Sunday, October 19, 2008

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

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