Saturday, September 04, 2010

Making Conversations Visible

@sbskmi gave an excellent presentation at the RESG AGM yesterday evening, offering a survey of sensemaking tools.

Simon's research group at the Open University has a tool called Compendium, which belongs to a long and respectable line of issue and argument mapping tools, going back to IBIS (Horst Rittel, 1972). Simon showed a range of recent initiatives that demonstrate that issue and argument mapping has, as Simon puts it, "come of age".

Compendium itself has been designed to allow logical arguments to be supported by rich media evidence, such as video. So we can manipulate conflicting knowledge claims, together with the ethnographic material that might be relevant to resolving these claims.

The particular interest of tools like Compendium (and its Web 2.0 cousin Cohere) to the Requirements Engineering community is the desire to document design rationale, and these tools can certainly be used for this purpose. But they can equally be used to support real-time control systems, and Simon showed an emergency response coordination scenario, with web service links to various information feeds, as well as the ability to produce mashups of various kinds.

However the aspect of Simon's work that interested me most was the potential link to organizational intelligence. For example, he displayed a model of creative competences for complex challenges, based on the work of Palus and Horth, and showed how Compendium could use visual images to support the Palus and Horth methodology. (There are some parallels with the Repertory Grid technique, which I introduced into data modelling in the 1980s.) Simon also showed how Compendium could be used to compose machine intelligence with human intelligence. This helps to realise the original vision of Takehito Matsuda, who twenty years ago defined organizational intelligence as "the interactive-aggregative complex of human intelligence and artificial intelligence in an organization".

As Brenda Dervin argues, sense-making is triggered by anomalies and exceptions. The point about an exception is that it forces us to review and revise our pet models and theories, or at least it should do so. As Lakatos pointed out however, in his brilliant essay Proofs and Refutations, people typically deploy various tactics for dismissing exceptions in order to preserve their favourite models and theories, including Monster-Barring and Monster-Adjustment. (See my piece on Models and Monsters.) Thus the relationship between any given piece of evidence and a complex argument is an act of interpretation and is itself subject to argument.

To understand an argument or rationale, we need to pay attention not just to the domain (subject matter) of the argument but also the discourse or discursive practice. Within a large organization, there are several competing discourses, and the intelligence of the whole organization depends critically on a healthy interchange between different discourses. For example, arguments based on conventional accounting practice may bias the organization towards certain ways of solving problems, and make some kinds of innovation impossible; so sometimes management needs to be able to step away from the accounting paradigm and look at other kinds of rationale for organizational change. It would be interesting to see if models and software tools could support a conversation that straddled multiple discourses.

But in any case, these tools for collective sense-making and decision-making should fit nicely into an overall architecture for organizational intelligence.

1 comment:

Bashar said...

Hi Richard,

Readers interested in this topic may be interested in a book that covers a variety of perspectives on design rationale:

Burge, J.E., Carroll, J.M., McCall, R., MistrĂ­k, I. (eds),
Rationale-Based Software Engineering
2008, 316 pages, Hardcover
ISBN: 978-3-540-77582-9

It is rather expensive, but might be worth a browse in a physical library (do people visit them anymore?!).

Bashar Nuseibeh