OSWC 08: the questions

February 10, 2008

I spend a lot of my time doing conference keynotes, presentations to companies and tele-conference support for the network. Some of these are private, some open such as the master class coming up in Belfast for Anne McMurray. In the vast majority of cases these events are targeted at people new to the concepts and implications of complexity theory, or the scientific use of narrative. Often you have to overcome confusions (complexity with systems thinking and narrative with story telling) but I have been doing this for some years now and its not hard, it is also enjoyable and for reasons I have never fathomed it is never boring despite the repetition. No audience or presentation is ever quite the same and the questions are always the most interesting part.

However it is a pleasure from time to time to get to present to an audience who already know as much, and frequently more than you do about the subject. Such audiences represent a different form of challenge, but also opportunity. A few words will satisfy for what might take ten minutes elsewhere. OSWC 08 was one of these, and it was a bit of a wrench to leave the conversations and the scenery of Squaw Creek on Friday to get back in time for Wales v Scotland in Cardiff. I am grateful to my good friend Bill McKelvey of the Andersen School at UCLA for the invitation and his persistence in getting me to invest in turning up!

The questioning process was interesting. I was told to sit down and shut up at the end of my presentation and the first person made a statement/asked a question and then passed the baton to someone else and so on for the best part of a hour, at which point I was allowed to respond. That meant keeping notes, and while I didn’t manage to get through everything in the response and managed to deal with most of the points. Reading my hand writing is a difficult process at the best of times, but standing up, in a fairly dark room at 0300 GMT makes it harder!

So, for those interested here is the summary of a small number points/questions and my responses, some of which were not given at the time but represent further reflection. I can’t do justice to the whole of the conversation. You can find the slides I used here and the questions or comments are provided in italics to make reading easy and they may not be a faithful representation of the respondents intent; if I have it wrong use the comments to correct me!

I had argued that to all intents and purpose, from a western perspective, a complex system is non-causal. Max Boisot clarified this in a statement to say that in a complex system causes are not regular and an causality is contingent in nature (more accurate but less dramatic!), but despite this there were a series of questions relating to how you influence or direct the evolution of a complex system.

This is one of the big ones and its an area where I continue to refine theory and practice. The development of SenseMaker™ will extend into this area (it already does in part with the Modeller module) over time. My current thinking on this is to map the influencers and model the sensitivity of the system to fluctuations. Attractors/Barriers (or first and second order constraints) their stability and influence are obvious, but I am also increasingly using the concept of modulators. I think I will blog on this next week as it deserves an entry in its own right so expect something on Tuesday (Monday I plan something on the unfair attacks on the Archbishop of Canterbury over the weekend). Briefly considered modulators as a ring of magnets where the polarity and strength can vary and the nature of the system as a set of iron filings in the middle. In a complex system there is no linear causality ….

Why is it necessary to gather large volumes of anecdotal material?

Well you don’t have to. We get significant results with a few hundred. However the landscape representations need higher volumes and you increase the likelihood of detecting weak signals. There is also a very simple argument relating to statistical significance and also impact. Larger volumes of self-indexed material have greater statistical significance and allow you to bring different instruments into play. There is also the question of impact, the ability to get people to accept and change. My argument here was twofold:

if you have captured thousands of stories from employees or customers and there are significant (and potentially disturbing) patterns in the way that those people have indexed their stories then it is far more likely that decision makers will act. They have numbers backed up by context, they can go directly from the numbers to the context-providing narrative that created those patterns.

The ability of a decision maker to explore those patterns, and discover their own insights, moving backwards and forwards between the statistics and the narrative increases the element of self discovery. There is a body of evidence that shows that if people find things for themselves, they pay more attention than if those same conclusions are presented by others.

Myths arise in society (I had suggested that myths are a strange attractor). An political example was given of the ability of the Republican Party to create a belief system in rural communities in the US despite hard evidence to the contrary.

One a story starts to gather momentum, then other stories flock to it. As more and more stories accumulate it becomes very difficult for people to tell stories that contradict the dominant themes. So once people start to believe something, particularly if it has a simple enemy (Washington taking away out money in taxes) it becomes the dominant pattern through which they see the world. You can’t argue against this rationally, as the origination is not rational. It takes a story to defeat a story, or a combination of catastrophic events that prevent the myth sustaining itself. Even that may not be enough – look at holocaust denial if you want an example. Catching emergent myths early (weak signal detection) is very important in consequence, the later you leave it the more difficult it is to change it. As every parent of teenagers knows tackling a problem directly is generally a mistake, better to change the line of inquiry or create an alternative attractor to suck energy away from the negative.

There were a series of comments relating to Web 2,0 and the appropriateness of narrative technologies and complexity to understand this phenomena

Full endorsed this. We have a facebook version of SenseMaker™ in test at the moment, and see blogs as narrative. Expect more announcements about this as we think that narrative technologies are the way to make the tools of social computing into a corporate asset. You can’t rely on key words and categories in other than small groups. Controlled vocabularies present significant problems even in highly controlled environments (similar to problems with hierarchical taxonomies). Semi-structuted ambiguated indexes (thats what we do with filters) gives a more effective route.

There is a big gap between the size of phenomena in the world and the arrow focus of PhD students.

Fully agree with this, but the current research methods accepted by PhD review communities force a narrow view. It is more and more difficult for someone to do truly original work through a doctorate which seems increasingly to be a over regulated and structured career step rather than a recognition of original work. A major problem is that if you spend several years of your life within an environment of hypothesis based surveys and structured interviews then you start ot believe in the exclusive legitimacy of those processes and impose them in your turn. Narrative (I think) allows larger issues to be addressed, because you can engage more people in the process and reduce bias. The problem (or at least one of them) is that the old establishment for the best of reasons, fail to recognise new ways of thinking. I started the presentation with a quote from Cardinal Bellarmini which makes this point well.

There are clear applications here for the baby boomer generation, NASA and others have videoed stories from retiring employees but with limited success on uptake.

The issue that NASA (and INTEL and others) had was that they captured the material at too high a level of abstraction. No one is going to go to a library and listen to a long video, what they need is for that material to be fragmented and encountered, real time in the context of need. Also the cost of these formal approaches means that you are dealing with a limited number of employees and interview cost. Capturing knowledge as it happens, in small self indexed fragments is more economical, more useful and sustainable. Expect a blog on this Wednesday.

I had challenged the use of case studies in organisational research which was in part challenged in the response, although there was curiosity about the relationship between case studies and narrative.

To some extent it is chalk and cheese. There were several conversations about this around and about the presentation. I have several issues with cases. They two often represent retrospective coherence, justifying a theory after the event by selective use of data (Journalists are the worst at this, but many academics are as bad). My own experience in IBM never matched any of the cases about IBM that I read and I am worried about the tendency to idealism. I am however very happy to say that, in ordered situations in the hands of the right people, case based approaches can work, further that they can informal research in more complex areas by pointing to areas for investigation.

What are the advantages, and practicalities of getting people to index their own anecdotes? Are their issues over the early aspects of indexing (giving the story a title was mentioned) influencing the way that the rest of the indexes are used?

I need to acknowledge here that it has taken me (with a lot of help) several years to evolve an approach which works consistently. Sound theory still needs experiments to make it real. However, while there are some exceptions in general getting material indexed at the point of origin is not too hard if you are not over ambitious in the number of indexes you create. There are also advantages of a simple structure for interpretation, the more elaborate the structure the more likely hypotheses creep in and the indexing process will get too hard. The advantages are high, in that layers of meaning are added by the originators rather than by a computer or an expert. Naming anecdotes is a key stage of adding meaning and we normally place that before the allocation of stories to the ambiguous indexes (filters) and the unambiguous indexes (options). Adding a title helps (I think) the creator to gain more insight into their anecdote.

I have just competed a major book chapter (16K words for UCL) on this and will publish some extracts over the next few weeks on this issue.

Several people were challenged (in the best sense of the word) and curious as many of the things I was saying were revolutionary in nature and form. They wanted to know where to go next.

That’s simple! There is a body of articles on the web site, and the single best way is to come to one of the accreditation courses. We always have some academics on those and the network is balanced between academics and practitioners which is a good sign of health.

Finally, someone from Simon Fraser in British Columbia raised a very interesting point early on about rhythm, but I can’t read my notes so if they read this please elaborate in the comments!

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