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?

1 comment:

MXS said...

Very well said. This, I feel, shows the practice of Ph.D. research. You are able to describe your research goal in a more fluent and understandable way, now more than ever. It is a long process of personal growth of your research topic.

Yours is an interesting and worthwhile research goal. It is grounded in understanding the Compendium practitioner. What does the Compendium practitioner do? What does (s)he do when (s)he is a novice? What if (s)he is an expert? Are there differences and what are they? These are interesting questions, and by answering them systematically and scientiffically, our knowledge about Compendium and Compendium-like practices will increase.

I agree with you that researching the effectiveness of Compendium as a tool or method is less interesting. That would be similar to researching why a hammer is effective. Since using Compendium is much harder than using a hammer, and since we know very little about the skills needed to use Comendium, it is interesting to understand how people use Compendium in their activities and what they do while in the activity of using Compendium.

I'm interested to read the outcome of your thesis. What language/theory will you come up with to describe the use of Compendium in any situation?

Keep up the good work!!!

Doei ... MXS