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.