Wednesday, December 17, 2008

More on "Species of Sensemaking"

More on this post, triggered by some recent responses to a couple of our papers on sensemaking.

"As an individual moves through an experience, each moment is potentially a sense-making moment. The essence of that sense-making moment is assumed to be addressed by focusing on how the actor defined and dealt with the situation, the gap, the bridge, and the continuation of the journey after crossing the bridge."
- Brenda Dervin, “From the mind's eye of the user

What do people mean when they talk about sensemaking? There are several types of definitions, which seem to touch each other only peripherally.

Many treat sensemaking as largely the province of information retrieval: there is a problem or question, there is a body of information that relates to it that one has acquired (or has been thrust into) through some means, and there is a need to develop an understanding of it. There is much worthwhile research and tool development being done in this vein, but it is not the only type of sensemaking research. Since it largely focuses on tools and people as users of those tools, there is a tendency to treat the human dimensions of sensemaking in a somewhat uniform, or even mechanistic manner. Given certain types of situations and certain types of tools, people are seen to respond and behave in certain ways that can be more or less aided by different sorts of a priori approaches.

Another, only partially related, vein of sensemaking research is more generally a qualitative or phenomenological approach. This has more to do with the human experience of being brought up against a discontinuity of some kind, something that prevents you from moving forward as you want or need to. This conception is identified in large part with Brenda Dervin but also related to the broader organizational sensemaking described by Karl Weick, in which the ways in which people in groups encounter disasters and catastrophes play a large role.

In this approach, one moves through time until encountering a gap or discontinuity. What you do at the moment you encounter that gap is what's of interest. Each such situation is unique for the people in it; there is nothing uniform, mechanistic, or monolithic about it.

My own research has sometimes been taken as being the former approach. Although I am writing about the human experience of creating participatory representations, a process that is inherently rife with challenges, obstacles, and gaps no matter what sort of tool is being used, some readers assign the focus to the tools and approaches themselves, and the tools’ success or failure in creating seamless experiences in information manipulation. These readers see any problems the people described encounter as lying with the tools or methods themselves. Better tools or improved methods would avoid the problems. If users of the tools I write about encounter sensemaking problems, in this view, it must be because the tools themselves don’t provide adequate support.

But that is not my focus. Further, it is not my belief. No collaborative tool or process provides seamless support to its users, especially when used in live sessions. Tool use, and the creative process itself, seen from the perspective of actual individual people attempting to create participatory representations, is inherently messy and idiosyncratic. What happens in sessions is unpredictable, unless the process is so tightly controlled and over-determined as to give the lie to the idea of “participatory” altogether.

In actual practice things don’t always go smoothly. The unexpected happens. Discontinuities rear their heads, and the actors must respond. These responses can take many forms, ranging from giving up, to falling back on rote prescribed actions, to asking for help, to accepting suggestions, to coming up with fresh creative innovations on the spot.

What I am looking at is the ways that people attempt (sometimes unproblematically, but usually not), to construct collaborative representations, and what types of obstacles confront them in the process of doing this. I take as a given that each such attempt is a new sallying forth into a sea of potential problems, inherent when trying to foster coherence, engagement, and usefulness with a group of independent and intelligent people who may or may not conform to your ideas of how they should behave or contribute. Or the problems can be with the materials or tools – something doesn’t go right or as expected; to salvage or correct the situation something has to be done.

The interesting part for me is what the people do at those times, or how they construct things so as to avoid the problems. Sometimes the problems are major and bring matters to a halt; sometimes they are minor and easily dealt with, a momentary swerve from productivity; still other times, through a combination of skill and luck, they are avoided altogether.

Some researchers treat groups engaged in participatory representations as, in effect, monoliths all bent on a single quest with a single aim. Although that can be the case, it usually isn’t. Groups are complex beasts with multiple identities (people as individuals always have multiple identities) and can’t be reduced to a single information-seeking machine. Particular members of a group may act “groupy”, but they are also, always, individuals with their own aims and goals, their own experience of the proceedings, and their own perspectives on the meaning, relevance, and interestingness of specific events. What for one person is deeply engaging is for another of little or no interest; what for one seems an exciting change of direction is for another an annoying distraction.

The focus for my current research is not on the group members, the participants themselves, although they are just as interesting in their own right. Rather I am looking at the particular sensemaking experience, the particular kinds of discontinuities that occur to people in the role of "practitioner," "caretaker", or "facilitator" of the event – those who have some responsibility to the functioning of the group and event as a whole. People inhabit this role and respond to discontinuities with a wide, even infinite variety of styles and modes of action. It’s the surfacing and describing of some of this variety that interests me. Not to reduce it to a set of patterns that can be uniformly supported. I don’t believe that’s possible.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Sensemaking example

One of the sessions at the Ames workshop was particularly problematic for the practitioners. In an oft-seen pattern, the discussion veered away from focusing on the map almost from the very beginning of the session. In the debrief afterwards, one of the facilitators said the following (note: not a native English speaker):

“One of the problem I always have, I don’t know how to face, is how do, I mean when you [start] a new topic, normally, there are a lot of people, and they are bing, bing, there is an explosion of idea and people they want to say something, maybe at the beginning they hold, and then when you say that’s your time, it’s [boom] and they start not being [cooperative]. . . . So my main problem is, how, I mean I don’t know how to stop them ... they always have very good ideas, so I don’t want to stop and break the normal flow of the discourse. But at the same time I’d like to find a way to pull them back … so it’s a main problem... you know, I don’t want to block them but at the same time I’d like to find a way to bring them back to the theme.”

This is a good example of the kind of disruption that, in the hands of a more experienced or skilled practitioner, can trigger sensemaking and actions toward a successful resolution. As in this case, practitioners with less experience or skill in managing a group conversation struggle to come up with effective interventions, and often give up trying.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

More Compendium history (part 8): Continued Evolution

This is the last of a series.

Time moved on. By 2001, the original team of Compendium practitioners and developers at what was now Verizon had mostly moved on to new responsibilities or left. Various mergers and reorganizations left the effort without executive sponsorship. 

We were able to license the software development to KMi, where Simon Buckingham Shum was successful in continuing the development, funding a full-time programmer, Michelle Bachler, who significantly expanded the tool’s capabilities over the next several years. We continued to find new applications and approaches to complement the existing ones, and formed an international group of interested people called the Compendium Institute, holding annual workshops and creating a website and discussion group (numbering 1,267 members at the time of this writing).

In 2003, Verizon granted permission for the Open University to distribute the software, and eventually the program code, freely. As the number of downloads grew (more than 50,000 by November 2008), new applications for Compendium were developed by others outside the core group, with exciting work being done in public policy exploration, e-Government, e-Learning, and many other areas. 

Within the core group itself, innovation and exploration continued, reaching into areas such as collaborative e-Science combining software-based input with on-the-fly group mapping, personnel rescue support, mapping the Iraq debate, and many other areas. Compendium has taken its place among the leading knowledge cartography approaches. The Compendium community, approach, and software continue to grow and evolve in ways both satisfying and, often, surprising to its originators.

Research and development continue on many fronts and in many places, with universities and individuals around the world making contributions. In 2003, I turned my own attention to a set of research questions that felt key to understanding the practice dimensions and, eventually, to finding better ways to support the training of new practitioners. I'm interested in the ways people find to shape Compendium maps into expressive artifacts, to craft expressive hypermedia knowledge maps on the fly, with groups of people, inviting their engagement, reaching into analysis, modeling, dialogue mapping, creative exploration, and rationale capture as necessary and appropriate. That work is the chief subject of this blog.

More Compendium history (part 7): Difficulties in Diffusing the Practices

This is part 7 of a series.
Back to Part 6

Despite these exciting developments and collaborations, however, we still faced difficulty, and sometimes even active resistance, in attracting new practitioners. This was the case both within what was by now Bell Atlantic as well as within CCL, as well as other organizations. Demand for us to provide Compendium services within Bell Atlantic continued to increase. Indeed, we ultimately hired and trained facilitators from an outside firm to keep up with demand. But the phenomenon of potential internal practitioners trying it once then giving up, or rejecting it outright, did not abate. 

Within the IT and client organizations of Bell Atlantic, we heard two main objections. The first came especially from the software engineers and developers who were our main training clientele. Most said that the tool was not a true object modeling, database, or “collaboration” tool. We would be asked, "why would we use Compendium when we can use Lotus Notes, or Visio, or Access, or …". It seemed that by asking technical people to act as facilitators and communicators, we were pushing them beyond their comfort zone. There were one or two of our students who (despite being IT people) were gifted communicators, but they tended to feel that their existing toolkit cared for all their needs, and did not see the need to add Compendium to their quivers.

At the same time, within organizations like CCL which had many talented and capable facilitators, the approach appeared to many as “too technical,” too difficult or foreign, too hyper-rational. People accustomed to free-form discussion capture on flipcharts and whiteboards did not like the idea of constraining their representations to what they thought that Compendium could provide. 

For both constituencies, capturing and representing complex issues in the software, in front of a group of people watching one’s every move, choosing node and link types and performing complex operations on the fly, trying to keep up with fast-moving conversation, just seemed too hard for most people to do.

Next and last: Continued Evolution

More Compendium history (part 6): Creativity Takes Center Stage

This is part 6 in a series

As we were puzzling about this paradox of having a powerful, successful, flexible technique that we could not convince many others to take on for themselves, a further major influence came into the picture. In 1998 and 1999 we began several collaborations with outside groups. 

One of these was with the New Lenses on Learning research group at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), connected by one of our executive internal clients who also served on an advisory board at CCL. This group, particularly our primary contacts Chuck Palus and David Horth, shared a similar interest in “putting something in the middle,” using image-rich visual artifacts in group dialogues to foster creative thinking and exploration of complex challenges.

Their use of manual and paper techniques and ours of software-based issue maps seemed more complementary than opposed, and we began looking at ways to combine our approaches. An early development was adding the capability to display digital photos and images to Compendium, so that the evocative images in CCL’s Visual Explorer toolkit (then existing only on paper) could be loaded into our software and manipulated, adding to the discussion, model, rationale, and issue maps we were already working with. We experimented with different ways to use our combined approaches in the experiential workshops that CCL conducted in different organizations.

The other chief collaboration that began at that time was with Simon Buckingham Shum of the Knowledge Media Institute at the Open University in the UK. Simon’s long background and deep research interest in IBIS, QOC, and related tools and approaches led to a highly generative research collaboration, both exploring the approaches we had developed to date and expanding them in new directions. 

Taken together, the KMi and CCL collaborations held out the promise of integrating creative exploration, issue mapping, model-based design, rationale capture, and meeting facilitation together in one tool. We generated many research papers and formed collaborations that continue to this day. The potential seemed (and still seems) enormous.

Next: Difficulties in Diffusing the Practices

More Compendium history (part 5): Developing the Software

This is part 5 of a series.

We soon began to identify desired enhancements for the software, and tried to work with CMSI to build them in to the tool (by then renamed "QuestMap"). QuestMap offered great speed and capacity for navigating even very large maps, and worked extremely well for managing IBIS (argumentation) nodes and links. We wanted greater ability to access and manage the underlying database as well as to be able to create richer representations, especially to support business process modeling. QuestMap was developed with an encrypted, embedded database that did not allow direct access or manipulation by users, and there was no way to add different kinds of icons or images, or to extend or customize the software in other ways. We also wanted to make greater use of transclusions, which we felt were the true "secret sauce" that allowed the tool to be used for multi-dimensional representations. However, CMSI felt that their core market was in IBIS mapping and did not want to extend the software in those directions. 

Despite the limitations, though, we were able to support some very large projects with the existing software coupled with the Conversational Modeling approach. These included both small group and multi-team analysis and design projects. A few small software development teams that we were members of used the approach to manage their work over longer periods. One of these, that built a forecasting tool, used the approach to manage all of its work over a couple of years, growing a large repository of models and issue tracking with both clients and developers, capturing a great deal of rationale along the way.

To work around the limitations and help connect the work we did in QuestMap with material developed in other applications and settings, we developed small “glueware” extensions, particularly in the areas of importing and exporting content from applications like Microsoft Office and Visio. Most of these were written in Microsoft's Visual Basic for Applications, which transformed QuestMap's exported text files into forms that other programs could use, or formatted material from other programs into QuestMap's import file structure. VBA let even someone like me, with elementary (at best) programming skills, create tools that let us produce richer representations than IBIS maps. When we needed to use these on critical projects (such as a large Y2K contingency planning effort that required us to generate data-flow diagrams in Visio based on our Conversational Modeling maps), real developers like Maarten and Bea Zimmermann were able to beef up my dining-room-table attempts considerably.

These helper tools only took us so far, though, and required a lot of manual intervention on the part of the user. In 1998 we decided to begin developing our own software tool that would combine QuestMap’s capabilities with the features and enhancements we wanted. The early software design, taking advantage of then-new Java, envisioned a fully-featured mapping tool combined with over-the-internet groupware capabilities.

Around the same time we dropped the “Conversational Modeling” name (which we liked, but few others did) in favor of the friendlier term “Compendium.” This became the name of both our approach in general and the software in particular. We had toyed with a variety of other names, most of which were even more turgid and obscure than Conversational Modeling. While laboring one day at the aforementioned dining room table, I asked my non-technical wife Debbie what she would call a method that let you create collections of ideas related together. She suggested "Compendium", and it stuck.

More Compendium history (part 4): Conversational Modeling Takes Hold

This is part 4 of a series.

We (mainly Maarten Sierhuis and me) began experimenting with this approach. With growing excitement, we found that the approach seemed to hold together, and even to scale to be able to handle weeks or months of working with a project team. Working “undercover” mostly at first, we applied the fledgling approach in a variety of contexts. Each time we met enthusiastic reception from the people we were working with, and learned more about the best ways to represent and manage models, project management materials, and discussions without leaving the CM/1 software.

I wrote a long technical memo that spelled out the various techniques in detail, which I later summarized in a paper for a 1996 hypertext workshop, which even later became a journal article. This was the first public exposure for the approach.

One of our early successes was working with a cross-functional team from Human Resources that needed to come up with a toll-free hotline for employees to use to access HR resources. We were not only able to use Conversational Modeling to help the group build collaborative representations of the different departments and functions that needed to be incorporated in the “Helpline”, simultaneously recording and working through issues and arguments in the shared display, but we were also surprised to find (based on their comments) that members of the group seemed to be listening to each other, and learning about each other’s work and concerns, with more attentiveness and concern than they had been able to do before. We began to think that perhaps this approach could not only be used for “rational” activities like modeling and analysis, but for group development and mutual learning as well.

After some time and more successes, we went “public” and began offering this approach and toolset as an internal (to NYNEX) consulting service. We also offered the approach free to educational and other external groups. 

Ultimately we conducted hundreds of sessions in dozens of project settings, small and large, over the next several years. We developed training classes (some of that work lives on in these training materials) to spread the competencies we’d developed more broadly within the company, training several dozen people in a number of two-day workshops.

Still, though, we did not see broader take up of this approach, at least in terms of others adopting the approach and becoming practitioners themselves. While client groups were quite happy to have us come in and be the practitioners for them, they did not show much interest in picking up the tools and practices themselves. In some cases we were able to train people who did apply the approach themselves on a single project, but they never used it again once that project was complete. 

The many attendees of our training workshops, despite their initial enthusiasm, fell prey to the same pattern we’d seen in the beginning. They’d try the approach in a meeting or two, fall behind or otherwise get stuck, and give up. This experience seemed to be in accord with many of the reports in the 1996 Moran and Carroll book as well as other early work in hypertext and design rationale approaches, which emphasized the cognitive overhead involved in creating representations of design rationale. Many of these researchers seemed to despair that the difficulties could be overcome.

More Compendium history (part 3): Combining Modeling with IBIS

This is part 3 of  a series. 

At the same time as our experiments with CM/1 were occurring, another thread in the lab was concerned with developing a model-based approach to system and business process design, influenced by traditional systems analysis methods a la Yourdon, the European knowledge modeling methodology called CommonKADS, and other approaches such as Soft Systems Methodology

As with the explorations of CM/1, there was a good deal of ferment about this as we looked for ways to reap the benefits of such structured approaches while contending with the cognitive overhead of having to work with such frameworks. At the same time, we were limited by the lack of availability of good software tools for such modeling, especially in the area of CommonKADS for which no tools yet existed. 

Coming out of this mix of influences, we’d developed a hybrid modeling framework called World Modeling which prescribed relationships between current state and future state, “implementation” and “essential” (abstract), and other sorts of models. We were quite excited about its potential to organize the work of the project teams we were engaged with, if only we could find a good tool.

One day in early 1993, I was sitting in a meeting in Manhattan, listening to a group of people from New York Telephone debating approaches to redesigning their capital investment process. I had developed a good deal of facility with the software by this time and was easily able to keep up with the discussion, recording ideas and representing them in IBIS format as the discussion proceeded. As usual, the conversation was a mixture of ideas for process design, systems changes, resource issues, problems and opportunities, arguments and brainstorms. It suddenly occurred to me that CM/1 itself could be used as the tool for World Modeling. 

Beyond providing a way of mapping and managing IBIS, CM/1 had some very powerful hypertext features, including the ability to copy nodes from one map and paste them in another such that a true “transclusion” was made – the same object appearing in multiple places, changes made in one place would appear immediately in all the views that object appeared in, and you could right-click on the node to see a clickable list of all the “containing views” for that node. 

This was a key requirement for World Modeling. We needed to be able to show, for example, how a piece of data used in one business process was used in another, without losing the connection or identity of that piece of data. At the same time, we could get the benefit of IBIS argumentation and design rationale capture within the same tool – attaching rationale to model elements as we went, recording debates about how models should be constructed, and the like. 

We came up with ways to tag nodes with searchable annotations (e.g., identifying nodes as “tasks”, “problems”, “resources” and the like), and used CM/1’s export/import capability to build templates of questions corresponding to different model types (e.g. organization models, process models, object models, etc.). It started to look like the good tool was within our grasp.

More Compendium history (part 2): Early Days

This is part 2 of a series.
Over the next few weeks in early 1992, a small coterie of lab members tried to build out discussions and plans within CM/1, mostly working individually to build on others’ contributions in collective maps. Somehow, however, these never seemed to amount to what we expected. Some maps withered with few contributions, while others got very large very quickly, so large that it was difficult to find where to read or contribute. In some cases, long chains of “yes it is”-, “no it isn’t”-style pros and cons emerged as individuals argued back and forth. Few, if any, left-hand moves or coherent arguments or rationale emerged in these collaborative, networked maps.

On the other hand, several of us started to use the software in small group sessions, usually in the context of small software or process redesign projects. These were more successful, especially when the groups paid close attention to what was being put on the screen. When the group worked together to ensure that each node and link were carefully crafted, matching the intended types (e.g. that a Question node really represented a single question and did not bundle in answers and arguments, and was not phrased in such a way as to only allow yes or no answers, etc.), the results were more generative and beneficial.

Fast-forward a few months. Despite the initial excitement, the collaborative networked use of CM/1 had died out. We did not get much take-up of the software in any form beyond a few people who had been at the original workshop. Several other members tried the approach with enthusiasm, especially in group meetings, only to give up quickly as the apparently simple act of capturing discussion in nodes and links proved not to be as easy as it looked. Most times we saw people quickly fall behind, and then give up altogether as the spoken discussion just did not seem to take a form that matched what could be represented in IBIS. Neophyte mappers did not know how to intervene in the conversation so as to try to get careful engagement in the maps.

However, several of us still believed that there was great potential there, if we could only find the right way to apply the approach. We continued to experiment in small groups and individually, recording discussions in meetings, occasionally trying our hand at live facilitation and collaborative capture of design rationale.

More Compendium history (part 1)

I've talked about Compendium's early days in some previous posts, such as this. This summer I wrote a longer treatment for a workshop, so I thought I'd serialize it in some posts here. This is part 1.

What later become Compendium, as an approach and as software, dates back to early 1992. I was a member of the Expert Systems Laboratory at NYNEX Science & Technology, the R&D arm of the telephone company in the northeast USA. The lab was interested in approaches like participatory design, ethnography, and group process facilitation for our business process redesign and systems development work. Jim Euchner, our executive director, invited Jeff Conklin and others from Corporate Memory Systems, Inc., (CMSI) to give a workshop for the lab. CMSI were the developers of what was then called CM/1, a commercial IBIS groupware tool that had descended from the pioneering gIBIS work at MCC in the 1980s.

In the two days of the workshop, we used CM/1 to construct argument maps of some of the key issues we were grappling with as an organization, particularly how we could best build on previous work in both software development and business process redesign. There were many perspectives about right ways to go forward, many opinions and disciplines contending with each other, and not a few disagreements.

Working closely with the CMSI team, groups of us in twos and threes worked to build maps that represented the positions we were taking, and then presenting the maps to the larger group. In some cases we experienced breakthroughs between people with apparently opposed positions, as we were able to identify “left-hand moves” – larger questions in which both our positions could appear as possible alternatives to be argued for or against, without needing to crush the opposing position with rhetoric.

We were struck with the power of the approach to open up our dialogue about the issues we were wrestling with. The fact that we were working with a software tool that let us create such representations, that could be revisited at other times, added to, worked on both in individual and in collective sessions over the network, seemed to hold out limitless potential.

We excitedly planned to work intensively “in the tool” over the coming months, developing our skills and exploring issues at the same time. Especially we were intrigued by the promise of escaping the “easel archeology” that plagued the months-long participatory design projects we were facilitating, where project teams had to search through stacks of paper to try to find the key ideas from earlier discussions and meetings. If we could use CM/1 to facilitate, capture, and manage such project team discussions, we could have searchable archives of ideas, proposals, and rationale to draw on without having to cart around, and rummage through, tattered collections of easel sheets. We looked forward to realizing that potential.

Next: Early Days

Malcolm Gladwell's Late Bloomers

This article gives hope to those of us well past the prodigy stage. Gladwell writes about Cézanne, Ben Fountain, Mark Twain, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Alfred Hitchcock, and others, all who did much of their best work when they were past 50 years old.

I will try to keep this in mind as the finish date for my PhD oozes beyond next year's birthday. Some take years of trial and error to get things right (if they ever do).

Sunday, August 24, 2008

"Connected, Yes, but Hermetically Sealed"

I often don't agree with Ben Stein's writing, but his column in today's NY Times Business section hit home.

...what I have seen of the loss of solitude and dignity is terrifying among those who travel and work, or even who stay still and work. They are slaves to connectedness. Their work has become their indentured servitude.

I feel this more and more. Despite, or because of, having worked, played, thought, and consumed time for more than 25 years now in front of screens and keyboards big and small, I find myself more and more reluctant to do so when I have any discretionary time. I think this is because of what Stein writes about -- a sense of indenturedness. Despite all the benefits I have gotten for myself, my family, and my colleagues and my co-workers from technology, it is starting to feel like a burden, something I need to get away from (even as I find myself reaching for the Blackberry to see if I've gotten any new email, five minutes after the last time I've done so). Every minute away from a screen, whether spent reading, on a bicycle, doing something else outdoors with my kids or by myself, playing music, bringing stuff back from the garden, feels like a gift. Being back in front of the screen -- even if doing something ostensibly worthwhile, like writing this, or valuable yet mandatory like keeping up with work stuff even while on vacation -- feels something like succumbing. It is ironic that so much of my computational time is about communicating with other people -- email, IM, twitter, blog, facebook, on and on -- yet it so rarely about truly connecting.

I often say to my family that the reason I'm not working on my phd research as much as I should be is because, in the small amount of discretionary time I have, I don't want to spend even more of it in front of a screen. I already spend 70-100 hours a week "there". That is only partly true, good old procrastination has something to do with it as well.

Really it's not at all the screen that's the problem. It's the working in isolation while in front of the screen, even if surrounded by others, like on the airplanes Stein talks about where everyone is looking at their PDAs. Compendium, to me, has its roots, and its value, not so much in being yet another application to create representations and manipulate symbols (though yes it's a good one for that). Its real value is using it in live events, places where people are interacting with each other as well as with the screen. It's where my motivation came from, and still comes from, and it's probably because such Compendium events have become rare for me in the past few years that it has started to feel thinner. I want and need to get back to the live event, the collective and collaborative shaping that people do together, that for me the tool is most designed for.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

What do we lose when we don't do our own shaping?

Some thoughts after reading the recent Atlantic article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains" by Nicholas Carr.

Part of the motivation behind Compendium is to augment the human ability to create and shape large collections of ideas and relationships in a shareable, collective manner, not just within an individual's head or a single document. And also, not just as a big computational mass, but as something that can be given deliberate, expressive shape, just as people do when they write books or essays or create other kinds of expressive works. This is different than how Carr characterizes Google's project, as a Taylorizing of intellectual processes:

Google, says its chief executive, Eric Schmidt, is “a company that’s founded around the science of measurement,” and it is striving to “systematize everything” it does... it carries out thousands of experiments a day... and it uses the results to refine the algorithms that increasingly control how people find information and extract meaning from it. What Taylor did for the work of the hand, Google is doing for the work of the mind.

It's (according to Carr) an artificial-intelligence view of the world, where a large chunk of human intellectual effort is replaced by automation.

Certainly Compendium has its computational aspects, and the interweaving of computerized information (of various kinds) with that entered and shaped by human beings is one of its fundamental constructs. But for me it remains, at root, an expressive medium, giving human authorship over connections between ideas at a larger scale than other tools. Computation is part of that, but mainly in the same way as movie cameras embed advanced technology and put it at the service of the filmmaker. It's still up to the filmmaker to make and express something worthwhile. The camera will never do it for the person.

I wonder if some of the resistance, or incomprehension, that many people have when they encounter Compendium could be due to what Carr writes about. Are we turning away from direct, deep engagement with particular texts (as both readers and authors) in favor of that we can skim, or which can be largely created for us, especially on the connection level? Why, he seems to say, should we bother drawing direct and explicit connections, when the search engine can always find and recreate them for us, dipping into an infinitely larger pool than we could ever do for ourselves?

When we read online... we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

(quoting playwright Richard Foreman)
As we are drained of our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,” Foreman concluded, we risk turning into “‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

To some degree I do this myself, using Gmail and its fantastic search as my primary personal repository, letting the service provide automatic connections between all my emails rather than laboriously doing so in Compendium. I explain this to myself by saying, well, it's different for an individual than for a group, and Compendium is really more about group shaping at least in its design intent (although there are people using Compendium more as an individual tool, and I have done some of that myself).

Monday, July 07, 2008

It's about the experience

During our conversation on the waterfront at World Financial Center a couple of weeks back, David Price, Mark Aakhus, and I were talking about some of the ideas underlying our respective approaches. I mentioned a few of the ideas expanded on in a previous post, related to transformative mediation and multi-perspective communication. Mark said something about how approaches like transformative mediation can founder on the presumption that people entering into them are already resolution-minded. If they aren't, the dialogue won't get to the required level and the potential of the approach won't be realized.

This connects for me with something I was talking with Jeff Conklin about recently. Ultimately what matters for approaches like Compendium is not the notation, the software, or the theory; it's the experience they make possible for people participating in them. The technical or procedural components are enablers but not determiners. It's what can (but doesn't always) happen in actual practice, in real sessions, between the people that is the real essence.

When I first saw CM/1 with Jeff & company in 1992, what struck me like a bolt was not the software or the method, but rather the potential for a kind of communication to emerge, enabled and made more likely by these. From time to time over the years we have see this fully flower in particular sessions, when people are able to see and share in each other's meanings and perceptions in a way not often found elsewhere.

If the experience can be brought into being, it doesn't matter so much whether people are resolution-minded going into a session. The experience itself enables them to be and act that way.

This is something difficult to prove empirically in a controlled experiment, but it's no less real for that. Practitioner skill, in one form or another, is often what makes the difference. In future posts I will describe some of the sessions where we saw the approach realize its potential and provide this kind of experience.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Constellations of meaning

Some more thoughts behind what Compendium is about as a project.

In transformative mediation, the goal of the mediator is to help the parties in a dispute bring about increased recognition of the situation of the other person, better ability to articulate one's own position, and enhance the ability to see connections between the two.

This means bringing about the ability to see the world as each other sees it, and in doing so to see our own world more clearly. We need to understand each other's perspectives and to make our own known with clarity and expressiveness. Even more, we need to clarify our own seeing, to be aware of nuances where we thought there were none. Hearing, being heard, and learning in the process.

This is more than points of view or ideas about an issue, that can be abstracted and written down. It is also about ways of seeing and ways of talking and listening, modes of expression and emphasis, ways of knowing. There are different kinds of logic, and sometimes illogic. We need containers for these, where we can see them separately but also see how they come together. And containers for those containers.

There are many ways of seeing, knowing, talking, and an infinitude of things to see and know. We need means to bring these together, without losing the identity of each portion or facet. We need a way to see and make the connections, to have them be explicit, visible, and shareable. This also needs to be open for further questioning, to always allow and imply that such exploration is possible.

The communication, the medium, and the vehicle shouldn't end when we come to the boundaries of the current tool that contains it, because then its trajectory is interrupted. There needs to be a means to bring the content and the forms beyond those boundaries. That means shouldn't require the whole corpus to be recreated. With today's software, the boundaries of individual tools no longer need to be iron walls requiring wholesale re-creation. But most tools do provide a kind of boundary: the explicit connections, especially the connections between views, are lost when we move a body of ideas across the boundaries. Means need to be found to allow bringing what matters from one form to another, without losing the connections.

I've often envisioned each idea standing like a light, with all the related ideas and associations arranged around it like a constellation. Each has a particular relation to the idea, and the relations are visible, each with its own character. I can see where and how this idea (or person, thing, picture) matters to the others that orbit around it. Each idea also orbits around other ideas, each part of other constellations of meaning.

When we need to focus on one, we can put it in the center of the constellation, but all the others are there also.

It takes effort, and skill, and commitment to bring something like this into being and to keep it coherent, engaging, expressive, and useful.

Each of us have something like this going on within ourselves -- constellations of meaning, symbols, connections, ideas, memories, feelings. Some talented people are able to make portions of these visible and compelling to others, through art, speech, or design. That's what we do when we make meaning manifest, give it some tangible form. But there are few ways to bring these together and show the points of connection, at least in their entirety. Media like blogs and wikis go part of the way, but the connections are still largely implicit and hidden, up to the individual to bring out, or to the invisible collective mind. They are there, and real, but not available in the way I think is needed.

This doesn't mean that each portion or view has to be all things to all people. A view can be as eloquently and expressively fixed as its authors intend. But there need to be ways that allow that view to be explored, questioned, opened up, without losing its integrity or identity.

What would it get us if we had tools and practices that encouraged this level of communication? To me it means seeing each other's identities more clearly, and understanding our own better. Our history is stained with the ways in which we stick each other in false containers, and the ways we stick ourselves in them. Being able to see and talk about the constellations of meaning we each operate within would reveal the ways in which our ideas about identity do not define or confine each other. There is more than what this facet alone shows. If you saw all of it, if you saw where it connected to what you are, we would not be as opposed, we would not be enemies, we would not reduce each other to just the pieces that our own limitations make most loudly visible.

We are as capable of seeing each other's value, what needs to be supported and protected in the other, as we are of forgetting or choosing to ignore these, to see only the portions that conveniently let us act as if the other's concerns had no value. Our history shows that as one of the things to fear the most -- the choice of ignorance and the brutalities that result. It's what motivates my search for a way of communication that shows as many connections as need to be shown.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Slow design (part 2)

(Continued from Part 1)

Perhaps surfacing rationale as a resource for fostering creativity in design, has to be thought of more as something to tap into. As, counter-intuitively, a generator of creativity. It's the very attempt to do it, to have the different kind of conversation, using different words, tools, and methods, that can bring about creative leaps.

However, as I write this I think of the thousands of meetings, conference calls, instant messages, and shared web-screen sessions that I have participated in (as have most people working in software design, I'd guess). In nearly all there was no explicit method or shared display, except, sometimes, a pre-written document or presentation as the ostensible focus. No way to check or to know whether individuals were actually looking at it or even paying attention, although that could come out in the degree to which people express agreement or disagreement with someone speaking. Usually there are one or a few people leading the discussion and doing most of the talking. Issues are discussed, alternatives posed, ideas voiced, realizations occur, forward movement almost always made, and a record of varying quality written down. If it's a face-to-face meeting, usually sketching on a whiteboard, sometimes extensive and a major focus of attention, sometimes just a few boxes and arrows.

It's not that this approach doesn't work. It usually does, and often very well, or it wouldn't be the dominant mode of design conversation. And the often substantial pre-work that occurs plays into it as well -- documents, diagrams, presentations, prototypes -- which can have a great deal of craft and care put into them. Earlier meetings and pre-conversations also inform any later conversation. All of these require and result in engagement and shaping, and often the quality of the artifacts and their usefulness in the larger conversation is a direct result of the engagement, participation, and skill of the participants who created or gave input to them. Each meeting is the sum of all these previous conversations, meetings, and artifacts -- a hive of memory and thought that is present as a resource, even if it has little or no explicit form.

So there is no question that the above isn't effective. Perhaps a better question to ask (one that was not voiced explicitly at the workshop), is "Why do anything else?" Why do anything other than what we normally do? Generally speaking, there may be no need -- the normal works fine. It's only when it doesn't, when it's felt that something else is needed, or that something is missing, that we need to try something different.

It seems to me that design rationale can best be expressed as questions: Why are we doing this? What does this mean? Have we captured all the alternatives? Do we understand why we're chasing this one? Are we going to need to remember this? Even if these questions come up in the normal flow, as they sometimes do, usually the answers and the deliberation are evanescent, gone with the wind except maybe as shreds in the memories of a few of the attendees.

Using tools and approaches like Compendium to make this kind of conversation explicit, to engage in it and record it, to actively shape and craft it, is the largely untapped resource that can make the benefits of this kind of conversation deeper and more lasting. It works best when it's engaged in as a careful, intentional exercise, confined to special times, like a kind of heightened speech. It can be difficult to make the switch into that mode, but that doesn't mean it's not worth doing. Plenty of similarly worthwhile activities feel like they go against the grain and are hard to get ourselves to do -- like meditation, or writing blog entries on topics like design rationale.

Setting aside a given amount of time -- say 45 minutes in a day of design conversation, even spread out in several 15 minute increments -- where we work in this different manner, carefully and explicitly forming questions, alternatives, pros and cons -- saying to each other that "we're not going to leave until we've done this" -- creating an intentional artifact that requires us to work, look, and talk differently for a little while -- can enrich both our designs and our thinking about design. At minimum we'll have the kind of record that normally doesn't exist, but we might also gain the hidden benefits that come from engagement in such collaborative shaping of meaning.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Making knowledge art coherent, engaging, and useful

I think the title phrase is a good summary of my current central concerns, both in research and practice. It's what I want to understand: how to do it, how to enable others to do it, what they are doing when they do it. Not at all limited to Compendium though it is my main exemplar for now.

It came to me as I was laboring up South Quaker Hill on my bike yesterday. A lot of good, or at least different, ideas come to me when biking uphill, standing in the shower, or sitting at my dining room table. Not as many come when sitting at my desk.

Slow design (part 1)

The title phrase ("slow design") occurred to me halfway through writing this piece. I was intrigued to find out that it already has a wikipedia page, a manifesto, and an organization behind it, although one that seems... slow... to get off the ground.

A perspective that occasionally surfaced in the Creativity and Rationale in Software Design workshop was the idea that time spent intentionally working through the rationale for a design could have many benefits, for creativity and otherwise. This is so even if such time is limited, if it only covers small portions of the terrain of a design, and even -- perhaps especially -- if it goes against the grain of the normal conversational flow. Sometimes it is necessary and desirable to do something different than we normally do, even if it feels difficult and unnatural.

I see this very much in the vein of what Palus and Horth call "aesthetic competencies" -- slowing down the looking, paying attention to details and nuances, careful crafting. Normally, in design conversations, we go so fast, building on each other's words and sometimes sketches, excitedly questioning and arguing. I do this myself, I love being in that mode, and there is nothing wrong with it. It will always be the dominant mode of design conversations. Pulling away from it to do something deliberate, like capturing and representing rationale, can feel almost painful. But not everything is covered, captured, or elicited in this normal manner. Like the conversation at the workshop, our normal ways of talking and doing are so much on the fly; things get missed, or too quickly forgotten. Sometimes just taking the time to ask questions, make the diversity of possible answers explicit, and ask the questions behind the questions (like the root rationale question: "Why are we doing this?") can make a difference in understanding, insight, and creativity. We see what each other is saying in ways that the normal flow doesn't allow.

So doing design rationale should be handled not as a duty, but as something special. For this limited time, we're going to set aside our normal ways of interacting and do something different, requiring a different kind of attention. If handled well, carefully creating a representation of rationale can open up different doors and different ways of seeing and talking. We get a different experience of working through and working out, especially when working through a collective visual artifact (Compendium maps can be an example of this).

For this to be generative, so much depends on the (temporary) commitment of the people involved, because there's so much variance in how it can happen, and in the patience, skill in the crafting, willingness to engage and pay attention. Creativity often means reaching down or being struck by something deeper, something out of the ordinary, and that often comes out of slow working out and working through (as much as it can also come from the usual headlong conversational rush).

(Continued in Part 2)

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Last Verse

I was reading this article by Burkhard Bilger in the April 28, 2008 New Yorker, about the last remnants of original folk musicians still living, and the obsessive collectors who search them out and record them. Along with making me want to go out and get the gospel collection called "Goodbye, Babylon", it reminded me of a night in the early 1980s when I heard probably the most amazing music I've ever come across.

My late friend Dave Buell and I were walking down a street in downtown Alexandria, VA. I forget where we were coming from or going to. It was around 9 or 10 in the evening. We heard some music and stopped at the open screen door of a little storefront church, just one small room on a ground floor. We hesitated to go in (two dorky white guys) but someone inside said "all are welcome" so we walked in and sat down.

There were maybe fifteen people there, half of them playing some instrument or another, scattered around on wooden chairs. I remember a piano and an organ, a drum set, tambourine, and an electric guitar. It was loose, nothing fancy, just a weekday night where some people had gathered in their church for some music. Songs started and stopped informally, no one seemed to be leading it. And when they played there was soul and power and funk beyond anything I've ever heard. It moved and wailed and I felt it deep inside. I don't know how long we were in there, not very long, we felt kind of like we were intruding though no one in there made us feel that way, so we left, but part of me is still there. I felt that any music that I'd heard or been part of up to that point was pale next to this. What history and connection do we (my suburban white American brethren) have that can compare? The music I grew up with was just several generations received from what was in that storefront, just the roots as filtered through commercial dilutions several times over. What was in there was authentic, at least it felt that way to me, realizing I'd never really heard and felt authenticity before.

I've had similar feelings a few times since. Once in a gospel music concert in a church in East St. Louis in 1988 or so, once with a marching band in a wedding parade in the night backstreets of Calcutta in 1986 (that's another story, wild Bengali brass band funk like you wouldn't believe).

Much as I love to play music myself, I have done it less and less in the last ten years. Part of the reason is the feeling of borrowed-ness, of lack of authenticity, that there's nothing I can draw on except imitations of imitations. I know, that even all the musicians I mentioned above were also borrowing and imitating, that's the nature of the beast. But they were doing so inside a tradition and a history, a culture they were actually part of. There's no such thing in the American suburb. Not that there can't be depth and beauty there as well, but sightings and hearings are few and far between, and what shreds of authenticity there may be are difficult to find. Sometimes it does emerge all on its own, something speaks through all the received-ness, and those moments make all the rest worth it, but I guess I have less patience for all those other moments, when each strum feels copycat and nothing speaks through. Authenticity and the spark of inspiration feel more important to me and anything less feels unworthy, and you can't (at least, I can't) force or wish them into existence. I know they occur on their own schedule, and that not playing at all makes it impossible for them to happen, so any playing is better than none, but I have less patience now for the other times.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Complex collaboration in design, and the cowbell

I had a conversation recently with someone just finishing a master's degree about directions he could take with his career (somehow I've begun to be an elder statesman dispensing advice to the young, though it feels like I just got out of school myself -- and actually I'm still in school). He asked me about what, if any, connections I saw between music (which has been a huge though now less time-consuming part of my life) and doing software and usability design.

I think the similarities are profound and on many levels, especially when it comes to the aspect of collaborating with other people to produce an artifact like a website, application, or song. Many people are involved, with different personalities, skills, approaches, and aesthetics; you have to rely on them because it can't be done alone. Your collaboration and communication can be intense, full of inside references and unspoken things. Sometimes this is frustrating; sometimes it's transcendent. Emotions, egos, intellects, personality quirks, and personal histories come in and out of play. Virtuosity and style are central, and you depend on them (or wish you or others were displaying more). Little things matter. The more you have a sense for what the whole should be like, the more you just know when one of those little things either fits or doesn't fit, whether it's a piece of code, a graphical layout, or a drum roll or guitar riff. At its best it's a beautiful thing and the sum of all of you working or playing together is far more than the sum of the parts.

You can see this unfold in a couple of behind-the-scenes looks at musical collaboration, like the scene in Let It Be where the Beatles are working through arrangements in the studio, and George Harrison is getting criticized over something he's doing on the guitar (I think it's on I've Got a Feeling), and he offers somewhat sullenly, not to play anything at all. Or more amusingly the More Cowbell sketch from Saturday Night Live. You see what someone wants to do, they're expressing themselves, some people like it, some don't, they have to work it out. In this case they come up with some way that it can all fit together.

And there are other times when an individual just doing something him or herself is actually better than doing it collaboratively. One could argue that many singer-songwriters (e.g. Dylan, Greg Brown, Shawn Colvin, etc.) are more powerful and pure when playing completely solo. I only feel this way sometimes (I do enjoy many of their ensemble efforts), but I've also experienced this personally when I've accompanied a friend as a sideman (e.g. Jim Vick, Lowry Hamner). I think they actually sound better on their own. Much more comes through. The collaboration, though perhaps enjoyable to the performers, just adds weight, and noise.

I hope to come back to this thread, it seems so central. Just scratching the surface here.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Why is this research needed?

Both because I have to do this for my thesis, and because I think about this a fair amount in any case, here is how I'm currently thinking about the rationale for the line of research I'm following.

More than ever before, society must deal with complex, "wicked" problems, where there are competing definitions of the nature of the issues, where people have divergent interests, ways of talking and listening, and modes of expression, where there are constraints and urgent considerations on many different levels, and where information is found, manipulated, and exchanged in many different media and representational forms.

To support these multifaceted needs, communication media and methods are required that can support people's ability to look at issues from many points of view, over time, from multiple perspectives, to make connections between ideas and arguments at many levels, and share them at different times and in different ways. This requires successful construction of, engagement with, and maintenance of clear, expressive, and coherent textual, visual, and aural representational artifacts that can serve these purposes. The events where groups of people create and work with such methods would ideally be characterized by flow, synergy, expressiveness, articulate dialogue, careful listening, and reflection, aided by representational artifacts that evolve in response to the unfolding conversation.

One family of artifacts that holds the potential to serve these needs is hypermedia knowledge maps, which can comprise many different representational forms and kinds of connections between ideas. One of the chief places such artifacts can and should be used are in real-time meetings of people, both face-to-face and online, where participants create and add to maps of ideas and connections as part of the way they talk about the issues they are confronting. I use the term "participatory hypermedia construction" to refer to use of this medium in meetings, especially when participants are directly engaged in the creation and modification of the knowledge maps.

Unfortunately, over the more than twenty years since software tools allowing the creation of participatory hypermedia artifacts started to become widely available, many research efforts and practical experiences have found it difficult to realize their potential. Keeping complex, interconnected hypermedia artifacts clear and coherent in real time has proven to require a high level of skill and flexibility with the tools and methods involved, so much so that the medium has been dismissed by many as unworkable or unnatural. However, small groups of researchers and practitioners continue to believe that its potential can be realized, that tools and methods will be developed that can transcend the limitations of other media used for discussion and issue exploration.

This research aims to move beyond both the utopian claims of early proponents (largely not borne out in practice), as well as the premature dismissals of the medium based on an inadequate understanding of the skills involved, by treating the medium itself as a given -- as an established form of practice that can be evaluated, interrogated, and considered from such viewpoints as aesthetics and ethics, just like other, more established forms of media practice are. By doing so, I hope to highlight areas where incremental improvements in training, tools, and methods can aid aspiring practitioners enhance their effectiveness in helping people get value from the medium.

I take the approach of looking closely at what does and doesn't work in actual participatory hypermedia construction sessions. I examine how practitioners of different skills and styles try (and sometimes fail) to keep the hypermedia artifacts useful, coherent, and engaging, especially in the moment-to-moment flow of events where actual practice unfolds.

I focus on the activity of shaping the maps during the sessions, especially at the moments where there is some kind of discontinuity or anomaly, looking at how practitioners and participants respond and recover from the breach in the expected flow of events. I'm particularly interested in the individual and collaborative sensemaking that occur at such moments, and at the ways these intersect, highlighting the types of human skills and practitioner moves that, either by their presence or their absence, make the difference in moving the sessions toward their intended outcomes.

By closely interrogating participatory hypermedia construction practice and highlighting the kinds of skills that need to be developed and supported, I hope to help practitioners and participants realize the unique potential of the medium, so that they can better use it to facilitate the kind of multidimensional communication that is so sorely needed.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Species of sensemaking

I attended a workshop on sensemaking at the CHI conference on April 6. It was a full-day gathering of people representing several different perspectives on the phenomenon of sensemaking. Some of these perspectives have only peripheral connections to one another. They can be roughly gathered into three categories:
  • informational sensemaking, which deals (primarily) with information retrieval (such as searching the web) and organizing the information into various kinds of representations (the organizers were mostly from this area)
  • organizational sensemaking, which explores how groups organizations respond to anomalies and discontinuities (a la Karl Weick)
  • individual or experiential sensemaking, which looks at people encountering disruptions and breaches as they move through life.
Many of the attendees also compared how individual and collaborative sensemaking occur in these three areas.

My paper brought concepts of narrative and improvisation to the discussion, which I won't discuss further here. But it occurred to me that the above dimensions only scratch the surface. Sensemaking, as a general phenomenon of response to anomalies, onslaughts of new information, or disruptions in the expected flow of events, occurs on a plethora of levels in human experience. Some that came to my mind that day are:
  • emotional sensemaking (in response to this person, phone call, music, life event, what are my feelings?)
  • physical sensemaking (what does this event mean for my body, in terms of movement, health, physical response?)
  • visual sensemaking (there is an onslaught of confusing visual information, where is the meaningful pattern?)
Even in ostensibly "intellectual" or "cognitive" contexts, there can be emotional and physical dimensions, such as a sense of threat or frustration that must be dealt with. Sensemaking can also occur on time-scales ranging from the immediate moment (certainly the physical, visual, and emotional varieties can happen in an instant) to minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or even years, in the case of organizational or societal sensemaking.

Beyond these, sensemaking can certainly said to occur in thousands of individual domains where the character of the triggers, the context around them, and the nature of the responses are all specific to that domain and best understood utilizing the language and metaphors of the domain, those closest to its unique experience. While at the workshop, one that occurred to me was musical sensemaking. Let's say you're playing in a band, performing live in front of people, and the drummer suddenly changes the beat. What does it signify? That she means to change what song you're playing (segueing into a new one) which means you need to figure out what song is meant, or that she made a mistake that you need to help cover, or one of many other possibilities. Recognizing what it might mean, knowing what to draw on in response, knowing what you are and aren't capable of in the situation (as well as what she and the others are and aren't) are all domain-specific.

My own research interests, while they could go after many of these, at the moment lie largely in what I'll call artifactual sensemaking -- the challenges to meaning-making and coherence that occur in and through the creation of an artifact, particularly a collaborative artifact such as the hypermedia representations I've been looking at. I'll expand on that in an upcoming post.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Maps vs outlines or slides

Over the years, a few of us at the core of the Compendium community have had a number of discussions about whether there are inherent advantages or drawbacks to using maps in meetings, or for post-meeting notes, vs. other more conventional forms like text outlines or slides.

For me, there is nothing inherent about a dialog or concept map one way or the other (positive or negative) in terms of comprehensibility. The value of a map has much more to do with the way people engage with it and shape the artifact, what the discourse around it is. The same is true with linear writing or Powerpoint slides. There is nothing inherent in them, either. Just using linear writing or slides does not guarantee engagement, comprehension, or expressiveness.

In my view, while dialog maps (as an example) may have certain potential affordances, they don't inherently have them in any particular situation. They only have them if whoever created them crafted them in such a way as to take advantage of those potential affordances. The same is true with any other representational strategy. In actuality, what matters is how they are crafted in the particular context and situation, not the abstract rules for that strategy that a practitioner may or may not follow.

In other words, it's not just a question of dialog maps vs powerpoint or outlines. Dialog maps don't make themselves (and neither do powerpoint slides or outlines). Their usefulness and value always rely on the skill of whoever made them and the match between their style/content and what their particular audience expected and can deal with. Same is true with any writing, and any representational approach.

There is nothing inherent in using a mapping representation that makes it have to conform to one convention or another about filtering, attribution, etc. It's the way it's done, or more accurately, the way the practitioner(s) chooses to do it, that makes the difference. If you take one slice of the overall experience -- reading the map or text/slides as a standalone artifact, you'll get one set of criteria of success/failure; take another slice (the engagement (or lack of it) with the artifact in the context of creation), you'll get another. And the same is true with writing or slides. To me it would be more accurate to say that a preference for outlines or slides is "habitual" than "natural." There's nothing at all natural about Powerpoint slides, or for that matter conventional writing (cf. The Alphabet and the Goddess etc.). There are only conventions, habits, styles, choices, and expectations.

Having said all that, there are of course differences between the different representational formats and people's expectations. But I think a discussion of those differences should include the human/making/skill dimension, or something gets lost. I'd very much like to see a discussion of the differences that also took that into account.

It would be great if this subject could be the central focus for dialogue, debate and inquiry that it should be! When I was at the 2,500+ person ACM CHI conference a few weeks ago, I was fantasizing that such topics would be a core matter of interest to such large groups of smart, engaged people, rather than the microscopic fringe as at present.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Creativity and design rationale

This (threadkilling) post came out of a discussion we were having on the compendiuminstitute yahoogroup prompted by a query from Simon about a workshop on creativity and software design rationale.

Whenever I think of surfacing design rationale as an intentional activity -- something that people engaged in some effort decide to do, or have to do -- I think of Mondrian's approach to painting in his later years, the time where he departed from the naturalistic and impressionist (and more derivative, less original) work (such as this) he did when he was younger and produced the highly abstract geometric paintings most of us would associate with his name (e.g. this one).

One might think (as many in his day did) that he was betraying beauty, nature, and emotion by going in such an abstract direction. But for Mondrian it was the opposite. Each of his paintings in this vein were fresh attempts to go as far and deep as he could in the depiction of cosmic tensions and balances. Each mattered to him in a deeply personal way. Each was a unique foray into a depth of expression where nothing was given and everything had to be struggled for to bring into being without collapsing into imbalance and irrelevance. The depictions and the act of depicting were inseparable. We get to look at the seemingly effortless result, but there are storms behind the polished surfaces. Bringing about these perfected abstractions required emotion, expression, struggle, inspiration, failure and recovery -- in short, creativity.

Similarly what drew me to IBIS and QuestMap in the early days, and has been a central thread in Compendium's evolution, was the paradox that trying to depict and express complex business issues within a simple, restricted representational palette -- a few node and link types tied to a simple rhetorical model -- could actually give rise to a deeply engaged, provocative and generative discussion between the people involved, as well as a representation that was laden with nuance and expressiveness, if you knew how to look at it and understand something of how it had been created.

Just the act of using Compendium to surface DR, or using a design rationale approach of any kind, does not guarantee any degree of creativity. No tool or approach on its own will. In Art as Experience, Dewey writes about the depth of engagement with the chosen medium as a central generator of artistry. When one cares about the nuances and subtleties, struggles to bring something coherent into being within the strictures of that medium, creativity is both emergent and a by-product, unless lack of time, energy, or other constraints get in the way. People are naturally creative and will act creatively unless impeded (though unfortunately too many situations, processes, attitudes, etc. do indeed restrict or suppress our natural creativity).

In this light I think of the work that Chuck Palus, David Horth and others at the Center for Creative Leadership have done with designing workshops that help business people unleash their creativity in the encounter with complex problems (written about here and elsewhere). Many of the activities in the workshop are counter-intuitive when one thinks about creativity. One that always sticks with me is an exercise taken from Edwards' Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain. In this, one has to to reproduce a Picasso line drawing by turning it upside down, covering all but a couple of millimeters with a sheet of paper, and drawing the few uncovered lines that one sees, trying as hard as one can to get their spatial relationships to each other just right, then uncovering another couple of millimeters and doing the same. When I did this, it was one of the most difficult struggles I can remember. I "can't draw" and took much longer to finish this than the other people in the workshop. I had to look extremely hard and labor, sweat, and despair (literally) over getting those damned lines to behave and put down what I really saw, not what my more rational brain was telling me to do. It was almost agonizing. But yet at the end I looked at what I had done and it was (if not exactly Picasso-quality) so far superior to anything I had drawn as long as I can remember that I was amazed.

Palus and Horth write about what they call "aesthetic competencies" not just in these kind of exercises, but in what can be brought to bear in such seemingly "rational" and so often abstracted settings as leadership in the business world. These include "slowing down the looking" and "paying attention" (which they call the "master competency"), taking the time to see what is really in front of you, which might require you to take a slower, more arduous, seemingly counter-intuitive approach to understanding your problem situation than the normal, expedient methods most of us employ.

It is in this light that I think of creativity and design rationale. It is not that "doing design rationale" in and of itself will either generate or impede creativity. Rather, if a group does enter into the process of having to carefully think about the pros and cons of different alternatives, capture them coherently, craft their representation into something that they or others will be able to make sense of later, and does this with mindfulness and engagement, it can indeed generate and shake loose creativity. If it is done in such a way as to over-rationalize the process or impede creativity on other levels, it will be resented and probably collapse (as much of the DR research has said, in effect: it was too hard, took too long, and got in our way, so we dropped it). But doing DR *can* be a way to slow down the looking and pay attention to what is really being said and done. In our work with QuestMap and then Compendium over the years, we have experienced, many times, that slow and careful engagement with working a problem through the limited representational palette can yield creativity, emotional engagement, and communication, even in an ostensibly hyper-rational environment such as a telephone company business process analysis session or software design meeting.

It all depends on how the people involve engage with the tools and practices and each other, and why and how the activity of DR is performed. What are the conditions that will allow collaborative creativity to emerge, without bogging the group process down or (for that matter) burying individual voices and creative expression in a morass of "social" sameness? To my mind using tools and methods with groups is a matter of how effective, artistic, creative, etc. whoever is applying and organizing the approach can be with the situation, constraints, and people. Done effectively, even the force-fitting of rationale surfacing into a 'free-flowing' design discussion can unleash creativity and imagination in the people engaged in the effort, getting people to "think different" and look at their situation through a different set of lenses. Done ineffectively, it can impede or smother creativity as so many normal methods, interventions, and attitudes do.

It was asked what purposes did creativity and design rationale play in human evolution. I have found Ellen Dissanayake's evolutionary biobehavioral approach to human art-making to be exceptionally helpful here. She writes about not only what humans have done with art in the last 10,000 years, but what they have done in the last 10 million. She asks why art-making has been a central feature of every human society since deep pre-history, and what that means for an understanding of art and creativity as an essential human trait. This gives a perspective on where art and creativity could lie in an activity like surfacing design rationale that is lacking from many other viewpoints. Schön is extremely helpful here as well.

Research, Compendium and voting-type group decision support systems

This came out of an email interchange with a VZ colleague who asked about whether keypad- or other voting-style group decision support systems would help in a Compendium session, and how that would relate to what I'm looking at with my current research. This is pretty much what I responded with.

My research has more to do with the activity of trying to work and be effective in this kind of environment, trying to shape a collaborative artifact of this kind, and what kinds of challenges as well as expertise/artistry come up in doing so, than it does with looking at the effectiveness of the session/approach for the group itself.

I take as a given that the subjects are engaged in a worthwhile activity using appropriate tools, but I am not really looking at either of those things (the worthwhileness of the activity or the appropriateness of the tools). Rather I am trying to understand the ‘phenomenology’ of the practitioners themselves as they are engaged in such an activity – what their experience is, how to characterize it. The focus could equally be a facilitator drawing on an easel sheet or post-it notes, the same kinds of things occur (how do they deal with disruptions/dilemmas, how do they engage with the participants, what do they do to help shape the artifact in a contextually useful way, etc.).

Similarly, related research on teachers in classrooms, or jazz musicians, or dispute mediators, or the way that Donald Schön studied various kinds of professional practitioners, also take this kind of experiential/phenomenological approach (as opposed to looking at the tools, methods, or outcomes themselves).

So using different sorts of tools (like the keypad kind of approach you mention) might make various kinds of difference for the participants, positive or negative – but my interest (at least for this strain of research) would still be on what the experience of trying to make these kinds of sessions ‘work’ is like, especially in the face of the inevitable sensemaking challenges that occur no matter what kind of approach you are using (except possibly when things are rigidly controlled – but then you have different kinds of challenges).

Personally I’m somewhat skeptical of voting-type approaches, though they have their place. However, all approaches to helping groups communicate together have flaws and limitations – human beings are tough to work with. And it is only humans that can work with other ones… What I am really interested in understanding is, what human capabilities make the difference – and my belief is that, no matter what the tools/approach, it comes back to the intelligence, artistry, communicative competence, improvisational abilities, etc. of the people involved. So what I hope this research is leading to is some kind of characterization of those dimensions in this particular context (rather than making claims about the context or tools themselves).

Stroke of insight

My neighbor Diane sent the link to this talk by the neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor about her experience of her own stroke, and particularly the insights about right/left brain that came out of that. I very much like the way she puts her whole self into the talk, with very few slides or script, and says something that feels true on intellectual as well as emotional levels.

It makes me think that what came to me as the idea of Knowledge Art was a bit of the universal right brain she talks about speaking through, unfiltered for once -- profound and connected but not from me as an individual. When the analytical and linguistic get stripped away, or quieted down, there's no telling what else can pop up.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Making Hypermedia Live workshop

Simon and I are running a workshop at the ACM Hypertext 2008 conference titled Making Hypermedia Live: Shaping Participatory Hypermedia in June. It will be an expanded version of what we did at Rutgers and Ames, with extra time for discussion and analysis. Hope to see you there.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The only interesting software

Two sentences of an article titled "Mashups are Breaking the Mold at Microsoft" in today's New York Times business section troubled me. Both quote Microsoft's John Montgomery:
Popfly, he said, is for “the 21- to 27-year-old crowd who grew up on the Web.” “They have never known a world without eBay, Amazon, or Google,” he added. “They assume that when you create a piece of software it will be Internet-connected and it will have an innate sense of who your friends are.”

“His message was that the only interesting software is going to be software that is connected to the Web and we have to work on that,” Mr. Montgomery said.

Nothing taken away from the power and potential of the trend toward social-network-aware, web-native software, but is it really the only locus for potential? The ability to draw things from, and put things on, the web, does seem essential to me, and that should extend to all of the things one can do on the web, including social networking. But something troubles me about the idea that the only interesting use case is an individual sitting alone at their computer, no matter how "social" what they're connected to is. I still feel that people working, creating, playing together, actually live and face-to-face (also including virtual live settings), is also interesting and a deep well to tap.

A Whole New Mind

A useful book, though a little lighter-weight than I would have liked. Pink explicates six concepts in terms of right-brainedness: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning, and provides nice links and exercises for each (helpfully summarized here). All quite relevant for knowledge art, and this left-hander appreciates that our kind is the wave of the future.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Even in these circumstances

A quote from Shantaram:
The chain restricted my stride to tiny steps. Walking at any faster pace required a shuffling, hip-swinging gait. There were two other men in my room with leg-irons, and by studying their movements I gradually learned the technique. Within a few days, I walked that rolling, shambling dance as unselfconsciously as they did. In fact, by studying them and imitating them, I gradually discovered something more than necessity in their shuffling dance. They were trying to give some grace to their movements, put something beautiful in the sliding, weaving steps, to soften the indignity of the chain. Even in that, I discovered, human beings will find an art.

An existence proof of Dissanayake's idea of art as making special, even at the bottom of society in a Mumbai prison. It's something necessary that we do, not a luxury or frill on the surface of life. Here are some notes from a reading of her books, and some related thoughts.


I'm halfway through this book, pointed out by my sister on a late night visit to the Union Square Barnes & Noble. It's like the book I got halfway through writing about my 1986 bicycle trip in India, but far more intense and far-reaching. The things I feared and hoped might occur on my trip, happened to the autobiographical main character, Lin, in ways beyond my imagination. But I did have experiences akin, in small and short ways, to what Roberts writes about. Sometimes books like this, artworks like this, are impediments to trying anything myself. I still have a cassette of a demo tape made by a band called Life Unit in Ann Arbor in 1981, that whenever I listen to it, still makes me feel like I could never achieve music with that depth and intensity, so why bother. But there is something inviting about Roberts' writing. He certainly doesn't try to cow you with his intelligence. It seems more honest than that, despite the horrifying things he depicts. Maybe, at some point in the future, I'll rescue my abandoned book from whatever forgotten drawer or box it molders in, and try again.