

Interactive Multimedia Events (Wilson 1993)

Some of the key ideas in Stephen Wilson's 1993 article as they relate to the themes covered in this blog:

- engagement in live interactive computer events can't be taken for granted. The technology and new methods alone don't guarantee engaging, quality experiences

- creating successful interactive multimedia events requires the creator/practititioner to deal with challenges in "time design", coordination of the different media types and layers (for example, text, images, verbal interaction), and the kinds and styles of choice-making that participants can make

- getting past the initial excitement and rush of using a new media form, where novelty and flash seem to create the value in and of themselves, requires persistence. There is almost invariably disappointment when the novelty wears off and the promised utopia doesn't come as automatically as it first appeared:
Those currently developing interactive multimedia and those thinking of entering the field need to carefully assess the current hyperbole surrounding it. On the other side of the excitement and high expectations could easily be disappointment and premature abandonment of culturally important lines of inquiry.

Much of the work with Compendium over the years has, in some ways, been a revitalization of the initial excitement over "design rationale" and argumentation-based hypertext in the early 1990s. As we've written about here and elsewhere, when it appeared that constructing issue maps required work out of the ordinary set of skills, the research community mostly dropped it.

I haven't found any further writing by Wilson in this area but I'm hoping to find more.

See further notes on the article here.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Stephen Wilson's links to "Intersections of Art, Technology, Science & Culture"

A truly amazing, encyclopedic set of links to artworks influenced by (and integrated with) developments in science and technology.

I came across this after reading Wilson's 1993 article on The Aesthetics and Practice of Designing Interactive Computer Events. It contains many ideas of high relevance to my research, which I'll summarize in another post.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Tangled Up in Blue

Driving back from dropping my daughter off at her bakery job, grey rainy morning with mist rising off the melting snow, Tangled Up in Blue in the CD player. She's been listening to that album lately, along with Kind of Blue and Frank Morgan. Inspiring that a 16-year-old would come to this music on her own.

There's something perfect about Dylan's recording of that song, and many of the others on Blood on the Tracks. What struck me was the imperfections, especially his guitar and harmonica playing. Somehow they make the whole thing work, the feeling of authenticity, of some kind of true story being told. The voice is what comes through, from the instruments as much as the singing.

Perfection achieved through imperfection, that seems key. In the software world, there is often a presumption of perfection and seamlessness (though they never really are), as if it could be engineered into permanence. There are always implicit and explicit claims that there are no kinks, the solution is complete, just needs to be procured and all the advantage will be realized. To talk as if human effort, skill, artistry are necessary is to diminish, even tarnish the value that ought to lie inherent in the software itself. But things are never permanent and perfection is something only rarely grasped, and often takes great struggle to realize. I think of how Welles never made a film coming anywhere near Citizen Kane again, and it was almost destroyed before anyone saw it (and lay nearly hidden for more than ten years after its first release). Or how Dylan saw Blood as a product of pain and didn't understand how others could enjoy it (according to this article).

Nothing new about this as it relates to films or music, but I am still sure that the same things apply to software, even when they are used in situations ostensibly far removed from emotion and drama. The human element and the struggle to make something meaningful, with all its imperfections, obtains whenever we work together to create something. It's not escapable.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Citizen Kane

I just watched this again for the first time in a decade or so. I've probably seen it between 20 and 30 times since my time as a film major in college nearly 30 years ago. I had to write several papers on it in various classes. The one that always sticks out for me was about the sound techniques in the scene where 'Boss Jim Geddes' has just confronted Kane in Susan's apartment in front of Emily. Kane refuses to drop out of the election in the face of Geddes' extortion, and Geddes leaves shaking his head at Kane's foolishness while Kane thunders "I'm Charles Foster Kane" from the top of the stairs. That paper (10 pages or so) is still in a chest in the attic somewhere.

Even after so many viewings, that film still sends chills up my spine with the depth and breadth of its genius. Every square inch of the film, every technique used, is shaped with such expertise and expressiveness -- mastery. He was only 24, and was new to filmmaking.

That depth and saturation of technique, artistry, expression, is what I want to see with knowledge art as well. The medium is capable of it, it just needs the genius to emerge. Could be happening now, somewhere.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Engagement and usefulness

Further reflections on the Ames videos... looking at them from a research viewpoint, what is the value and contribution of this research? One thing that keeps occuring to me is that practitioner skill in and of itself is not the goal, it's creating engagement and usefulness for the effort. What is the point of using a tool like Compendium (or any other tool) when you're working with a group of people, trying to make the time you are spending together (the session) valuable. What constitutes value is situationally specific, of course (i.e. there isn't just one kind of value).

From an ideal point of view, Compendium sessions would be deeply and energetically engaging, the representation as much of a focal point as the participants' interactions with each other, the two interweaving with each other.

In some of the sessions, things the practitioners (the mappers and facilitators) do move the session in the direction of representational engagement and usefulness, in others they either don't do those things or do other things that in some way prevent or sap engagement and usefulness.

Characterizing the spectrum of those things and those ways feels like it could be a contribution.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

When it doesn't go well

Making and shaping in a medium that you love, does not always go well. Sometimes it's a slog, or painful, or frustrating, or just doesn't seem to add up. You can see this with many kinds of making that involve some form of artistry, because these inherently involve some kind of vision (a desired outcome, level of perfection, or set of qualities to be brought about); a degree of sensitivity to nuance that can easily lead to oversensitivity; often a reliance and/or dependence on other people, whose vision, sensibilities, or capabilities may not align with yours; and sometimes a feeling that the whole enterprise is misguided, pointless, or futile.

While the above is widely acknowledged in what we conventionally think of as the arts (writing, painting, etc.), it is not usually applied in the software world, where there is often an underlying tone of necessary triumphalism (i.e., using this software/approach will bring about success almost by virtue of just using it). But it is just as true with software-based media as with any other.

In music, whether playing with a group or by oneself, there are so many levels where things can run off the rails. So many expectations, hopes, degrees of exertion, stylistic and expressive nuances, that it sometimes feels astounding that any convergence can happen at all. Choice of material (song/style/treatment) can seem too forced, "commercial", "arty", "folky", "emo"; the other musicians (or oneself) can feel too limited in skill, too loud or soft, too arrhythmic, too fast or slow. Someone can solo too long, hogging the spotlight, or conversely hold back too much. Why are they being like that? or conversely why aren't they being like that? Why can't I play that chord without damping the D string? Why am I never able to play that turnaround? Maybe I'm finally fluid enough in this style (after 15 years of practice) on the instrument, but I still can't sing. He plays too much on the high-hat when we need to feel his foot on the kick drum. This is supposed to be funk! She just does not get the groove for this song and never has....

And then there are other times when it all comes together, when the flailing and imperfections fall away, when you move, singly or collectively, in a kind of perfection and beauty and surge of joy, that shimmers and pulses and swings. Sometimes it is just a few moments, but they stand for the whole, and the aftereffects can last for years.

I remember a single night in college, playing bluegrass with three other guys in someone's frat room. The whole session had been pretty good, full of energy and fun, but a couple of minutes into playing Positively Fourth Street, everything seemed to kick up to another level. Every string of the two guitars, banjo, and fiddle vibrated together in some sort of earthly perfection. We had played privately and publicly for a few weeks before that without ever reaching that level, things had sometimes been enjoyable but never transcendent (and, with that particular group, they never would again). Even now, 26 years later, I can still feel the resonance of that night. It keeps me going, along with a few other peak musical moments, through the mundane and sloggy times.

I started thinking about this while analyzing one of the Ames sessions, where the group discussion veers into abstractions and there is no engagement with the map. The facilitators made some halting attempts to create some engagement but were not able to intervene effectively in the flood of discourse to get any group focus on the map (which was the one instruction for the sessions, that they had to involve engaging the group in making some kind of change to the map). It reminded me of many sessions that I facilitated back in the 1990s, especially for our immediate executive management, where the participants were so involved in their (partially productive, partially dysfunctional) mode of conversation that I could never get them to focus on the map, let alone engage with using it to help themselves get to a higher level of coherence and mutual understanding. These sessions felt crappy, and I did not come out of them feeling like this medium and this approach had tremendous potential. At those times it seemed more like a labor-intensive overlay onto a culture and process that was not amenable to intervention, at least from me.

Thankfully there were many other times where the opposite was the case, where we were able to help groups get to a level of shared they had never had before, as well as to produce models and analyses with a rapidity and effectiveness that no other approach could reach. Those were the transcendent times, and they kept me going through the non-triumphal sessions.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Essential attributes

Those closest to Compendium have been in a cycle for the last 14 years of tool making, tool using, and studying tool using. This has led to a set of what for me are the essential attributes of knowledge art tool and practices:

- mixing of formal and informal, structured and unstructured, analytical and expressive

- ability to ask a question of anything (dialogue always an option)

- multiple perspectives, multiple representations, layers of meaning

- same idea in many contexts, ability to see and use the different relationships of any idea to others in different contexts

- ability to feed into, and be fed from, other tools and media, especially computational / database tools

- infinite expandability

- rapid, responsive malleability of the representation (direct manipulation, not just a generated graphical view)

- ability to get to any level of the underlying data, not just the surface pictures and text

- ability to publish the data in many forms (including as web pages)

So far, Compendium is the fullest realization of these attributes. But it is somewhat of a first step. As the supporting technologies continue to evolve, and as we get a clearer idea of how they should work through continued practice, I'm positive new tools will emerge. Anyone out there working on one?

(Notice I don't include asynchronous, groupware access as an essential attribute. It may be essential for marketability (never, at least so far, our strong suit), but I'm still not convinced it is essential, especially when there are so many other well-established ways of doing that. I still think that hooking Compendium to one of those ways (e.g. wiki) would be a fine approach. It's possible this makes me misguided, a dinosaur, or a minority of one.)

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Questions about shaping

More on this idea of shaping as the focus, as discussed here. I'm starting to think about the following as the analytical questions I will ask of each of the recorded sessions:

- What shaping is intended?
- What shaping is occurring?
- Who is doing it, for what reasons?
- If the intended shaping runs off the rails, why does that occur?
- What contributions to shaping occur?
- How are decisions about shaping being made?
- What kinds of decisions are they?
- Who is making them, on what basis?
- How are they taken up into the representation itself (if they are)?
- Which are ignored or dropped? Why?
- What blocks an intended shaping?
- How are the blocks resolved, avoided, etc.?
- How was the ability to shape the representation preserved or recovered?

So not so much looking for sensemaking instances (though it's great if they happen), but rather "shaping instances": when decisions were made about how to shape the maps, and why they were made that way.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The action is in the live interaction

For the Rutgers and Ames experiments, I gave small groups the task to construct a Compendium exercise that they would lead a larger group through. They were free to take this in any direction they chose, with the one instruction that they had to facilitate the large group through making changes of some sort to the maps.

The successful groups were able to get a large amount of engagement with the maps and to keep up the energy level throughout their 15-20 minute facilitated sessions. The less successful groups had little to no engagement with the maps; the sessions had more the character of general discussions, with occasional looks at the maps but no real direct engagement.

Why were some groups successful and some less so? It appears to be a combination of factors. Clarity of focus, giving the large group participants a clear task, not cluttering up the seed maps too much in advance, and adroit facilitation were some of the factors. For my research I am focusing specifically on sensemaking instances and shaping moves made during these sessions, and how these played into what the groups were able to accomplish during their sessions.

I have been doing a lot of thinking about what all of this has to do with Compendium, and knowledge art, in general. What will it add up to? What does it contribute to the longer-term effort to move these tools and practices forward?

No definitive answers yet. But one thing that is emerging is more clarity around what Compendium is "for", at least for me. I have to say the "for me" part because, by its nature, it doesn't have to be about any one thing or set of ideas. I have argued elsewhere that Compendium is not inherently about concept/mind-mapping, IBIS, dialogue mapping, knowledge modeling, or any of the other purposes that people are putting it to, valuable as they are. There are other tools that can do all of these things, and other ways to do them.

There is something that Compendium is uniquely suited for, though, and that is the real-time, live interaction with these kinds of maps, especially by groups of people. The kind of work that my small groups did in advance, planning and making the seed maps, or that many others have done in a myriad of settings, can be full of artistry and produce elegant and compelling maps. But you could make the same kinds of things with other tools, and some forms of interaction with maps (e.g., asynchronous web interactions a la Cohere) are supported better in ways other than Compendium. But live, unconstrained, shaping and reshaping of a complex set of maps, as far as I have seen, is best done with Compendium. No other tool gives you the breadth and depth of reach and ability to shape interlinked knowledge maps finely, rapidly, on the fly, in the heat of the moment, with a group of people.

I am starting to think of making maps as creating the stage sets for live interaction. The sets can be designed and built with a great deal of artistry, but ultimately what matters is the live performance, what the actors are able to do in front of, and with, their audience. At least, that's what I'm most interested in, and what I believe Compendium as software is most uniquely suited for, and what the kinds of practice I am trying to study and support are concerned with. For me it comes down to what happens in those live interactions. If we can understand and support them better, there is something of unique value there that can have much broader impact than what we've been able to foster so far.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The rest of that post

I inadvertently left off some of the last post. Here's the rest. It talks about how the example in that post can be usefully framed using some of the narrative and improvisation concepts mentioned here.

In the example, we see a practitioner confronted with a breach in the expected chain of events, resulting in a sensemaking instance. This was caused by an escalating series of challenges and interruptions among the participants that caused the mapper to lose her place. There was a pre-existing set of narratives that frame the event, supplying expected causality, reasons for people to be at the event, expected roles, and assumed meanings. In the example, some of the relevant narrative aspects include the ostensible purpose of the workshop, the personal reasons each participant had for attending (e.g., what they hoped to gain from it), the expected trajectory of the facilitated session itself, and the mapper’s own expectation that she would be able to capture and represent the discussion as it unfolded. When the session started to unravel, this constituted a breach for which there was no ready-made, unproblematic response.

We further see improvised actions that draw on practitioner (as well as participant) repertoires. Up to the point of the breach, the mapper had followed a straightforward, pre-planned dialogue mapping approach in her work on the knowledge map. When things went wrong, this had to be (temporarily) abandoned. With the help of several of the participants, the mapper was able recast the situation, which helped her launch a rapid series of actions on the map to bring it back to a point where forward progress, and the dialogue mapping technique, could resume.

This is only a brief example from one case study; more to come in future posts.

One example re narrative and sensemaking

Courtesy of Google Alerts, I noticed that someone on had commented on a post on narrative and sensemaking, asking for more detail.

In this post I provide one example. There will be more in future posts as I further report on the analysis of practice videos I've been doing.

The example here comes from video analysis of a workshop setting. It outlines a moment in a live knowledge mapping session when something went wrong, resulting in sensemaking and improvised actions to bring the session back on track.

In the workshop, teams of three to four people were given the task of devising a knowledge mapping exercise that they would then facilitate with a large group of participants. This example comes from a sensemaking instance during one of the teams’ large group sessions.

The instance occurred for about 2.5 minutes of a 24 minute session, starting at 13:36and lasting until 16:58. The facilitating team had constructed a knowledge map with some seed questions that they asked participants to provide answers to (which they in turn added to the knowledge map displayed to all on a large screen in front of the room). One member of the team acted as the mapper. The session had proceeded more or less as expected until at 13:36 one participant (P1) began to challenge some of the contributions to the overall discussion, questioning why some participants kept asking if others’ contributions counted as ‘critical thinking’ or ‘visual thinking’.

The challenge did not fit into the planned flow of events, and the mapper, who up to that point had been able to capture participant contributions into the map quite fluidly, lost her way. She began trying to map P1’s challenge at 13:49. At 14:42 she was in the midst of doing this when another participant (P2) made a new verbal contribution that did not reference the challenge.

Map at 13:36

A third participant, P3, asked if P2’s comment counted as ‘critical thinking’ or ‘visual thinking’, prompting a further challenge from P1. The mapper was able to capture P2’s 14:42 contribution on the fly, but couldn’t map either P3’s question or P1’s new challenge. The interchange is shown here:

14:42 (P2) “I think another skill that can be developed … is the ability to see bigger questions”
14:51 (P3) “Is that not also part of critical thinking?”
14:53 (P2) ““Uh it may or may not be but I … that's my opinion.”
15:03 (P1) “… why, why is it important… we seem to be getting caught up into but isn't that critical thinking, isn't that critical thinking. Why is that important? I mean, why is it important that we relate all these things to critical thinking.”

In the course of this, the mapper got so far behind in mapping P1’s challenge that she became stymied. This can be characterized as the sensemaking instance.

There are really two overlapping dilemmas. Firstly the participants’ issue about how to frame the conversation itself, and secondly the mapper’s attempt to regain her momentum and resume making coherent additions to the map. In this case, after some further back and forth among the participants, a fourth participant (P4) contributes a possible solution:

15:33 (P4) “OK... so I would now interrupt, as a facilitator I would interrupt, because I see, um, [the mapper], struggling with keeping up… OK so I would say ‘hold that thought’, let her just finish this for a moment… and then repeat your question so we can capture it.”
15:53 (Mapper) “Um… yeah so I did, I wasn't able to capture the stuff that went into the 'What is critical thinking' and that's where I'm behind, I'm trying to copy.”

After some negotiation about how much time was left in the session, the mapper asked the room for help in deciding what should be put onto the map. A fifth participant (P5) provided a helpful summary and suggestion for how to represent the discussion:

16:09 (Mapper) “OK. So what's the current thing I'm trying to capture”
16:11 (P5) “But [P2] said … she thought one of the issues was the ability to see bigger questions, was something…”
16:18 (Mapper) “Right, so how would I do that…”
16:20 (P5) “...and then somebody said… isn't this just part of critical thinking so if I was mapping that I'd just put a minus there… and say isn't this just, you know, this is part of, should be part of critical thinking and then I'd put another question mark off that and say why is this important”

From that point until the end of the episode at 16:58, the mapper executed a rapid series of moves on the map, which are summarized here:

16:26 Moved cursor all the way to right side of the screen very briefly, then back to hover over 'Considering alternative perspectives' then 'Ability to see bigger questions' then down to bottom of window in response to P5’s comments
16:35 Moved the new cloned node to under 'Ability to see bigger questions'
16:41 Linked cloned node to 'Ability to see bigger questions'
16:42 Highlighted the clone
16:45 Keyboard-created new Idea node linked to the Question, gave it the label “Why is this important?”
16:52 Moved node down and to the right slightly
16:54 Moved cursor out of the way over to the right
16:55 Moved 'Is this related to critical thinking' down and to the right slightly (for appearance)

This enabled her to bring the map up to the point where it corresponded to the summary provided by participant P5 (see Figure 2), and to announce at 16:58, “I’m caught up.”

Map at 16:55

The above is perhaps at a lower level of detail than 2mm was looking for. I'd be interested in any feedback.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Profiling as art

Another item from the New Yorker, this one from an article titled "Dangerous Minds" by Malcolm Gladwell (Nov. 12, 2007 issue).

The article discusses criminal profiling, people who look at evidence and construct psychological portraits of likely perpetrators. It is mostly negative about the practice, drawing similarities between profiling techniques and parlor tricks. But I found this excerpt interesting. It discusses an FBI profiler named John Douglas ("the model for Agent Jack Crawford in 'The Silence of the Lambs'"), who was involved in the successful hunt for a Wichita serial killer:
...some cop is calling him psychic. But Douglas doesn't object. Instead, he begins to muse on the ineffable origin of his insights, at which point the question arises of what exactly this mysterious art called profiling is, and whether it can be trusted. Douglas writes, "What I try to do with a case is to take in all the evidence I have to work with... and then put myself mentally and emotionally in the head of the offender. I try to think as he does. Exactly how this happens, I'm not sure, any more than the novelists such as Tom Harris who've consulted me over the years can say exactly how their characters come to life. If there's a psychic component to this, I won't run from it."

The connection to knowledge art? I like that there is a combination of analytical and intuitive, of getting very close to the evidence but also relying on inspiration, and being unsure of where it comes from. Gladwell argues that the whole practice is suspect, that it is wrong more often than it's right, and that many profilers' recommendations are so general as to be meaningless. He may be correct, but what I find interesting is the reference to a source of professional expertise that is not rational or logical, and the drawing of the similarity with novelistic creativity. "Schooled" inspiration (that is, that comes from immersion in the subject matter as well as knowledge of many rational techniques) giving rise to deeply nuanced form, like some of the profilers' characterizations, is certainly one of the hallmarks of the kinds of improvised moves I've seen in analyzing knowledge art practice.

Narrative and sensemaking

Some working ideas about the connections we are making between narrative and sensemaking as ways to frame studies of knowledge art practice.

Narrative involves a story. It sets up a world with causes and effects, usually introducing some kind of disruption. Something happens that upsets the canonicity of occurrences, the expected flow of events. Something happens to impede the protagonists’ flow through the world.

Sensemaking focuses on the perceptions and actions at the moment of the breach in this expected flow of events. In narrative terms, what does a protagonist do when confronted by a breach?

Narrative is concerned with the whole trajectory of a story or a world: characters, setting, and plot. Sensemaking zeroes in on what happens at the moment of the breach.

In our research we have been looking at a particular kind of protagonist: practitioners who create hypermedia representations with groups of people in participatory settings. These protagonists come into situations with a set of established tools, approaches, a repertoire of moves, history and background in the practice (even if, in some cases, at a relatively novice level) and move into a particular episode with a plan, an expected flow of events, of causes and effects. They initiate or are the main actor in some of these; in others, the participants, problem situation, or organizational setting supply the actions.

There is an expected narrative – what the practitioner thinks will happen – then there is the actual narrative – what really happens, what unfolds, with all the breaches (disruptions and unexpected turns) that characterize most human interactions – at least the interesting ones.

The unexpected is interesting because dealing with departure from what’s expected is where creativity, innovation, and inspiration lie. What differentiates ordinary from extraordinary performance in any field is the ability to confront disruptions from the expected flow and convert it into something that works – either to restore order (as is the form of heroic narratives) or to bring about a new order or structure, a reconfiguration that sees the world in a new light. There is also value in the more quotidian ability to keep the normal and expected going, to deliver with predictability, but that is not the domain of narrative and sensemaking, which deal with the unexpected.

A practitioner in participatory or collaborative settings someone who is charged, usually because of their possession of a special skill and/or toolset, with being able to bring about a successful outcome, organizing the flow of events and reacting to unexpected stimuli in such a way as to restore the integrity of the proceedings. In some cases, this may mean doing nothing more than setting things in motion, standing back and letting the expected causes and effects play out, watching the gears mesh in their normal fashion. Much research effort has gone into understanding and strengthening just this ability to bring about predictable and expected results.

But we have taken a different turn, by turning the magnifying glass on the moments where things don’t go as expected, and looking at how practitioners (whether relatively expert or novice) react and move at those moments. At sensemaking moments, a practitioner can’t fall back on pre-planned actions. Instead, they come up with a fresh response, marshalling tools, artifacts, verbal interactions, and other material to try to recover momentum and return on the march toward a successful outcome.

We have analyzed such moments in several contexts:

- face to face meetings of science teams in a long term NASA project, where a single person with relatively expert skills acted as practitioner;
- virtual meetings in the same project, with a different expert acting as practitioner;
- face to face meetings with mostly relative novices given an artificial task

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Heavyweight words

From the start of working on my research, I've used the terms "aesthetics" and "ethics" as centerpieces of what I was looking at. Often, though, even people close to what I'm trying to do (the four or five) have stumbled or been put off by the words, saying that the terms feel too heavy to describe what I'm looking at. Or, that they refer only to the most esoteric or advanced forms of practice, not something that would apply to everyday knowledge art practice.

To me those terms don't have that kind of heaviness. For "aesthetics" I like how Ellen Dissanayake refers to the act of "making special." Whenever you invest something with that extra that lifts it out of the purely mundane, making it fit better with the goals you have for that something, it is an aesthetic act. This applies equally to the way someone might plant their garden or build a birdhouse as to an expert rendering of a knowledge map. Either can be done in a more or less quotidian way, nothing special, or can get the extras, touches, nuances that make it more than that. For "ethics", I mean paying attention to the ways that a practitioner's actions affect others, especially how choices about a representation might intersect with the needs, goals, and feelings of participants. What I'm especially interested in is the way the two aspects (aesthetics and ethics) intersect -- how do choices about the making and shaping of the artifact interweave with acting for, against, or with the interests of other people.

I've been interested in this question ever since a college philosophy class in aesthetics, taught by Kendall Walton. I took it at the same time I was taking Buzz Alexander's class on filmmaking about the Vietnam War, where much of the discussion was about the meanings of representations and the roles and responsibilities of the artist in social action, what the choices made in a film dealing with so fraught a subject meant for its audiences as well as the people or situations depicted. It struck me that there was a connection between aesthetics and ethics that could be discerned and discussed in any film, whether or not the director intended it to have any social consequence. Films have aesthetics and ethics whether intended, cared about, or not. They set up their audiences and subject matter through the ways they are made, and those ways and their consequences can be seen and talked about if you look closely enough.

I've been stuck with this question ever since. What does it mean to be making, and what does the making mean? As a filmmaker or as a maker of any other sort of representational artifact, you make thousands of choices about the way you use your medium, and those choices always have some kind of meaning, effect, or consequence for others coming into contact with the things you make. Studying this means understanding the medium, understanding the situation of making, looking at the actual making and the actual reception of that making.

Compendium practice, in the context of live mapping work with groups, offers an especially rich set of examples for trying to answer this question. This is because the making and shaping of the artifact (the knowledge maps) happens at the same time and place of their reception, and in many cases the making and shaping is participatory -- the audience is not just receiving the maps, it is engaging with them and helping (or demanding) to make decisions about what they should show. I've been watching and listening to videos of such practice and trying to learn to look at them closely enough to pull out the ways that these acts of making and shaping happen and what they "mean". It's often difficult and slow work, in part because of the very everydayness of the mapping situations. No big things are happening, no grand virtuosic displays of mapping artistry, no weighty and dramatic themes.

Nonetheless everything I said above is applicable to these situations. Choices are made about how to shape the maps (aesthetics); the choices are made in ways that affect people in various ways (ethics). The fact that the choices and consequences are small-scale doesn't mean that they don't exist, or that learning to see and talk about them won't eventually, hopefully, lead to some kind of useful and generative discourse.

But to get back to where I started with this post, perhaps the terms "aesthetics" and "ethics" are too heavyweight for what I'm talking about, especially if they trigger associations that take people away from the main points, as they seem to. Lately I've been thinking that just using the term "shaping" would be better. There are acts and choices about shaping the artifact, and the meaning of those shaping actions can be read and discussed in the context of their making. Shaping is something that happens in nearly every act of making something (like choosing words and punctuation for this post, imperfectly as it may be done). By choosing that as my term of focus, it may help people , including me, approach the subject without being misdirected.

In an upcoming post I'll talk about this in relation to some of the videos I've been analyzing lately.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

In honor of Blog Action Day

I missed the original call for Blog Action Day, which was sponsored to "get blogs posting about a common cause: the environment." But better late then never, here's a small contribution.

Today's a work day so I don't have much time to put together a good post, but I'll say a bit about how Compendium relates to the collective effort to reclaim our environment from the forces of destruction and chaos.

Compendium was founded on the idea that it is possible for groups of people to come to grips with complex issues, to look at problems from multiple perspectives. The core idea is that you should be able to ask questions about anything, no matter how monolithic it looks from the outside. Any thread of an issue or debate can be explored, and the discussion around that exploration can be highlighted and focused in its own "space" (a map) without losing the connections to all the other discussions that include that thread. A Compendium project is designed to contain all the many and manifold perspectives and connections on complex issues, giving all a voice and a way to express, query, and explore all of the facets.

No issue requires this kind of multi-perspective analysis as the environment. Science, public policy, economic interests, social impact, personal relationships -- all are involved. Many of our adopters have used Compendium to help explore environmental issues in many different ways. Ricky Ohl's work on mapping public consultations on environmental atmosphere issues in Australia is just one example.

We hope that we can make Compendium useful to many more people and groups attempting to understand, get consensus, and act on environmental issues.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Another useful New Yorker article

The New Yorker has lately been a great source of material that talks about engagement with a medium and the human drama of aesthetic production. Besides the article on Garry Kasparov that I wrote about recently, this week (the Oct. 22 "Arts" edition) there's an article (by the unfairly talented Adam Gopnik) called "The Corrections (abridgement, enrichment, and the nature of art)". It talks, among other things, about DVD commentaries where film directors shed light on the often minute (to the viewer) choices they made. E.g. the following about the director's commentary on the movie "Hollywoodland":

Barely audible sound clues are minutely parsed for their implied significance; it turns out that the extras, looped in post-production, were allowed to murmur only about timely subjects from 1959. Every moment in the mix, every change of light (from the "fading Kodachrome" look of the Brody story to the saturated look of the Affleck bits), every discreet genuflection to another movie is lovingly catalogued. ("Just a bit of an homage to a great cut in 'Chinatown,' one of my favorite edits in all film.") We learn that the longest lens in the Adrien Brody sequences is the same length as the shortest lens in the Ben Affleck sequences. We learn that the director drew up a "flow chart" of gum-chewing, marking the dramatic trajectory on which the Brody character does and does not chew gum, and thereby revealing his moral growth.

It's this kind of thing, that I experienced even as a novice filmmaker and film student in college, that got me into the whole question of looking at the connection between aesthetics and ethics in the practice of making some kind of artistic object, especially when you intend it to be engaged with by other people. When you're making something you really care about, you get deeply involved in all sorts of nuances of form and meaning and effect, some of which you may plan in advance but many of which occur spontaneously in the act of making ("if I just move the camera like *this*, it will make the actress's choice more XXX").

The same thing can happen when, as an observer or audience member, you look really intently at a scene or a painting or whatever, you start seeing things at a much more fine-grained level of nuance than the usual, just letting it wash over you kind of spectatorship. It takes a deeper engagement than normal to do that. That kind of engagement comes more easily and naturally in the act of making, whether you're aware of it consciously or not, but it can also occur from the audience or participant perspective, with enough effort and motivation.

Helping my kids with writing

When I was scrawling in my notebook on what became this post about outcomes, I ended up with a thought that surprised me. I'd been writing about what kind of positive outcomes this research might result in, particularly in helping practitioners improve their situational effectiveness in the heat of actual practice. And that got me on to thinking about helping my kids (both now in their teens) with their school assignments, especially writing (as they get farther on I'm not of much use with science, math, or Spanish, but writing is still something I more or less can do).

When I help them with their writing, I don't give them much by way of general principles and big ideas. Instead we look at specific sentences, words, paragraphs in the context of what their assignment is about, and I try to help them see what works or doesn't work in that context. Sometimes I can gloss the specific example with a general principle -- for example, don't use passive voice -- but the real help I provide is very close-grained. Little formations in the immediate context of the whole. It's not giving them the answers, instead it's (hopefully) helping them to see how to come up with the answers themselves.

And I realized while writing about this that I love doing it. Working up close with the materials they are trying to shape, helping them to discover what works and what doesn't and why, which they have to do for themselves because telling them doesn't help. It has to come from the inside out. My role is to help that process along, and it happens by the simultaneous close engagement with the materials and medium itself (what they are writing about and how they are doing it), with my interactions with them as people, with an attitude of love and hope and respect for their own intelligence. I know they can get it, they just haven't gotten there yet. There is something about that close work with the words and sentences and meanings, with the styles and effects, with thinking through the consequences of different choices, with providing an example but only to help them to see why it does or doesn't work in the context, helping them towards being able to do it on their own, that in doing it I feel like my life may be worthwhile, that I have given something that matters to someone whose flourishing I deeply care about. It's kind of like when I taught them to ride bicycles. That skill, too, has to come from inside, I can't ride the bikes for them or tell them in the abstract how to do it. I had to help them to learn the little tricks of balance and navigation and the confidence that they don't need me holding the bike up straight, but ultimately what mattered was when they could get around the running track on their own, that look of pride and freedom on their faces when they had done it. Then I felt like I had done something worth doing.

This area, the fostering of capability, is a huge motivation to me in the research work. Somehow among all the scrabbling, setbacks, and long hours of video analysis, if something emerges that can be of help to people trying to achieve and express what they are trying to do with these new media, seeing for themselves why something does or doesn't work, coming up with their own inspirations, it will have been worth it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Chess as knowledge art

In a recent issue of the New Yorker magazine, there is an article about Garry Kasparov. I liked the following quote, talking about Kasparov's experience of playing chess in tournaments:

. . . the crazy depth of commitment and passion, as well as the daring of his style, made him feel alive. [quoting biographer Fred Waitzkin:] "Chess for Garry was never a game . . . . It was about living and dying, about redefining the art every time he played . . . . To be a world champion in chess, the amount of what you have to know, what you have to fit in your brain and master, is so big that it is incomprehensible to a normal person . . . . You have to know more than a nuclear physicist or a brain surgeon knows. You have to know more stuff than virtually anyone on earth. Then you have to have the facility of mind to process it and then forget it so that you are free to improvise and be imaginative.
- From "The Tsar's Opponent", by David Remnick (The New Yorker, October 1, 2007), p. 73)

While I've yet to come across a 'crazy' Compendium practitioner (and I don't think I'm one myself, except for maybe when I've delved into making fiction....), much of this sounds and feels familiar. At least in terms of what a person who feels passionately about working in their medium brings to it. I especially like the last sentence, about the necessity for improvisation and imagination on top of all one's technical and conceptual knowledge.

This connects also to what I've tried to talk about in terms of looking at Compendium, and Compendium practice, as a medium with practitioners. The point isn't whether it's a 'better' or 'worse' medium than others, any more than you can understand Kasparov's artistry and expertise by talking about whether chess is a more 'effective' game than other sorts. For Kasparov each game -- each situation -- is unique and requires a unique response. He has to approach it with all of his energy, knowledge, passion, and artistry, and following a formula is a sure recipe for defeat. If we want to understand what a master brings to his or her medium, we need to look at it in its own context, what does it take to "work" in that arena.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Using Compendium as a research tool

The below is adapted from an e-mail exchange* with Helga Kocurek, who is doing a PhD in Philosophy at Massey University in New Zealand. She had read our paper on using Compendium for doctoral research, and had some questions on how to use Compendium for her work.

* * *


I am a PhD student in philosophy and the only person around interested in using such technology. I have been looking for a long time for a good way to store/integrate/find again all the various notes I have taken. I have read your paper Hypermedia as a Productivity Tool for Doctoral Research and was wondering if you have learned any more about how to use compendium as a research tool for PhD work. (Or if you know web sources specifically for this purpose. All I have found is business oriented.

* * *


I use Compendium in many ways, as well as help develop it and do research into its use. Is there some specific area(s) that you're interested in for PhD work?

For example, I use it to
- take notes on my readings and analyses
- keep track of tasks and action items
- store notes and maps from meetings
- prepare and give presentations
- query the database for quotations/citations
- mess around in random ways
- construct more formal maps relating concepts in various ways

Let me know what kinds of things you'd like me to expand on.

* * *


The two most important things at the moment are

- take notes on my readings and analyses
- prepare and give presentations

I have pieces of notes everywhere and it's absolute chaos.

I have tried various ways to organize to help my memory and to sort through relationships etc. I haven't found a system I am happy with. Each one seems to require me to keep some pieces somewhere else.

Part of my problem seems to be that the readings are very dense but link to all kinds of other ideas, are replies to this, use these assumptions, etc. Whatever I am doing now is completely inefficient. And all help that comes close is aimed at businesses, projects, etc.

I tracked down this site on Argumentation Schemes, but that seems to be focused rather on scientific or popular arguments based on evidence. I need to be able to find the logical structure, hidden assumptions, etc.

So if you have any ideas, or can point me to resources, I'd be glad.

* * *


First off, it's great you are looking to use Compendium in this way. I think it's a perfect fit.

Having said that, it's a little tough to give you hard and fast examples and pointers -- kind of like trying to advise someone how to write. Although it provides many aids to constructing maps, Compendium is essentially a free-form creative tool that you can use in any way you want (as opposed to a more structured program that prescribes how to do things).

So the way you use it for the purposes you describe is limited, really, only by your imagination. Personally I do all sorts of things, ranging from very informal to very formal. Some use very careful schemes of tags, link/node types, etc.; some are more stream of consciousness. Some evolve from one form to another, or mix up lots of things.

My preferences for using Compendium are for subject matter that falls into a few broad areas (that often overlap with each other): 1) material where the same ideas/concepts/images etc. might be meaningful in many different contexts; 2) material that I am going to reuse in different ways but that I want to keep 'together' in one place; 3) material that I want to put in a searchable repository even if I am not yet sure of the ways I might want to use it; 4) material that is going to be used or shared by groups of people trying to make sense of a situation; 5) material when I want a visual 'picture' instead of, or in addition to, a textual one. There are more areas but those seem like the most relevant to your query.

You could take a look at the examples linked from this page (which was itself generated from my 'PhD' Compendium database), like the items in the Presentations, Literature Notes, and Compendium Experiments sections. You might also get some ideas from Possibly following some of the links from Simon's Hypermedia Discourse page, or looking at some of the items in the Compendium Institute Showcase. Still another source for ideas would be the OpenLearn Compendium work.

Some other researchers in the Compendium community, like Simon and Mark Aakhus of Rutgers, could have some more ideas. Some of Simon's non-Compendium (or partially Compendium) work in hypermedia tools for scholarly discourse might also be of interest to you (e.g. Claimmaker and the forthcoming Cohere).

* * *


You are correct that I will need to find my own ideal way of using it. But I'd like to startup/general structure ideas. I have already used almost 4 full days researching this. And my PhD advisors don't like that sort of thing at all. They want traditional writing (I showed them a Cmap I made - and there were just blank stares). Since they want writing from me soon, I need to start efficiently and then tweak as I go along. So some questions are

1. Do I do one map for every paper I read?

2. If I compare 2 papers, do I first do 2 separate maps?

3. What I adore about Compendium is transclusion since my main research interest is connections between ideas. Is there a way to indicate which one is the original thought? or at least include a ref to the source?

4. The most important question. Once I put the time into this, how do I get a quick write up from it. The expectation is that I have a short write-up on anything I read. In addition, I need to do a MAJOR presentation at the MAIN philosophy conference for philosophy in the southern hemisphere. I have about 2 months to do that.

In other words, what I would really like help on is how to get started as fast and as efficiently as possible, and (as you have provided already) encouragement that it's worth the initial extra effort.

* * *


> 1. Do I do one map for every paper I read?

That is generally what I do.

> 2. If I compare 2 papers, do I first do 2 separate maps?

I think that is a good practice. That way you can have maps that talk about any ideas you have about the paper on its own, and a map devoted to connections/contrasts etc. between two (or more). As you note below, with transclusions you can keep track of how, say, a quotation appears in the original paper (and any ideas you link to it there), then how the same quotation relates to others from other papers elsewhere. I do that kind of thing frequently.

> 3. What I adore about Compendium is transclusion since my main research
> interest is connections between ideas. Is there a way to indicate which
> one is the original thought? or at least include a ref to the source?

Transclusions are the heart and soul of Compendium, so you've come to the right place :-)

That is a good question about indicating which one is the original. At present there is no official way to indicate the original appearance of a node. However showing reference is easy, that is one of the main purpose of a reference node (especially, though not only, if you can point to a URL; then you can just click on that node to be taken to the original source appearance, which is quite nice). Alternatively you can put bibliographic detail in the contents (Detail) of the node. If you want to indicate which was the map where you first put a node, what I might do is link a Note node to it saying something like "original appearance of this node" or similar. You may not have noticed (and it isn't the greatest implementation yet) but there is a "Linking Info" button on the Views tab of every node, that shows what is linked to that node in each view it appears in. That way you can see at a glance which view had the "original appearance" item linked to the node of interest.

> 4. The most important question. Once I put the time into this, how do I
> get a quick write up from it. The expectation is that I have a short
> write-up on anything I read. In addition, I need to do a MAJOR
> presentation at the MAIN philosophy conference for philosophy in the
> southern hemisphere. I have about 2 months to do that.

Well. That is more a question of style than anything else -- i.e., how/what you write in a node and how you link them. There is no limit on how much text you put in the Detail pages of a node, so in theory you could write a whole paper in a single node (though without much formatting unless you embed HTML tags in the text, as I sometimes do). This approach might also appease your faculty and other interlocutors -- you can point to the "real" paper but also the extras that normal papers don't have -- your notes, connections to other ideas not in the particular paper, etc.

I also will structure some maps so that they follow a conventional outline format, then use them as the seed for a paper/write-up in Word or similar. For me personally, I do most of my writing first in longhand (I find I think better that way), so I don't really use Compendium as a writing source per se. Presentations are a different matter. For those, when I use Compendium as my presentation vehicle (as in, for example, this presentation), I sometimes do a great deal of visual shaping work within Compendium itself to create good presentation appearance and flow. See Maarten Sierhuis's presentation on the Mobile Agents work for another approach, where he uses Powerpoint slides as the background for Compendium maps in his presentations, so that he combines the virtues of both tools.

* * *


thanks for all your advice. At the moment I have one more clarifying question. When you do the mindmap for each paper, you don't just summarize the paper but already evaluate/interpret it and link it to other ideas?

* * *


I lied ;) I have more questions. Can I do a quick summary on the map directly or does everything have to be in some node? What's the best way to indicate that several authors are in the same camp, so to speak? Maybe in a separate map for authors? which then links to the maps of their papers?

* * *


It depends. Sometimes a map is just a place I throw interesting quotations that I might use later; sometimes I do a summary; sometimes I throw in points of connection to other work or related thoughts.

Here is an example of a map where I actually created a summary of sorts. Here is one that has quotes and some thoughts in a more free-form way.

It really depends on what you are making a particular map for -- yourself, others, etc.

> Can I do a quick summary on the map directly or does everything have to
> be in some node?

I'm not sure what you mean by doing it on the map directly. There isn't a good way of typing onto the map background itself at present (though that's an interesting idea). So for now everything has to be in either the Label and/or Detail of one or more nodes.

> What's the best way to indicate that several authors are in the same
> camp, so to speak? Maybe in a separate map for authors? which then links
> to the maps of their papers?

That sounds good :-)

Not to sound like a broken record, but it really depends on the context and what you are trying to do (as well as your own personal preferences / style, as well as any constraints or expectations from others.

I often have maps that contain just a few nodes from a few sources, that are related to each other for some local reason, but those few nodes are transcluded in other places where they might have all sorts of other links. And there are maps that are just little tables of contents (of sorts) to other maps. For example, I have top-level maps for authors that I might have notes on several different works (Dewey, Schon, Aakhus, etc.), that link to individual maps for the different works.

* quoted with permission (thanks Helga).

Early Compendium catchphrases

The other day I passed some time by jotting down a few phrases that we've used over the years about Compendium as an approach. In this post I list some of the early ones, and give some definitions. Most of them are still valid even though they date from our pre-historical age (1992-1999). They include World Modeling, Conversational Modeling, First Be Useful, Value Now, Value Later, Granular Knowledge Reuse, Rapid Knowledge Construction, Representational Morphing, and Collaborative Sensemaking

World Modeling
Approximate birthdate: 1992

Unlike most of the other catchphrases here, which I came up with at one time or another, this one was the brainchild of Maarten Sierhuis and Rob van der Spek. It predates Compendium, though was one of the chief factors in its later emergence. World Modeling describes a framework for modeling work systems, or really any system. It was based on CommonKADS and Yourdon systems modeling, but extended by Maarten and Rob to incorporate ideas about the social dimensions of work systems in addition to the more technical aspects.

World Modeling prescribed four 'quadrants' to characterize a system -- Current Implementation (how the system existed in the real world at present, in all its messy detail), Current Essential (an abstract view of the way things currently work), Future Essential (an abstract view of the target state), and Future Implementation (the way things would really work in the target state). Each quadrant had a defined set of models you could build, such as Knowledge, Process, Timing, Problems, Opportunities, Resources, Communication, Objects, and Organization.

World Modeling has never received the full writeup it deserves (the world is still waiting, Maarten), but there are pieces in many papers, and a decent description here.

Conversational Modeling
Approximate birthdate: 1993

This describes the original idea for what we later called Compendium (Compendium as a name didn't emerge until 1997 or so*). It was a technique that combined elements of group process facilitation (based on IBIS and other approaches), structured modeling (based on World Modeling), and hypermedia repository building, intended for cross-functional teams engaged in work process and systems design. In fact, CM and Compendium were really born when I was messing around with QuestMap in a NYNEX meeting in 1993, and had the thought that its IBIS-based representation could be used as a tool to implement World Modeling.

We wanted to make system modeling something that you could do with non-experts, engaging them directly in the process (we were heavily influenced by ideas about Participatory Design) without them having to learn some arcane set of symbols and techniques. It mainly (at first) consisted of a set of techniques and templates to use with the QuestMap tool.

Conversational Modeling was first documented in a 1993 NYNEX Science & Technology Technical Memo (thanks to Philip Johnson who suggested the TM's creation**) which doesn't live on the web, but most of the ideas can be found here.

First Be Useful
Approximate birthdate: 1994

Compendium was born in a time -- the early 90s -- when the air was full of putatively transformative methods, slogans, and tools. It was the era of Business Process Re-engineering and similar approaches that promised re-invention of the workplace, heightened consciousness, and better communication. Grand claims were made for the application of ethnography, systems dynamics, action workflow modeling, discrete event simulation, and so on.

We were not immune to this, and indeed the original emphasis for Compendium was for BPR and other cross-functional teams engaged in work process design (see Conversational Modeling). But we did see that a lot of the other methods flying around required a huge investment in time, preparation, and expensive professionals before they yielded any benefit, and indeed often the claims as well as results stayed on the theoretical plane.

We wanted to provide something that, in contrast, could provide benefits, if more everyday ones, within the first few minutes of use, by (for example) helping to facilitate a meeting and get people on the same wavelength, capture action items, and start to build models, without any need for elaborate preparation or training. You could just start using it and it would be helpful right away, even if you weren't yet able to do the fancy stuff. So before making the grand claims, First Be Useful even in a humble meeting or planning session.

Value Now, Value Later
Approximate birthdate: 1996

In many ways this catchphrase is related to First Be Useful. But it especially referred to the hypermedia repository dimension of Compendium -- the idea that you were not only building models and representations that would be of use down the road, but also providing facilitative value in the moment -- helping to keep meetings on track, improving dialogue and shared understanding among the participants, and providing a visual focus that everyone could refer to.

The more and better you could employ the techniques we provided, the better able you'd be both to shape maps for immediate usefulness as well as downstream value (such as being able to retrieve information efficiently, track action items and issues over long periods of time, capture and utilize design rationale, and provide data to other tools and systems.

We thought "Value Now, Value Later" would be a compelling marketing-type statement, and maybe it would have been in more marketing-adept hands (for some reason, Compendium has attracted few -- ok, none -- people who are good at marketing).

Granular Knowledge Reuse
Approximate birthdate: 1996

Another idea related to what for me is the true heart and soul of Compendium -- the hypermedia aspect and particularly the idea of transclusion (the same idea/concept/node in multiple views). As described above, from the beginning we thought about building large-scale models of things like work systems, that would involve looking at something like a business process from many viewpoints and perspectives.

For example, we wanted to provide (a la World Modeling) ways to construct models of tasks, processes, knowledge, problems, opportunities, and so forth, in which the same elements (say, a particular person, task, or system) would recur over and over again. The hypermedia functionality let us copy a node from one view (say, a process model) and paste it another (say, a discussion about that process's problems) and have it be the same thing in both places. Even more, we could right-click on that item and see all the views it appeared in. As the overall set of maps got built up, these transclusions would increase in number, and the modeling approach and other techniques we came up with would help you keep track of, and get value from, all those appearances.

For example, we did a project (documented here) that involved constructing hundreds of models of tasks, systems, and processes for a Y2K contingency planning project. There were about 350 systems identified, each represented with their own node, that were transcluded in all the 300+ business processes and tasks they played a role in. Using Compendium techniques, we could quickly see which systems played critical roles in the business processes that could not be allowed to fail in the event of a Y2K problem (such as emergency communications).

Granular Knowledge Reuse was written about here.

Representational Morphing
Approximate birthdate: 1998

The birthdate of this phrase can be traced with precision. It came out of a dinner discussion at a Russian restaurant in Helsinki, Finland, in December 1998, with Simon Buckingham Shum, Michael Bieber, and Janne Kaipala, after a Hypertext Functionality workshop at that year's ICIS conference. We were talking about the kinds of techniques we'd been playing with in the area of Granular Knowledge Reuse (see above), especially some hacking around with QuestMap export files to create MS-Word, Visio, and other documents automatically.

The idea was that, unlike other modeling approaches that you'd have to manually create different sorts of representations from for different communities, we could automate that process so that you only did the manual work once (in Compendium), then could press a button and spit out a requirements document or set of data flow diagrams in another tool. Someone at the table (not sure who it was) described this as "Representational Morphing."

Simon and I wrote about this in a number of subsequent papers, including this one.

Rapid Knowledge Construction
Approximate birthdate: 1999

As we got better and better using the Compendium set of techniques with groups, we got very fast at being able to create templates, models, and other forms of representations, on the fly, with groups, in live settings. As mentioned earlier, we always had the goal of being able to jump into any situation and start adding value as quickly as possible, but doing so in such a way that more formal and structured uses of a group's work could be created and extracted at any point later on. So beyond just capturing a discussion, we also wanted to be able to create "knowledge" representations (structured ways of showing how ideas, concepts, etc. relate to each other) that could be used in structured models, by other systems and tools, and by later, possibly different, groups of people.

We wanted to describe what we'd come up with in a way that fit it into the then-very active Knowledge Management research community, distinguishing the particular contribution we felt (and still feel) we were making, especially since a common criticism of KM techniques was the so-called "capture bottleneck", that Compendium appeared to overcome. Rapid Knowledge Construction seemed a good name for this. It is written about here.

Collaborative Sensemaking
Approximate birthdate: 1999

Sensemaking, as written about by researchers like Karl Weick and Brenda Dervin, was an idea gaining momentum in the late 1990s, though it far predates that time. In fact, a paper by Dervin that I'd read in grad school in 1982 had always stayed in the forefront of my thinking about groups, tools, and communication. As we began the Conversational Modeling and Compendium work, it felt to me that we were making a contribution in the ability of not only individuals but groups to work together to make sense of their problem situation. Collaborative Sensemaking seemed a good way to describe this.

As far as I know, that term had not been used previously to when we first wrote about it here (may not be a live link any more; can also go here), though I have lately seen some new interest in it.

In a future post I'll write about some of the other Compendium catchphrases that came later. But the above now-hoary chestnuts encompass a lot of what we'd been trying to achieve in the early days -- and still.

* In fact, "Compendium" as a name was suggested by my wife Debbie in 1997 or so. It was during a time that Maarten and I were struggling to think of a better name for our approach than "Conversational Modeling," which no one liked (except us). All we had come up with were even worse alternatives, like "HIM" for 'Holistic Information Modeling' or something like that). I was sitting at our dining room table trying to think of something more accessible. I asked Debbie (who is not a computer- or business-type person), who was sitting on a couch across the room, what she thought a good name would be for something that allowed you to create collections of ideas that could be related to each other. She proposed "Compendium", and it stuck.

** It was this TM that convinced Maarten that the Conversational Modeling approach might be viable. Up until then, just hearing me talk about it, he predicted it would fail. Seeing it on paper seemed to make a difference.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Talking about outcomes

I have previously described the experimental sessions I conducted at the 2007 Compendium workshop as well as at Rutgers this spring. I'm currently engaged in analyzing the video and Camtasia (screen/audio capture) recordings of those sessions.

For this analysis, I am not looking at whether the subject practitioners were successful in the facilitated sessions they created and ran, or whether they were able to produce some kind of desired outcome or results. Rather, my purpose is to examine what aesthetic and ethical challenges they faced in the course of their work with the tools, representations, and participants.

The question of "outcomes" is an interesting one. Much research in the use of discourse and facilitation tools is on whether or not using the tool or approach led to better outcomes, such as higher quality solutions or increased participant satisfaction. Such research focuses on data that can be measured and compared to results achieved with some other approach. These are often used to make claims for the relative efficacy of the tool under study.

Personally I'm not interested in making or proving such claims for Compendium's efficacy. Such studies could be of value, but they only look at one (in my mind, rather thin) dimension. To me Compendium as an approach is a given. It exists, like newspapers, jazz recitals, or documentary films. Debating whether these "work" better or worse than other forms of expressive media, whether they are suited to produce particular outcomes, is possibly a worthy area but hardly exhausts the interesting subjects for inquiry. When it comes to Compendium practice, not "why do it?" but "what is it?" seems a far more generative question. What are the unique practices coming out of this particular medium?

But I am, in fact, interested in outcomes. However, they are more the outcomes associated with developing better professional practice -- meaning (as with other fields that deal with the use of an expressive medium) the ability to engage with and understand this medium in relation to its context of use. "Practice" in this sense referring to the art of how the tool can be used, becoming better at that art, understanding what it consists of. This means (as with, for example, a musician) understanding one's instrument better, deepening one's sense of its subtleties and expressive nuances, how to bring these to bear in different situations.

Part of Compendium's appeal to me as a medium is its protean nature, its adaptibility to and flexibility within many different kinds of situations. It's like how a camera can be used to take a myriad of different sorts of photos, or how a guitar or piano can be used in thousands of different musical styles and situations. We don't generally measure the "outcome" of a photo, even though they are used in countless "instrumental" circumtances, as are other commonplace media -- video, hand-drawn cartoons, instant messages... there isn't, and doesn't need to be, any unitary way of to think about these media forms and what they're good for. Rather one speaks of learning to be a better writer or a better photographer in particular ways, techniques, and situations.

It seems to me that it's situational effectiveness that matters. How well is a person able to use a medium in a particular situation. For professional development, what matters is how a practitioner deepens their effectiveness with the medium, especially its expressive aspects.

So in my analysis of the Rutgers and Ames sessions, I'm looking for how the subjects try to get the medium to be expressive, to be the right kind of expressive for a particular situation, what kinds of things get in the way of that expressiveness (or the "expressiveness potential", how good the medium could be if perfectly/artistically used), what strategies and inspirational moves, as well as breakdowns, are experienced in the course of the effort of trying to make a useful and usable artifact. Those are the kinds of outcomes I'm interested in.

Some of the questions this gives rise to:
- what would be the perfect artifact (representation, speech, etc.) to be used in this situation?
- what aspects of representation, tool functionality, verbalization would make the artifact be what is envisioned or called for?

These kinds of questions can be applied to any other medium used in a group constructive setting. No choice of a medium or approach in and of itself can ever be reliably counted on to bring about some kind of outcome -- there are too many variables. It always comes down to a combination of human skill and fortuitousness. Nearly any medium or approach, used the right way and accompanied by effective communication in other forms (speech, etc.) can be "right" in a given situation. Techniques and methods can always be presented as obvious or as givens, but any applied technique invariably requires human selection and shaping. It's the human shaping that I am choosing to focus on. Once the medium has been chosen (in my case, that medium is Compendium, but it could be any other expressive medium), how do people try to make it "work" in the situation?

I've always been interested in the problem of improving the quality of human communication -- how to help people understand each other as well as express themselves better (particularly in group settings). That's what attracted me to Compendium's forebears (especially QuestMap and IBIS) in the first place. They seemed to hold out the promise of providing a set of tools that could improve human communication. I still believe they do. But I also know that they don't -- can't -- do it on their own. Using the tools always either founders or succeeds on the human skill and artistry in applying them.

That effectiveness has to be understood in terms of situational imperatives. If, for example (as in the case of the Mobile Agents work), the situation requires rendering Compendium maps in a form that is both "machine readable" as well as an accurate and evocative conversational record that human teams can use, that means one set of demands on practitioner, tool, and representation. In simpler situations, the demands and imperatives are less multidimensional.

In the Rutgers and Ames videos, the groups were all trying to put together a facilitative Compendium exercise using pre-supplied images of space travel, with 60-90 minutes to design the exercise, then 15 minutes to facilitate the exercise itself with the larger group. Each group tries different approaches, strategies, and techniques, and encounters different kinds of obstacles and challenges. Every case is unique even though the task and materials are the same. That's what my analysis will focus on -- what was each group trying to do, what outcomes did they intend to bring about, how did they intend to use the tool, what shaping did they put in place in advance; then what happened in the actual event, what diverged from their intentions, how did they try to accommodate and adjust.

The interesting question is, given this set of imperatives, how does the practitioner act to keep the representation in tune with the demands? What must they do, what are they able to do, even what do they fail to do?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Research goals, part 2

More on swinging the research lens from the software, representations, or outcomes to the person behind the tools.

My research arises from and ends in practice. After working with dozens of groups using Compendium (and occasionally other media) throughout the 1990s, as well as conducting many training sessions for new practitioners, I wanted to try to bring into focus what goes on in actual situations of practice, in the application of intention, methods, tools, and skills in service of a collective effort. What do practitioners do when trying to solve the problem of communication among a group of people, especially when they are grappling with the intersection of complex technologies, problems, and processes, trying to make sense of the situation (and each other) while putting together some sort of representation or solution -- a diagram, a model, a set of decisions, a document, a continuing record of issues and deliberations -- or all of the above.

People engaged in that kind of practice, especially if they are the ones riding herd on the tools and representations, labor to keep them coherent, expressive, and useful. They make all sorts of moves and choices, the nature of which have to do with the situation, what they're trying to achieve, their facility with the tool, their representational preferences and abilities, their constraints. But especially in the case of using representational software like Compendium, these choices, moves, and skills are largely taken for granted or assumed as a given. As this thinking goes, either you have them (you're an "expert" or a "wizard") or you don't. If you don't, the tool becomes an "obstacle", the focus goes on its "user-friendliness" or the feature set it may or may not have, its comparison to other tools that can do the job easier or better. But I want to move the focus to the left, to the person behind the camera, to the ways they use the tool and what it can/can't do rather than to the tool itself.

In the arts and humanities, the focus is rarely on the tool(s) per se (paints, films, cameras, etc.) and what they can or can't do in some deterministic way. There is no guarantee that if you use a Panaflex camera you'll be able to make The Sugarland Express (or Scary Movie 4, for that matter). Rather the emphasis is on the way the artist/practitioner makes use of the medium in service of their intentions as well as the encounter of the audience with the finished work.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Research goals

For me, Compendium is not about authoring stand-alone documents as fixed, unchanging artifacts (though it can certainly be used that way), but rather about creating and managing malleable, queryable collections of symbols, images, texts, and relationships.

This type of artifact is sometimes called a "living document," but that still sounds too static and unitary to characterize what a Compendium database can be. Certainly living, but more than a single document. Rather, a collection, a trove, or -- as we originally meant by calling it "Compendium" -- a compendium, a compilation of what's important to a group of people engaged in some sort of ongoing effort.

These collections live in media -- specifically hypermedia, with all of the communicative and technical connections that the term implies. So Compendium as a tool and approach is about creating and managing hypermedia compendia, keeping them coherent, accessible, expressive, and useful.

My research focuses on the practices involved in creating these living media artifacts, especially in the case of doing so in real time, with groups of people. What is brought to bear at moments when people are trying to shape a Compendium artifact and keep it clear, effective, data-rich and meaning-rich, subject to later manipulation, or any of the other imperatives that can guide the artifact's construction, given the context?

These feel to me like critical skills that we are just beginning to recognize and see the importance of. I'd like for my research to accelerate that movement by finding ways to talk about what goes on at such moments, to help give language to and tools for understanding, communicating about, and improving the practices. It's foundational work in that sense, because there is little* in the research and practical literature, so far, that directly addresses the skills involved in constructing living hypermedia on the fly with groups of people.

My own research roots are in the humanities, film, and communication studies rather than in computer science, argumentation, group facilitation, or the other usual hypermedia suspects. I've always been interested in the shaping of expressive artifacts like films or novels, and in the interactions of audiences with the works. Particularly I became interested with what thinking directly about the audience meant for the ethical and aesthetic aspects of filmmaking, especially when a film was meant to serve some sort of social purpose (e.g. Latin American emancipatory filmmaking of the 1970s, or documentaries meant to raise consciousness and spur action on some issue).

When Compendium gelled in the early 1990s (first as a facilitative modeling approach building on top of QuestMap and IBIS, and later as a set of dedicated software tools and methods), these concerns were highlighted for me in the interaction of "audience" (the participants in some effort using Compendium) and "practitioner" (the person with their hands on the mouse and keyboard helping to shape maps on the fly, in meetings).

Although the situation is in some ways very different than for films or novels, in other ways the same sorts of aesthetic and ethical considerations can be found. There are contextual factors and constraints that guide what can and should be done, there are a particular set of people involved with their own personal interests and communicative interactions, there is a tool that is used to create the representations and expressions, there is the evolving representation (the maps) itself, there is the discussion that happens between participants, whether directly concerned with the maps, partially, or not at all, and there are the choices and moves that the practitioner(s) (the ones directly concerned with the shaping of the maps) make as they try to keep the maps coherent and expressive as well as to respond to what is going on in the session (among the people involved) around them.

It's those choices and moves that my current research is focusing on. I've been analyzing video recordings of Compendium sessions, looking at practitioner moves in the context of what they and their participants are trying to do, particularly focusing on moves made within the Compendium maps themselves and what they mean. In future entries I'll write more specifically about what I'm seeing in this analysis and what it might mean for Compendium specifically, and "knowledge art" practice more generally.

* There is plenty of literature in related fields that is extremely helpful, some of which I cover in my lit review, but very little that talks directly about participatory hypermedia practices. The work of Jeff Conklin, Simon Buckingham Shum, and others close to Compendium's evolution, are exceptions.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

More on 'Back from India'

Further on this post. While I was in India, I re-read two novels about Indian society -- Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, and Rohan Mistry's A Fine Balance. In both, very bad things happen to some of the main characters, sometimes emerging out of long-standing historical circumstances (such as inter-caste hatred in villages, erupting in small but horrible ways), and sometimes out of pure chance (a momentary halt in a religious procession snowballs into a terrible accident on an overcrowded pedestrian ramp). In both novels, the bonds of love, trust, and cooperation between family and friends are tested, strained, sometimes broken, sometimes reconnected, in the face of big and small events. In both, social causes and "remedies" (such as the drive for voluntary vasectomies as a population control measure in Indira Ghandi's Emergency of the 1970s, or a campaign to give land to landless tenant farmers in the 1950s) are shown to be at best full of unintended consequences, and at worst leading to corruption and evil far worse than the social problems they purported to address.

Being back in India again, I was everywhere seeing the hyper-growth, speedy modernization (in some ways surpassing the U.S.), enormous expansion of a partially Westernized middle class over where the country was on my first visit in 1986, side by side with the remnants of traditional Indian society and culture as well as persistent poverty and struggle mixed in with the tremendous prosperity. Much is being lost, at least partially, along the way, just as it has been in the West, particularly the uniqueness of the culture (it is still there, but infused with Western, Asian, and Indian versions of modernity). People, at least in the cutting-edge sectors of society such as the IT engineers I spent most of my time with, are not as sociable as they were. My Indian colleagues and friends told me that the close-knit communities of families and friends that they grew up with, where everyone lived together and freely intermixed with each other's lives, houses, events, is still there but much reduced from what it was (even though still far more sociable and friendly than most US communities). Religion and ethnic identity are still enormous forces and tremendously more visible and pronounced than in the US, but again more diluted, the edges taken off, for many people. Kids play the same video games as in the US; fancy shopping malls in the big cities look nearly identical to their American counterparts; Western brands (manufactured in the East) are everywhere; personal cars (nearly absent 20 years ago) clog every street; everyone has mobile phones; IT as both employer and culture is pervasive; TV is laden with Scrubs, Mr. Bean, and The Simpsons. It is still unquestionably India, but India is now not as distinctively Indian in character.

And what would the value be if it was? It would be more unique, more poetic, more quaint, perhaps more appealing to visitors if it was more like it used to be, but none of that is of benefit or importance to the people that live there. Unquestionably much is being lost, but what is the value of that loss? Even when I point my camera at an oxcart, a Tollywood movie poster, or a woman making rice flour patterns outside her front gate in the morning, "capturing" some of unique Indian character that I can show to the folks back home, am I being any more than a tourist, consuming a bit of foreign culture, commodifying it for the amusement of family and friends? I like to think there's more to it than that, that I am telling a story, and that my photography is good enough to capture more resonance and character, more intrinsic identity, than just a voyeuristic snapshot, grabbing a piece of someone else's identity for American consumption, but I am not so sure. What is the narrative, the flow of history, which makes sense of what I'm doing when I click the digital shutter and post the results on PicasaWeb, emailing the URL back home?

Seth and Mistry write both from and about the India of the past even as it was changing radically from pre-Independence days. For them it was personal, in a way it can't be for me, but I have always had a personal attachment to India that I don't feel for most other countries. There is something about the way people are emotionally present, feelings and relations more visible and tangible than in many other places, that hooks me. This is not always a positive thing. As the books make all too clear, as I have seen and experienced myself, anger and cruelty and everyday frustration are as conspicuous as warmth, generosity, and openness. Things are less hidden there and that can be painful as well as wonderful, sometimes overwhelming. Both books show both sides, and there is something there that I need to better relate to my work -- there is some intrinsic connection that I feel, but have so far not been able to put into words.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Determinism and uncertainty

There is a tendency (usually unspoken and probably un-, or semi-conscious) in the 'software world' to write about approaches and technologies in a deterministic manner – adopt this approach and the benefits will be realized, the millennium will come. There is something of an imperative to research, develop, and write from this point of view – what you are trying to do is establish absolute cause-and-effect. What would be the point of developing a piece of software, or a method of using it, unless doing so in some prescribed way is going to bring about some definite, repeatable result? If and when you don't come from this point of view, it feels wrong, and is looked at as deficient.

For a long while I've felt that my general approach doesn't somehow fit in the software world, or any of the realms where there is an unquestioned kind of determinism underlying any effort -- that is, what you are trying to do is come up with a method, process, tool, theory, etc. that, if applied and followed correctly, will have a certain cause and effect, a predictable result. Doing X will produce Y, if you do it well and correctly enough. Claims are made for approaches on this basis. If only everyone blogged with tags, or used GOMS to analyze usability, or followed rhetorical principles in discussions, or (for that matter) used Compendium (with or without IBIS), you'd attain some kind of utopia, a better world, or at least better software or products.

I don't think that way. There are no silver bullets in human affairs and there never will be. There are, sometimes, incremental improvements (that often have unintended consequences), and there are tools and approaches that can sometimes help in some situations. Of course I believe (passionately, maybe foolishly) that Compendium can be helpful, that making it better, and helping to help people to apply and use it, can have beneficial effects, especially in understanding each other. But I don't think that even if we "perfected" it (not possible), and everyone used it, that the millenium would arrive, paradise regained, etc. That's not even an underlying assumption or fond hope for me.

I sometimes feel that this puts me, and my work, and my writing, in the wrong light, and puts me at odds even with some of my close friends and collaborators. If I don't have an underlying millenial assumption, an underlying conviction that what I'm after is the development of a deterministic, infallible path, then I am not writing, working, developing, researching the right way. Perhaps that is what is missing for people in my writing -- if I at least acted like I was convinced of the infallibility and rectitude, that getting to that state was my goal, people would get what they wanted (and what they are now missing) from the work.

Mark Aakhus recently recommended reading the first chapter of Colin Grant's "Uncertainty and Communication: New Theoretical Investigations." I was arrested in the first few paragraphs:
"the indeterminacy of the range of communication options we have at our disposal in different cultures, different languages, different media and different social roles is not actually determinable at all. The porous form of communication actually means that even when we think we choose a clear, stable form, the penumbra of unselected
information remains." (p. 2)
What I like about the way Grant puts this is his emphasis on what is unknown over what is known. I don't know where he is going yet, but I'm hopeful there is some useful framework here for research that, even though it tries as hard as it can to contribute to effective, useful, and generative forms of communication, recognizes that there are no absolutes, there will always be gaps. It is up to the people using those forms in their unique situations to try to fill the gaps as best they can, in temporary and provisional ways. It is not a failure of the research, or the forms, to recognize this. Maybe Grant's work can help to frame the research in a way that better characterizes its value than holding it up to an implicit deterministic yardstick.