Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

Workshop on “Flexible Modeling Tools”, Cascon 2009, Markham, ON

When a group of people come together for sensemaking about a situation, it’s pretty typical for someone to start sketching out boxes and lines to improve the clarity of the ideas.  Amongst 2 or 3 people, this might be sketching on a napkin.  Convening in an office usually suggests that a flip chart or a whiteboard will be used.  These media have the advantage of expressiveness — effectively conveying ideas — with the challenge of replicable precision and subsequent intelligibility to people beyond the original participants.  As the average business professional has become more adept with computer-based tools, presentation graphics — often as dreaded Powerpoint slides — are common.  Although more advanced drawing tools (e.g. vector graphic editors) and specification languages (e.g. UML and SysML) are easily available, the gulf between “easy-to-use” office productivity tools and “rigourous” modeling tools has yet to be bridged.

Based on a legacy of collaborations with IBM Research, my colleague Ian Simmonds pointed out the upcoming workshop on “Flexible Modeling Tools” at Cascon 2009 — a short commute within the Toronto area — with the following description.

This workshop will explore why modeling tools are not used in many situations where they would be helpful and what can be done to make them more suitable.

For example, during the exploratory phases of design, it is more common to use white boards than modeling tools. During the early stages of requirements engineering, it is more common to use office tools. Yet in these examples, as in many other tasks, the advantages of modeling tools would be valuable – providing multiple views for visualization and convenience of manipulation, providing domain-specific assistance (e.g., “content assist”), ensuring consistency, etc. Why, then, are they not used? The many reasons include: learning curve, interaction medium, rigidity and lack of support for informality.

This workshop will bring together tool builders and people who have or might use tools for their software development activities to explore the barriers inherent in current modeling tools and what can be done to remove these barriers. It will also address what key research challenges remain.

The day-long workshop on November 2 should be more of a generative conversation, rather than an exposition of completed research.  Contributions to the workshop are in the form of position papers.  On my last visit to the UK, I had some discussions with Gary Metcalf and Jennifer Wilby on current research into an emerging science of service systems, as well as ongoing client work with municipalities in Canada.  We wrote this up, and the position paper was accepted for the workshop.

Introducing modeling tools to non-technical business professionals: some cases with preliminary observations

A position paper prepared for the Flexible Modeling Tools workshop at Cascon 2009, by …

David Ing, IBM Canada Ltd. and the Helsinki University of Technology, ;

Gary Metcalf, Interconnections LLC, and the International Federation for Systems Research,; and

Jennifer M. Wilby, University of Hull Centre for Systems Studies, and International Society for the Systems Sciences,

This position paper responds to the following description of scope:

This workshop explored why modeling tools are not used in many situations where they should be helpful, what might be done to make them more suitable, and what key research challenges must be overcome to achieve their adoption.

The position paper also responds to the request in the agenda:

Each participant is also asked to bring to the workshop two problems they have with existing modeling tools, and two features or differences in behavior or ideas for radical new tools they really would like to see.

Non-technical business professionals have generally accepted and achieved a basic level of proficiency on representing and expressing their knowledge with word processors, spreadsheets and presentation graphics.  At a slightly higher level of sophistication, the availability of non-commercial open source software has reduced obstacles to mind mapping (e.g. with Freemind).  When increased proficiency with techniques and tools is required (e.g. concept mapping with CMapTools, or issue mapping with Compendium), popularity lessens.  When techniques and tools become very formal (e.g. scheduling and budgeting with project management software; or describing roles, tasks and activities in business process language and tools; or diagramming and engineering information technologies with software modeling language tools), the non-technical professionals generally delegate to specialists.

This contribution to the workshop is outlined in four parts.

  • 1. Two case studies
  • 2. Observations on inquiring systems, sensemaking and boundary objects
  • 3. Some limitations with existing modeling tool
  • 4. Prospects for modeling tools as radical

These ideas are intended as an input towards a richer conversation in a workshop, rather than a standalone point-of-view to be defended.

1. Two case studies illustrate the challenges of introducing modeling tools to non-technical business professionals

As concrete studies of the introduction of modeling tools, two cases are presented:  one large, inter-organizational collaboration across governments; and the other, a small group of researchers distributed internationally.

1.1 Cross-jurisdictional (and intra-organizational) collaboration formalizes the business of government within municipalities

MISA Canada — an association of cities and regions across the country — has had a Municipal Reference Model since the early 1990s that provides a standard language and set of definitions for commonly used terms (e.g. program, service); a framework which illustrates the relationships among these concepts; and a standard taxonomy (catalogue) of municipal programs and services, with a standard set of attributes.

The pilot solution has recognized (a) commonality and comparability achieved through a standard metamodel underlying “my municipality” profile instances, simultaneously with (b) the practicality of “my muncipality” profile instances in practice that may be evolved to conform to the standard metamodel.  Stepping up from legacy tools — of PC-based documents and spreadsheets — to a model-based collaborative environment raises training, administration and governance questions not previously relevant.  Tools include Rational Software Modeler, Rational RequisitePro, Rational Requirements Composer and Lotus Quickr, with custom integrating extensions.

1.2 Academic collaboration evolves shared learning on an emerging science of service systems

Senior members of the International Society for the Systems Sciences have embarked on a “Conversation on an Emerging Science of Service Systems“.  The research team is internationally distributed over 14 time zones, with a few upcoming occasions for face-to-face interactions.  Since this domain of focus is young, methods to share knowledge — as initial alternatives to writing and reading long articles — in an effective and productive manner have been sought.

The research team has started working through a combination of collaborative issue mapping, and system modeling applying OMG SysML.  Tools under experimentation include Compendium and Rational Rhapsody.

2. The use of modeling tools surfaces choices about types of inquiring systems and brings in dynamics of collaborative sensemaking on boundary objects

Modeling is not only an activity of knowledge representation; it is also an activity of social engagement.  Creating artifacts in collaboration and facilitating the inclusion of stakeholders go hand in hand.

2.1 A tool can enable convergence on a model standard, and/or multiple perspectives converged tightly or loosely

Creating a universal model of reality may not only be impractical, but also not desireable.  The activities of modeling can be seen as varying designs of inquiring systems (Churchman, 1971; Mitroff & Linstone, 1993).  Including or excluding domains, parties and/or interests raises questions of boundary critique (Midgely, 2001).

In the cross-jurisdictional municipal case, two approaches were seen as valid: (a) working from a standard meta model to the reality of local practices, and (b) conforming from local views to common and comparable concepts and measures.

In the service systems collaboration case, an industry standard language (i.e. SysML) endorsed by the systems engineering community is being applied by systems scientists.  The appropriateness of the notation and framework traditional used to describe technical systems (e.g. aircraft, mobile devices) is being evaluated for other system domains (e.g. social systems, ecological systems).

2.2 A tool can facilitate a model as a boundary object, with simple diagrams leading to more involved reasoning and experiences

Modeling tools typically include features for diagramming, as “one picture is worth a thousand words”.  While different people may recognize and/or converge on that one picture or image, however, it may only be as a boundary object (Bowker & Star, 2000).  Amongst a group of people, activities associated with sensemaking (Weick, 1995) may lead either to convergence, or recognition of multiple perspectives.  A modeling language provides extra richness to navigate in and between diagrams, which increases clarifty from some tools users, and complexity for others.

In the cross-jurisdictional municipal case, the advantages of sharing a common metamodel include the potential for improved shared learning and comparability.  In practice, only a handful of skilled users will be named as metamodelers.  Business analysts will work in text and two-dimensional cross-reference tables.  Business users will be readers or approvers.  Maintaining coherency over time is seen as a potential challenge.

In the service systems collaboration case, the academics share a body of knowledge on systems science, but not on formal representations.  One person is acting as the lead facilitator, with others potentially following along as concrete artifacts reduce the learning curve.  Initial presentations with a larger community have drawn some strong responses. In the categorization of temperaments, (Keirsey, 1998) we conjecture that Rationals (i.e. NT temperaments who are introspective and and pragmatic, or intuitive-thinking in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicators) could be more comfortable with translating concepts into tangible artifacts than Guardians (i.e. SJ temperaments who are observant and cooperative (or sensing-judging in the MBTI).

3. Existing modeling tools are limited in coevolving with continually refining knowledge representations, and the legacy and emergence of complementary tools

Many non-sophisticated computer users have become comfortable with using presentation graphics tools (e.g. Powerpoint) or drawing tools (e.g. Open Office Draw) to express ideas visually, without explict semantics.  At the other extreme of sophistication, modelers may have learned specialized notations (e.g. Unified Modeling Language) or frameworks (e.g. process simulation) to create executable programs.  The gulf in between is large.

3.1 Existing tools don’t facilitate the gradual formalization from simple diagrams to rigorous models

Generally, there’s a divide between tools that couple the concrete form and abstract semantics (e.g. in Powerpoint, every instance is a separate object), and tools that decouple the two (e.g. Eclipse-based modeling tools where all visual elements don’t show up on every canvas, and non-visual elements are possible).  The ideal tool would enable progressive refinement from the sketches created by a novice to formal models that might be executable as programs.  Typically, the proficient modeler finds the task of redrawing the content simpler than dealing with imports and exports of formats (e.g. WMF, SVG) which may or may not properly render the original representation.

3.2 Existing tools don’t enable collaboration at varying levels of involvement, or contributions in varying modes

While all participants in a modeling activity may not be equally facile with tools, existing tools, for the most part, do not encourage varying levels of expertise.  Most participants are usually considered to be readers, or all are given permission to be authors and editors.  This reflects a “wiki” style of collaboration.

In the current generation of social media, varying forms of participation are recognized.  In blogging, commenters leave the original content as initially posted, but append remarks.  In microblogging, a reader can endorse an itema as worth repeating by”retweeting” to draw attention to his or her followers.  The rise of device alternatives to the window, icon, menu, pointing device (WIMP) form of interaction raises not only challenges, but opportunities (e.g. shaking the device).

4. For a prospective modeling tools to be considered radical, it should reflect the social nature of collaborative modeling

Many of the advances in computing over the past decade have not been on new information systems per se, but the connections between them.  Thus, the focus may not necessarily be on the net, but on the Internet.  Is it possible to bridge the knowledge of individuals collaborating in creating a shared model, while recognizing differences in their preferred modes of thinking and perceiving?

4.1 A radical new modeling tool could enable and incorporate multiple realities

Collaborators coming together for the first time have different perspectives and ideas.  Some may have complete and rigourous models, while others have rough sketches and are interested in learning.  In discussions, the mental models of each participant will evolve, resulting in (a) a collective model for the group that may or may not be challenged as findings are returned to their constituents; (b) multiple subgroup models that recognize variations on a theme, that are not converged but can be mapped to each other, or (c) distinct subgroup models that are unreconcilable, where the parties have “agreed to disagree”.  A radical new tool would not only reflect the coevolving models and artifacts amongst the group, but also that the acceptance of views at the individual, subgroup, and collective levels.

4.2 A radical new modeling tool could support both the introspective and collaborative

The introduction of software tools into a conversation can resurface some foundational predispositions in participants.  Individuals comfortable with the computer sciences need to be aware that they may not be in the majority.

The non-scientists have a rooted impression that the scientists are shallowly optimistic, unaware of man’s condition.  On the other hand, the scientists believe that the literary intellectuals are totally lacking in foresight, peculiarly unconcerned with their brother men, in a deep sense anti-intellectual, anxious to restrict both art and thought to the existential moment.  And so on.  (Snow 1959, pp. 5-6)

Some people seek clarity, while others revel in ambiguity.  Some have a talent for structuring conceptual models into concrete representations, while others have will just “know it when they see it”.  Modeling is partially an art — even if it is based on rigourous notation and standard procedures that enable communications and sensemaking.  A radical new tool would not only suit individuals with strong sense of order, but also creatives who value spontaneity and improvisation — with a means to bridge the variety of attitudes.


Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Leigh Star. 2000. Sorting things out. MIT Press, 2000.

Churchman, Charles West. 1971. The design of inquiring systems: basic concepts of systems and organization. Basic Books, 1971.

Keirsey, David. 1998. Please understand me II. Prometheus Nemesis, 1998.

Midgley, Gerald. 2001. Systemic intervention. Springer, 2001.

Mitroff, Ian I., and Harold A. Linstone. 1993. The unbounded mind. Oxford University Press, 1993.

Snow, Charles Percy. 1959. The two cultures and the scientific revolution. Cambridge University Press, 1959.

Weick, Karl E. 1995. Sensemaking in organizations. Sage, 1995.

If you find these ideas interesting, and happen to be in the Toronto area on November 2, you might drop by.  There’s no charge to register for Cascon, and the four day event had thought leaders in computer science in keynote addresses.  (The conference also has a reputation for serving a great free lunch!)

1 Comment

  • I think I can now see one of the problems. Tool builders want to build tools, so that’s what they do. People who do the work may influence tool builders, but they always hold the power to remain ignorant of how things are really done, and just imagine how much better they might be done with a tool.

    I find myself building my own tools as I go, which the tool builders are manifestly and persistently not interested in. Now I think I’m beginning to understand why, now that I find myself at a distance from this actual conversation.

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