Category Archives: Complexity

Electronic Resources and Libraries Conference 2012

It’s a beautiful time in Austin, Texas. The weather is warm to hot and the music is loud and proud. But I am in Austin for the  Electronic Resources and Libraries Conference. I attended this conference last year and I am pleased to be back again.

I’ll start my conference report with the morning session today (the first day) of the Electronic Resources and Libraries Conference. I will have to post another instalment for the after lunch sessions. By the way, I had lunch at the wonderful Blanton Museum down the road from the conference venue. The morning was both interesting and satisfying.

I will focus on the keynote since this was the presentation that had the most relevance and interest to me and my workplace. The keynote was delivered by Andrea Resmini currently working in Sweden. The title of his presentation was “Between physical and digital: understanding cross channel experiences”.

Andrea opened up with a story based on the Umberto Eco novel (and subsequent movie) The name of the rose. He focused on the labyrinthine library and the differences between the description and map of the library in the book and in the movie. The purpose of the story was to illustrate how important meaning is in understanding complex environments; and secondly, that we need to be able to understand how different media affect people’s experiences. Thus, is there really a meaningful difference between the physical reality of the library or information centre and that of the virtual library?

Taking some inspiration from William Gibson’s novel, Neuromancer, Andrea explains that cyberspace is not a place to go to, it is a layer tightly integrated into the world around us. And as such, there are cross channels that enable information to be delivered, exchanged, and received to suit the needs of individuals and the contexts in which they find themselves. Cross channels may be expressed this way: “Cross-channel is not about technology, or marketing, nor it is limited to media-related experiences: it’s a systemic change in the way we experience reality. The more the physical and the digital become intertwined, the more designing successful cross-channel user experiences becomes crucial”. A full explanation, from which this quote was taken, can be found here.

The point of course is that libraries can no longer think of themselves as a set of discrete multiple actions, or silos,  (e.g. circulation desk, catalogue, web site etc.) but as facilitator for the provision of information in different ways to meet the needs of clients/users/students and the way in which they want to access and consume information. This of course involves the virtual library.

More generally, all of us are not staying within one channel all of the time. We move between them, depending on what it is we need them to do. And we would like all the digital pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to fit and work together.

I will return in my next post to continue what Andrea went on to say, outlining his seven point “manifesto” about information architecture, the user experience, and cross channel experiences.

But to finish this post, I want to give some further reading. Andrea mentioned the book “Pervasive Information Architecture” and I will be chasing that up when I return home later in the week.



On experiencing context

I want to talk about experiencing context.  I want to investigate what it means to experience something that is really going on rather than what is supposed to be going on.  I want to see what happens in practice as distinct to what the theory might suppose.

I am reading the classic book on urban planning by Jane Jacobs, called The death and life of great American cities.  As a lapsed economic geographer, I am always drawn to the intersection between economics and space and how in practice these two dimensions work.   The first observation, certainly if you are from Sydney as I am originally, is that there is a dark nexus between property developers and urban development.  Much has been made about the power of developer influence on government planning, for instance.

In fact, I recall one big developer wanting to concrete over the beautiful Kuring-gai Chase National Park in the north of Sydney to build more multi-dwelling housing!  The worst part, of course, is that besides giving the developer more profit and more power, the architecture of said multidwelling housing leaves a lot to be desired with their prefab look and feel.

In the introduction to Jane Jacob’s book, she cites an example of a so-called slum in Boston (in the 1950s) called the North End.  To much of Boston, and certainly the city planners, North End was a major slum.  Yet when Jane Jacobs visited the place before a future-planned “redevelopment”, she was amazed by the life and vitality of the place.  She rang a planning friend who confirmed he thought it was a slum, albeit a slum with pretty good health and socioeconomic statistics behind it.  Moreover, her planner friend actually visited North End and found it to have a “wonderful, cheerful street life”, even better in summer.

Jacobs says: “Here  was a curious thing. My friend’s instincts told him North End was a good place, and his social statistics confirmed it. But everything he had learned as a physical planner about what is good for people and good for the city neighbourhoods, everything that made him an expert, told him that the North End had to be a bad place” (page 15).

The story certainly tells me how important it is to experience the context.  I doubt whether it will always be good enough to just look at the theory, or the statistics, or the expert opinion, without experiencing the context for oneself.  More importantly, however, is the finding out about the experience from the people active within it.

It therefore comes as no surprise that in many areas of our professional lives where we have to make decisions, we often rely solely on past experience, our previous training, and the thinking that pervades ourselves and like-minded colleagues.  This is quite insufficient.  We need to explore other ideas and other people’s views, especially the views of the people involved – the real stakeholders.  And if we can break these patterns, either through our own determination or allowing some disruptive thinking to break through from elsewhere, then we can at least look at the world in a different way.

If we can experience context, and include the contextual experiences of those involved, we can make more informed choices and decisions that reflect the real context as distinct from our personal-world-view context.

On bright minds and serendipity and passion

Here are a couple of quotes that are important to me when I think about knowledge work, and pretty much everything else to do with life.  I like the fact that randomness and passion have such a strong impact on what we do.

“Chaos is very important to me. I keep my office very messy because it creates interesting random thoughts. Often I have to look for a paper and on my search to find it I will find other things that trigger off new thoughts that I probably wouldn’t have had if I had found the paper straight away. Often in problem-solving you have to think outside the box, go sideways, and I think the chaotic mess in which I work often facilitates this. I also find yellow paper useful. I love working on yellow legal pads with black ink; it’s really good for thinking” (Professor Marcus du Sautoy, mathematician).

The quote is from an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald today (syndicated from the Sunday Telegraph in London) in which some of the brightest minds in the UK are asked to talk about everyday things.  The bright minds belong to Professor Marcus du Sautoy,  Professor Nathan Seiberg (particle physicist), Henry Marsh (brain surgeon), Daniel Jubb (rocket scientist), Michael Beloff (QC), and Nigel Short (Chess Grandmaster).

And finally, what about passion? This from Nathan Seiberg (particle physicist): “If you love something you become obsessed with it and then you eventually solve the problem. I discovered a passion for science at a very early age. I always enjoyed solving puzzles: logic puzzles; maths puzzles; jigsaw puzzles. I was obsessed. The passion is no guarantee of success, but without the passion it won’t work, that’s for sure.”

On outcomes and impact

There are many ways to find out about things. Research is obviously part of that. And research likes to use quantitative measures in order to maximise objectivity, even if these measures don’t give you much meaning.

Let’s look at hit rates on a website – a metric commonly used for “statistical purposes”. What does it mean? Well, it means that a website or page view has been looked at a certain amount of times. The inference is that the more hits you have the better must be the result. But what is the result?

If the intended result is to have as many hits as possible since one assumes hit rates equate with “eyeballs”, then surely high hit rate numbers are great. But is this the result an organisation really wants from it’s website? What happens as a consequence of the “eyeballs” is the question I really want to get an answer to. In reality, high hit rates could indicate a bad website. Your website visitors and customers are clicking away, frustrated by their inability to reach an outcome they want to achieve. Just get those click rates up and everything will be fine….hmmmmm.

Let’s do a survey then. A survey is actually pretty limiting.  A questionnaire is bounded by the construction of the questions and limited answer options. In nearly all cases, one could answer a question yes or no, depending on the particular circumstances at some point in time. Surveys also don’t do a great job in measuring continuous change over time. And conducting surveys or focus groups with large numbers of people are often difficult and time consuming, certinly if a continuous process is required.

Yet these methods are still held to be superior to more qualitative approaches to research. However, if you actually asked your website users what they thought of the website, perhaps they might tell you that it takes a lot of clicking to get through to complete the task at hand. They might tell you that your website is poorly organised, with lousy navigation and confusing labels. They might tell you that the photos on the home page add nothing to their customer experience. They might tell you that your website could better… for them. And if you have a continuous dialogue with them, they will be even more insightful as to how to improve or validate what you are trying to do. Observation at point of impact is a good way of thinking about this.

I can see some meaning from getting those kind of responses! Click rate numbers – forget it. Now I have real information that can make an impact to the people I say (and the organisation) I am trying to serve.

So what we are interested in finding out is impact. What is the  impact that occurs from what we are doing? This is different to outcome. Click rates are an outcome. Obtaining continuous feedback to ensure satisfied customers buy from you, recommend you, and stay loyal, is another.

Now what if we could get this feedback quickly, continually over time, on a large scale, context-sensitive, and in a way where the person giving us the information gives it in terms of how it affects them, and not through some intermediary or stilted survey method?

I set the scene this way to introduce some thoughts from a presentation at the ANU yesterday by Dave Snowden,  special guest speaker at the ACT-KM forum. Dave talked about a number of current projects he was working on. The common element from his talk was the importance of  determining impact and how then to take relevant action as a consequence.

I will use the example of the Liverpool Slavery Museum in the UK from Dave’s talk yesterday; albeit the Children of the world project was for me the most fascinating.

One could count the number of people going through the museum each month and year. The numbers might indicate level of popularity but one can’t be sure. At best, they show that “x” number of people came and paid “y” number of UK pounds to do so.  One could do a simple accounting calculation at this point and perhaps leave it at that.

But what if you wanted to know what effect the museum had on people? What if you wanted to know how successful the museum was in educating visitors about slavery, or in providing a unique experience? What really was the impact of the museum visit?

[It is of course true that if you don’t want to know about your customers’ experiences and are happy with just throughput figures – akin to an assembly line – then impact will have very little interest for you. The process will be sufficient].

Dave told us how there are computer screens and keyboards at the museum where people can record their experiences and feelings about the museum exhibits. People can nominate any of the individual exhibits to make a comment or express a feeling. The people making these comments are then able to “index” or tag their comments using terms chosen freely that signify meaning to them. Nobody  is interpretating what they say and adding any bias. At the same time, this information capture is continuous and provides for scale, something a static survey couldn’t do. The museum now has thousands of narrative fragments “indexed” by the individuals themselves. This information is aggregated and patterns observed. These patterns may suggest a change to a particular exhibit, or perhaps some alteration to how a museum education officer conducts a group tour.

In the Liverpool Museum case, they have both quantitative information (number of visitors and monies received) AND what impact the museum had on the visitors.

Yet still there are detractors:

  • stories (narrative fragments is the preferred method used by Dave Snowden) are not real facts
  • some people may just write junk and not tell the truth
  • it’s all so subjective

All three statements might be true. The point is, if we want to measure impact, then we need to know what people think and what effect something had on them. And we need to know what they think, not what what we might guess at. The capture and aggregation of narrative fragments is a good way of doing this. “Junk” can be easily discarded but sometimes “junk” may be of interest as a weak signal, something we should pay attention to. Where you want to establish an impact on people, of course there is subjectivity. However, how the narrative fragments are captured, aggregated and used is quite a rigorous and objective method in itself.

Lastly, no matter what the method, unless people use the tools correctly and respond appropriately, no research activity will have any validity.

On narrative capture and drought

Having followed complexity theory and narrative for some time in the knowledge management literature, and enriched by the Cognitive Edge accreditation course I undertook this year, I have become more attuned to opportunities where narrative capture and sensemaking can be used to provide meaningful information for organisational development and as a guide for government policy.

I was therefore interested to read today about a report on Australian drought policy in which people’s stories made a significant contribution to the government’s understanding of the social impact of drought. The ABC reports that Agriculture Minister, Tony Burke, said that “many people told the report’s authors that it was the first time they had been asked about the way the drought was affecting them personally”. The personal stories are what gives meaning to the problems the report is supposed to identify and inform policy about.

Now, having worked previously at Parliament House in information and research for almost six years, I am well versed in the ways in which Standing Committees and Senate Reports are researched, including the level of community consultation and public submissions involved. Yet, the input from people is relatively small in number given the scale of the issues and the size of the impacted populations. And not all views are expressed and many people are not heard at all.

Imagine a government report looking at the social impact of drought that had used systematic narrative capture, personal tagging, and sensemaking software as the basis of the primary research. Imagine aggregating thousands of narrative fragments from all around drought-stricken Australia and using the aggregated information to have emergent themes become visible at different levels of intensity. The emergent themes are those that individuals within rural communities have identified by themselves and are therefore more representative of what is really happening than anything else.

From a policy perspective these themes are significant. Agriculture Minister Tony Burke recognises the policy need when he says in the same ABC news story: “the report shows the policies to support farmers and communities through drought still need a lot of work”. If government policy is really trying to get to the heart of the social problems facing drought-stricken families and communities, then hearing from these people in massive numbers and having them self-identify their concerns and problems is critical to finding a solution.

I listened to Dave Snowden at the act-km conference in Canberra last week talking about how seriously we should take people’s stories – or narrative fragments as he prefers to call them. Dave blogs about this narrative issue when he says: “there is far more value in listening to stories, and gathering fragmented anecdotes than in telling stories. Meaning comes from fine granularity information objects (OK it’s jargon but it makes a point) and their interaction with my current reality. Not from some leader telling me a story (the other name for that is propaganda). Narrative work is a about meaning making, not about story-telling (which has a double meaning in English)”.

Clearly, the real strength of narrative is about meaning! And narrative capture, self-tagging of content, and aggregation is a method that leads to emergent issue identification that provides the meaning from which good policy can be developed for effective decision-making.

I believe that mass narrative capture and self-tagging of content can be aggregated in such a way that important thematic elements become visible to improve decision-making and problem-solving. At the very least, emergent themes bring “weak signals” to the surface for further questioning (often the weak signals go unnoticed during other forms of primary research).

Agriculture Minister Tony Burke would do well to consider this type of analysis for future research in policy development and implementation, especially in relation to social impacts.

On complexity and strategic planning

A couple of weeks ago I organised a half-day workshop for my team and our key internal stakeholders as part of the planning process for next year. I wanted to hear from my stakeholders what they thought about my team and the work we do, as well as to tease out themes and priorities for my team to look at doing in the future. But I wanted to find out this information within the different workplace contexts in which we do things. I also wanted to use the Cynefin framework from Cognitive Edge that I had learned about when I did the accreditation course in July.

I asked Viv and Chris from Emerging Options to conduct the workshop. Both Viv and Chris are exponents of the Cognitive Edge way and are the authorised Australian trainers for the Cognitive Edge accreditation course.

The workshop went better than I had expected. I had excellent participation from the highest levels. The feedback I received afterwards was very positive, especially how the workshop was conducted.

We were also commended for our willingness to encourage such open dialogue with the rest of the organistion. It was certainly my intention to flag very clearly our intention to be seen as an integrated part of the business, and not an isolated organisational silo. Part of that process is openness and facilitating organisational dialogue and collaboration.

For me and my team, the themes that emerged give us some scope to review what we do, re-establish priorities, and give us new opportunities moving forward.

We looked at our work in terms of the simple, complicated and complex domains used within the Cynefin framework.

In simple domains, performing a particular activity or process will bring about a defined result. Basically, if you do A, you will get B. Process-driven activities often fall into this domain.

In complicated domains you analyse the problem called A, and by bringing in expertise or resources, you can identify the solution and solve the problem. There is no new thinking here, just the application of expert knowledge to deal with the problem.

In complex domains, there is uncertainty as to what outcome will occur (if any) by performing a particular action or process. This is what is often called, “the intractable problem”. Generally, it is risky and expensive to try a range of actions in order to test which action might yield the better result. Usually a decision is made to take one action, spend resources on it, and if it fails to meet expectations, the project is dumped all together. Many a pilot project ends up like this!

Complex domains are particularly sensitive to context. What one action in one context brings need not be the same outcome in another context. Basing a decision on what someone has done in a different context (replication) is dangerous if context is not given due consideration.

Similarly, complex problems should not rely on past events to determine future outcomes. Cognitive Edge describes this phenomenon as “the problem of retrospective coherence” which means that all becomes obvious after the event has occurred (but before the event, these signals were not obvious). One of the strategic outcomes from working in the complex space is to try and identify (bring to the surface) “weak signals” and amplify them so that they can be considered in the decision-making process.

In the complex space, one needs to use probes to test to see what works in your own context.

So what did we learn from the whole experience?

It was clear that we had an identity problem – a change of name was offered as a potential solution. We will mull over this problem because identity is something that brings meaning to what we do in the eyes of the organisation.

In a similar vein, there was some ambiguity as to what work we did, what we should be responsible for, and how we communicate that to the wider organisation. Our response to this (our probe) is to launch an internal e-zine and see what reaction we will get from that. We will also use a cartoon, something I alluded to in a previous post, and develop the cartoon story as we progress. While we have a reasonable claim to extenuating circumstances on this one (both historical, and as a consequence of a very new team), we are already working on ways to overcome this problem.

There was also an expectation to do some things that we are either not equipped to do (for example, a lack of resources), or that we don’t yet have the formal authority to proceed.

And, some themes emerged around things we should not be doing.

Now what was really successful about the workshop was the way in which we were able to aggregate and prioritise responses based on activities within the three domains. Identifying the issues in each domain will help us develop improvements and interventions most appropriate to those particular contexts. Knowing that improves our chances of success, particularly in using probes for some of the problems and issues identified in the complex space.

In addition, the participatory and collaborative nature of the exercise within our workplace context means that we have information we can really work with. And we have introduced to the organisation a new way of  looking at problems and finding solutions by using the Cynefin framework.

Our strategic planning is continuing. The workshop using the Cognitive Edge approach has been a rewarding and helpful experience. Not only will the material help in our planning, but it will also help in our execution – and that’s the real nub of the matter!