Sunday, October 19, 2008

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.

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