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.