Archive for the ‘Systems thinking’ category

Bursting at the Seams

October 16, 2007

Jeffrey Sachs – Speaking on solving global problems at the Reith Lectures. He may be a one-man Club of Rome.

And how can it be, ladies and gentlemen, that we think we can be safe? We think we can be safe when we leave a billion people to struggle literally for their daily survival, the poorest billion for whom every day is a fight to secure enough nutrients, a fight against the pathogen in the water that can kill them or their child, a fight against a mosquito bite carrying malaria or another killer disease for which no medicine is available, though the medicines exist and are low cost, thus letting malaria kill one or two million children this year. How can this be safe? How can we choose, as we do in the United States, to have a budget request this year of $623 billion for the military – more than all the rest of the world combined – and just $4.5 billion for all assistance to Africa and think that this is prudent? One might say it is science fiction that a zoonotic disease could arise and somehow spread throughout the world, except that AIDS is exactly that. How many examples do we need to understand the linkages, and the common threats, and the recklessness of leaving people to die — recklessness of spirit, of human heart, and of geo-political safety for us?

President Kennedy talked about a way of solving problems, and that too will be a theme of these Lectures. We are entering I believe a new politics, and potentially a hopeful politics. I’m going to call it open-source leadership. If Wikipedia and Linux can be built in an open source manner, politics can be done in that manner as well. We are going to need a new way to address and to solve global problems, but our connectivity will bring us tools unimaginable even just a few years ago.

We have new, old, and reinvented tools – online and offline – for generating collective wisdom toward solving complex social problems. What’s missing is the same thing that has always been missing: a bit of vision from the stakeholders, who might be committed to resolving differences among the different holders-of-stakes, to attempt a true dialogue with a meaningful consensus for action.

Dialogic design may be a means for such open source politics. It provides a means of engaging people with a problem in common in an open, democratic, and productive design thinking process. Policy making is a design problem, wherein a large and variable set of unwieldy inputs and voices overwhelm the decision maker, and a sensemaking process ensures to arrive at a decisions that intuitively organize the meanings and needs of the policy into a course of action. This is very hard work for politicians and policy wonks, neither discipline of course, being trained in design thinking. But it is a problem of designing, nevertheless.

In dialogue, you are heard and your contributions are honored, as are all contributions. Wisdom is that which emerges from the common through the exchange, understanding of the problem space, and generation of design possibilities. It is not wikiality – whether online or on-face, its the real deal.


Perspectives on Dialogue: What Matters?

August 23, 2007

In Why the Crowd Has No Wisdom I pushed several issues with the “wisdom of the crowd” idea:

1. What is distributed wisdom? Wisdom can be considered an emergent pattern of meaning from participants in a dedicated search for meaning and guidance.Collective wisdom emerges from a dialogic engagement among observers that have actually pondered a situation. Is Wikipedia “wise” or just really a helpful set of editors sharing what they consider factual and informative?

2. Can the crowd help me with a problem? What is the intention of the group from which we expect to find wisdom or even knowledge? Where knowledge is the entry fee we pay to generate wisdom from the group, it is not the outcome of the group. More knowledge is not what we need, we usually need some sort of contextual direction based on understanding of a situation.

3. Are large groups effective? When generating distributed knowledge from a large, generally unknown group – like a prediction market – can we achieve anything better than a measure of popularity or sentiment? Do we have any evidence that large groups have any better sense of the future, or any consensus toward solving difficult problems facing us? Maybe an individual in the group has a killer idea, but won’t that idea be washed out by too many uniformed participants? If the crowd was right, wouldn’t everyone in stock markets be buying the same stocks?

Margaret Mead and Peter Block hold the small group as the best working unit of wisdom generation. While dialogue circles can scale to large sizes, their effectiveness to make group decisions based on a group understanding diminishes in correlation to size.

There are several demographic studies that compel attention toward a less-informed populace, not more, Internet be damned. Even the French (friends of the intellectual life) have weighed in on their cultural decline – consumer caprice!

School Faced With Consumerist Barbarism

By Philippe Meirieu, Le Monde,Thursday 22 March 2007

In France, debates concerning education are too often reduced to debates about school. Our history certainly invites that: no other country is built through and around its school system more than ours. And if we don’t restore hope in an institution that today has been broadly reduced to a triage center, we will have to face both the explosion of youth and the depression of teachers. When fatalism triumphs and disappointment is the rule among those who incarnate the future, we have something to worry about…. In consequence, let’s celebrate the way the electoral campaign has made a place for scholastic problems.

We are faced with a completely unheard-of phenomenon: caprice – which used to be only a stage in the individual child’s development – has become the organizing principle of our collective development. We, in fact, know that the child always goes through a phase in which he believes he can boss beings and things around. Whether one talks about initial narcissism or infantile egocentrism, one always emphasizes the same phenomenon: the child, enmeshed in desires that he cannot yet either name or register in an encounter with someone else, is tempted to move to action. The educator should therefore accompany the child; teach him not to react immediately with violence, not to rush headlong into a collision…. To take the time to question himself, anticipate, reflect, metabolize his impulses, construct his will. That’s the business of pedagogy.

The bolded sentence advises self-dialogue, an interesting orientation to pedagogy. While not directly supporting a case that crowds are less wise than we may hope, it suggests the selection of population sample (or stakeholders) is very important.

My colleagues have responded with some compelling distinctions.

Dr. Liss Jeffrey of the eCommons/Agora and New Democracy Workshop (see the Netizen News) makes an impressive case:

I would say that I take a more conventionally grassroots democratic view ( as in demos or perhaps ‘demosophy’) as crowd sourcing seems to me an interesting and worthwhile if never infallible or even reliable ‘ bottom up’ approach.Nor do I share your disdain for “the mean” ( this used to be the mass I guess, an equally flawed concept of some kind of abstraction of a person quantified. I have a lot of respect for the common sense of Canadians.I refuse to blame Americans en masse as this position lacks nuance and suffers from obvious contradictions).

I think part of the point is to inform people and provide opportunities for them to inform themselves and others on a given question and topic. I do not always know what matters, (who does?), and anyway it may change.

Dialogue is powerful, but creating the conditions for dialogue so it seems to me takes education, information, lots of hope and many other tactics .That’s where I think the real struggle is situated, nurturing those conditions and building platforms and practices for the dialogue engagement.

Restricting the dialogue to an ‘intentional small crowd’ while this may be practically useful (maybe the room only holds 30) seems to me on principle objectionable.

I do not know on a given day with whom I may need to or may find myself in dialogue, as I make my way through the public part of my life, however surely that readiness for dialogue is part of what we are trying to achieve – those of us who make dialogue part of our practice …

Dr. Peter Pennefather of the University of Toronto suggests a middle way, that we frame any dialogue (online or F2F) well enough so that multiple perspectives are encouraged and accommodated.

Peter Jones responds to some articles cited earlier in this dialogue about blogging and the possible outputs of a million monkeys typing <as well as the above article by Meirieu complaining about the capriciousness of crowds and more specifically of millennials.) This article reflects a common complaint about the capriciousness youth and their lack of commitment to a defined doctrine or a consistent worldview. This seems to have a parallel in a longing for the good old days of insurgency when the battle was over running the nation state in contrast to the fuzzy foes of today’s Brave New Wars who just want to exert influence over a bit of turf they can call their own and will stop at nothing to drive away competitors who compete for that influence.

Unless there is a framing of the dialogue it is difficult to recognize the points of view or perspective that drive elements of the discourse. This is what I think is most important about all the blogging that is going on. Not only are opinions being recorded, but it is now possible to interpret those opinions in terms of the writer’s identity and perspective that can be deduced from other information on the web, often nicely arranged and summarized on their home page.

It’s not the collective knowledge of crowds that is emerging but rather an ability to recognize the collective diversity of perspectives. It is this multi-perspectival view that helps locate information artifacts and to characterizes their nature more completely.

Perspective is developed and usually enabled by “standing on the shoulders of giants” (or monsters). An ability to consider things from multiple perspectives leads to perceptiveness. Perceptiveness is a property generally associated with the culture of ideas. One quality that makes a written text literature is that it is widely recognized as having the quality of perceptiveness. Intellectuals and scholars train themselves to be perceptive and to have the capacity to provide a sophisticated analysis of events. Thus, for focused questions it is efficient to establish a dialogue amongst key informants.

However, in my opinion, all dialogue is useful and increases the overall perceptiveness of the participants. The consensus that can sometimes emerge from dialogue is not a homogenized mean but rather an appreciation of different points of view and a better appreciation of where the uncertainties lies or the level of facticity of the observations bandied about. I agree with Liss that assessing a situation and responding to that situation invokes different cognitive and neurological systems. However, I would not like to separate dialogue from action. It is the coordination of information input and action outputs (including dialogical inquiry to obtain more information) that increases our ability to adapt to what the world throws at us.

The democratic and dialogical principles that should be brought into at play during a staged discourse on a limited platform of ideas aimed at providing long term guidance for the operations of government (e.g. during election campaigns) are different from democratic and dialogical principles that should be applied during a focussed dialogical inquiry aimed at assessing the value of possible solutions to a specific focused but difficult problem. Nevertheless, in both situations there will be common forms of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs that will favour participant satisfaction with the process. The skill of being able to inspire imagination in others and the belief in widely dispersed wisdom to be found in the most unlikely places are two such useful elements. These common elements can be developed (taught) through various exercises and must be maintained through continuous use

Is this a middle way between amusing sophisticated discourse by insiders and mindless mass mouthings (typing) of platitudes?

These are all principles of structured dialogue: Demosophia (Wisdom of the People), Framing the Dialogue, Embracing and including multiple perspectives. Thank you for contributing to our shared collective wisdom!

The Strategy Paradox

July 30, 2007

Read: The Strategy Paradox: Why committing to success leads to failure (and what to do about it)

Michael Raynor spoke at the business/innovation conference (aptly titled The Overlap) in June, and we received his book as a conference favor. If given a fair hearing, I expect Raynor’s book to force business practitioners to think more deeply about formulating strategy and structuring the organization for competitive advantage. Most treatments of strategy address competitive dynamics (in the line of Porter), likewise positioning, or competency leverage (Collins). Raynor leverages insights from his research and publishing in innovation (The Innovator’s Solution), Harvard doctoral research, and the practical understand that comes from actually consulting. In the case of strategy, the consulting experience lends valuable grounding – as opposed to theory-heavy work or easy-reading strategy-lite. This book could anchor a top-notch MBA course – but it could lead a good company’s board to make much better strategic decisions.


I would not compare The Strategy Paradox with popular business books, such as The Long Tail or even Good to Great. This is a book about the perils and promises of strategy formulation, the management of strategy and commitment, and the design and execution of strategic options. Keep in mind that, regardless of what you think you know about strategy research, most of what’s published in journals and books is very loose, or even just junk research. Strategic management remains largely influenced, in the real world of corporate decision making, by Porter’s 5 Forces, SWOT, and resource allocation. Who should care? Just about every executive, business unit-level manager, and all professors or consultants focusing on business strategy and organizational dynamics. It is one of the few works on competitive strategy that guides organizational strategy as well – not directly through guidance on org design, but in terms of organizational function necessitated by requisite uncertainty. Raynor never mentions “strategic alignment,” a troublesome notion from consulting with no good research support. Rather, he demonstrates how the organizational focus implied by “alignment” results from appropriate structural intention generated by appropriate distribution of uncertainty and commitment in the hierarchy. In time for Alfred Chandler’s handoff to history with his passing in May, Raynor retrieves the effectiveness of hierarchical management, obviating the need for “alignment,” based on good theory and sound research.
For example – I know (well) of one firm that leads its market in products and share, and was able to maintain its position by good old-fashioned installed base lock-in and monopoly rents with long-term contracts. With the luxury of not having to follow their own strategies well, they jumped around from Good to Great, then acquisition mania, product integration and overhauls, a China program and off-shoring, process redesign. At the end of the day, they were just acquired – and their product line now internally competes with its new owner’s. Could the Paradox have saved this firm? If taken seriously, yes – they appear to have violated nearly everything Raynor suggests.

Raynor explains complex business scenarios with a brisk storyline. The footnotes are a fascinating secondary read – the points are backed up by his research, Harvard studies, and dozens of well-cited papers. While optional to the main points, the research is actually useful and interesting, and much of it new to business research (consider his retrieval and application of Elliott Jacques’ work on requisite organization in the principle of Requisite Uncertainty.)

A week after reading the book, in late June, I referred to Raynor’s concepts in a conference presentation about structured dialogue for decision making in the intelligent enterprise, (the book was a timely, disruptive influence). I found a significant symmetry between Requisite Uncertainty and the principles for dialogic design we have been developing. The strategic horizons for strategy vs. commitment map to our stages of strategic dialogue (where a group of stakeholders formulates strategy, scenarios, and action plans in a structured dialogue). Since I consider time horizon the most pivotal factor in group decision making, the relationship of temporal uncertainty to priority and opportunity now becomes a key organizing principle.

Understanding Meaning as Awareness

May 17, 2007

See the fullpost on the CIMI website: Center for Interactive Management, India

Dr. Batra’s discussions of “From Data to Wisdom”, and “Laszlo’s Pyramid of Meaning”, describe a hierarchy of types of knowing and understanding. Alexander Laszlo’s notion of syntony, a kind of resonant circuit of meaning related to the levels of knowledge, energizes the pyramid in the dynamic interactions of learning and evolution. There are interesting origins to the evolution of a DIKW (Data, Information, Knowledge Wisdom) model, ranging back to Russell Ackoff’s (1989) JASS article, and according to Nikhil Sharma, back to T.S. Eliot’s The Rock, from 1934.The current model enhances this hierarchical construction with the dynamics of learning and meaning.

The DIKW model presents a kind of Maslovian-type hierarchy of knowledge, where the higher levels are constructed as “better” locations that are reached by mastering the lower levels composing the pyramid. Except in Laszlo’s model, the pyramidal shape is rightly downsided-up, to better envision the dynamics of the syntonic (dual-circuit) model. Laszlo shows the bottom levels (data and information) as constituting more objectified representations of human knowledge. The higher levels increase the degrees of freedom exponentially, toward an unlimited horizon of (subjective) possibility, creativity, and transcendence. 

In the development of KM, one of the persistent forces driving the field was the possibility of moving organizational awareness from a data-perspective toward a knowledge-based perspective. A non-trivial difference was imagined, whereby we might enhance productivity, reduce error and the reinvention of wheels, and accelerate innovation by leveraging the various levels of information entities: data, information, and the ever-elusive knowledge. Consider an organizational model of this pyramid based on one of the main drivers of KM, innovation management. Some of the questions that drive interaction at these levels may include:

  • Data: What resources do we have?
  • Information: What do we know about?
  • Knowledge: What do we know how to do with what we know?
  • Comprehension: Where do we have mastery? (Is it worth doing?)
  • Understanding: How well do we understand our context, opportunities and possibilities?
  • Wisdom: Knowing this, what should we do? (What’s the best decision?)
  • Transcendence: What does this mean? (What’s the best contribution we can make?)

We might redefine these levels of meaning as states of consciousness, from Data to Transcendence. Data is not “data” apart from our awareness and perception of it as such. Information is not transformed from data except in cognition – there is no object in the world identified as “information.” Bits, yes – information, no.

And of course, these are the tangible levels of meaning – the intersubjective agreement diffuses even more as we navigate through Knowledge and toward Wisdom. Working knowledge is inherently tacit – all the more so Understanding and Wisdom. While I am not ready to regard these states of awareness as continua, the states have characteristics we might collectively agree upon and recognize, even across cultures. And traversing up the pyramid, we experience different gradations of possibility vs. utility, tacitness vs. concreteness, self-awareness vs. object-awareness, and duration.

Dialogues: Structured & Mapped

May 14, 2007

Checking up on the ongoing series of NextD interviews, I was taken by the recent Jeff Conklin interview on Rethinking Wicked Problems. The Conklin interview discusses the nature of (Rittel and Weber’s orientation to) wicked problems. He also describes the use of IBIS, developed by Rittel, which has been modernized in their process called Dialogue Mapping. Essentially they have created a basis for collaborative facilitation across stakeholders of a significant issue, drawing up the emerging consensus using visual display of contributions via software and F2F meeting engagements.

Many old-timers in the systems thinking community have used IBIS in complex design processes, and there are many connections among those in the formative years of practice: Rittel, West Churchman, Harold Nelson, Hasan Ozbekhan, Christakis, and Erich Jantsch. The Interactive Management community of practice that has grown up since the 1970’s has followed the work of Aleco Christakis (Dialogic Design) and John Warfield (Generic Design). We call ourselves structured dialogue practitioners, following Christakis, a co-founder of the Club of Rome who remains quite active in writing and practice (Harnessing Collective Wisdom, 2006).

Dr. Conklin’s Dialogue Mapping is one of the only other processes we know of similar to the software-driven process of SDD – and there are too many differences to discuss in blog post #1 on this subject. SDD was designed to facilitate a true collective consensus from widely mixed stakeholders for complex system design, policy, and problem solving situations (as it was designed for “Limits to Growth” style problematiques). Our wiki site (the Blogora) shares the ongoing case study of the current Cyprus peace dialogues, as well as other key examples, with several final reports available.

While in the last month or so, so much discussion about the past and future of design has been inspired by vanPatter’s interview with Peter Merholz, and the discussions following among IA Institute members largely following vanPatter’s response to previous discussion (Unidentical Twins). I would imagine may of my colleagues in the User Experience field did not find Rethinking Wicked Problems germane to their applications. If so, this might tend to support vanPatter’s thesis that we are not paying sufficient attention to the history of design thinking in our own disciplines. Not everything that is good and effective is new; and plenty of “old” methods and practices, (perhaps unsexy to contemporary business,) are powerfully effective and validated tools just waiting to be enhanced and employed in the right design situation.

What is dialogic design anyway?

March 10, 2007

Are you guys just making this up? Weren’t you just calling it Structured Design Process a month ago? Wasn’t it Interactive Management for 20 years? (No, Yes, Yes …)

Today’s discussion on Blogora with Surinder Batra on IM and KM raised the realization that many of us are viewing phenomena of collective intelligence from the perspective of different practices, and we’re not using a “lingua franca of the same realm.”

Dialogic Design as Organizational KM

Both IM and Nonaka’s theory of the knowledge creation cycle rely on several stages of interaction to transform the functions of knowledge, from the personal and tacit to the shared and organizationally accessible.

Perhaps the most significant barrier to organizational KM is the inability to coordinate the transformation of knowledge “on demand,” for the emergent needs of the business. It would appear the SDD process creates a new type of knowledge cycle, a collaborative model, which functions as such (using Nonaka’s language):

C- Combination: Originates with the explicit knowledge of multiple individuals responses to trigger question.

I – Internalization: An emerging pattern of new knowledge is realized in the dialogue.

E – Externalization: These emergent, evolutionary patterns are disclosed and patterned using ISM.

I also suggest there is no set cycle, as implied by SECI. Knowledge processes are never that neat and tidy in reality, but the SDD process establishes a cyclic moving from individual knowledge, to group patterning, to individual learning, to group learning, to group understanding.]

S – Socialization: But not Nonaka’s Tacit-Tacit version. Here I suggest socialization means a totally synthesized explicit-tacit exchange within the organization, based on the shared experience and evolutionary learning of the SDD sessions, as well as the interpretations emerging from the tangible artifacts (Influence Map, reports) of the engagement.

We are using new language, intentionally – a vocabulary for business process design based on bottom-up socialization, as an alternative to the received notion of “strategic alignment.” The notion of alignment is maladaptive because it encourages executives to micro-manage processes under the assumption that alignment to strategy is an achievable state, or that it is even desirable (in the predetermined way they would execute alignment). Instead, managers should construct a collective, adaptive strategy (using SDD if possible). They should lead by embodying and celebrating the new values associated with the strategic intent, since values are the slowest functions to change in an organization, and are best demonstrated by leadership modeling. People closest to the processes are best suited to adapt practices to the changing direction/intent.

We are also adopting the generic, non-Warfieldian term dialogic design and the process of Structured Dialogic Design (SDD) in the research. Here’s why:

1. We need a generic term that describes a class of collective knowledge generation processes enabled by democratic dialogue. One that encompasses IM, SDP, and even Dialogue Mapping. That term is dialogic design.

2. When we publish peer-reviewed research, we will not be treated seriously if we are seen as advocates of a certain style of practice. I have received comments to this effect in reviews. Interactive Management is more like a brand name, and SDP is a confusing name to everyone in the IT world who know s of “structured design.”

3. We can improve the practice and generalize from first principles better if we distance ourselves from the “terms of engagement.” SDD is a type of dialogic design, as is IM.

Media Ecology: Emergence, Second Life, Real Life

March 7, 2007

A second post on the Toronto Media Ecology dialogue. Starting from a prompt question (something like): How does emergence arise in design ecologies (see prior post below) when we are intending creative innovation?

Optimal solutions to complex design or problem situations often arise (emerge) from the improvised mix of pre-existing features and relationships in a well-diversified design ecology, analogous to a biologically-diverse ecosystem. Of course, as human agents we can accelerate the rate of evolutionary innovation when we have some control over the resources and number and type of relationships in the ecosystem. In other words, just like an enriched home environment (with toys, books, friends, intellectual conversation) helps children learn and develop, an enriched design ecology fosters innovative outcomes that we desire.

At this point inthe conversation, the turn toward general systems theory spurred a round of attaching people’s favorite theorists to the story. Buckley’s work in social systems theory, Giddens structuration, I would have tossed Banathy and Buck Fuller into the mix if we had time to go on and on. I don’t know Buckley, so if someone can comment on why we should find his out of print and >$150 used books, let me know. We did not divert into “more moderner” sociological systems theories, but instead ranged into …

  • Autonomy and agency in computer-generated worlds. And whether the advancement of AI theory toward emergent behavior in intelligent networks purchased inroads toward understanding the emergence of mind in the human neural-brain-body system.
  • But beyond empirical observations that meet an operational definition of agency, we continue to explore the issues of intentionality, desire, awareness and meaning. (Since this is my blog, I can refer to a tongue-in-cheek critique on the think:lab blog of Hawkins’ On Intelligence raising the same points, if anyone wants to drift even farther afield.)
  • And then, finally returning to implications of brain research/cog neuroscience to emergent intelligence in social networking and new media.

Such as Second Life. Which disclosed a values rift between camps of media theorists. With the “Ricardian” camp finding SK a valid arena for exploring emergence in (perhaps) genuine social relationships through avatars (implying people have no incentives to be inauthentic). And in fact that this may lead to a new form of cybercitizenship. Rebutted by the social meaning camp (me and Philomena), with several arguments addressing the meaning of citizenship and the use of new media technology as tools for improving the social world of real people, especially those disenfranchised by society and (of course) technology. (Which drew the image of “what would it do to create virtual favelas in Second Life to mimic real world situations which we must deal with as actual citizens of the world?)

People showed up and left during my 90 minutes there, changing the dynamics and topics, but the emergence of an autonomous dialogic/hermeneutic circle kept the entire conversation smoothly an eerily continuous. On further reflection, a cyclic dynamic was that of reflexive reflection – not just reflection on questions to explore further into dialogue, but actually mirror-imaging the reflective conversation, to invert the points people raised (emergence-holism, cybercitizen-citizen via cyber) to test the directionality of relationship.

So, when is the next session of the Media Ecology Cafe?