Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

At the Oxford Futures Forum 2014, hosted by the Saïd Business School, I was invited to be a participant in a generative dialogue.  Each of the invitees was requested to submit a 250-word abstract and an image four months ahead of the event.  In two days, we had three group discussion meetings, where individuals were free to go to other groups (or form new groups) according to the ideas emerging from the dialogue.

This event runs on the Chatham House Rule:

When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

Further, in a generative dialogue, ideas flow and merge as participant learn from each other, so representations related to people outside of the involved group don’t get a full appreciation for the unfolding learning.  Having been a participant in a series of prior IFSR Conversations that similarly focus on generative dialogue, any describing of the experience turns out somewhat inadequate.  The most that can be related to others are “proceedings”, where some of the ideas in progress are captured.  As a participant in Oxford Futures Forum, I was involved in three rounds of conversations, which can be roughly framed as:

  • design and scenarios to instigate change (as an introductory clustering to start the first round);
  • methods framing (as the emergent theme from the first round to go into a second round); and
  • scenario-buffered design (as the label that was presented as the conclusion of the third round).

Based on the abstract I had contributed some months earlier, the conference organizers initially slotted me into the “Design and Scenarios to Instigate Change” group.  A few of us had brief contact on a teleconference a few weeks before arriving at the event, and then in the pub on the night of arrival.  When the full group finally met face-to-face, we still didn’t really know each other.  As a way of getting involved with others, we were asked to present the abstract of another person from the group.  From those foundations, we started a loose discussion making sense of some common themes.  The organizers helpfully provided a note taking volunteer, Saba Riaz, to record some of this preliminary dialogue — a challenging flow to track, as the round 1 groups tried to make sense of  the ideas of others, as well as ourselves!  The proceedings (final report) included the following synopsis:

Round 1: Design and scenarios to instigate change

August 18th, 2014

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The systems thinking roots from architect Christopher Alexander aren’t completely obvious in his work on pattern language.  A republished version of an 1968 article resurfaces some clarification on a perspective on systems thinking originating from practices in architecture.  This article introduced ways in which systems thinking could be most directly applied to built environments.  The cross-appropriation of pattern languages across a variety of domain types — object-oriented programmers were the earliest motivating adopters — could be enlightened by revisiting the foundations.  Alexander concisely presented 4 points, and then provided detailed reasoning for each:

1. There are two ideas hidden in the word system: the idea of a system as a whole and the idea of a generating system.

2. A system as a whole is not an object but a way of looking at an object. It focuses on some holistic property which can only be understood as a product of interaction among parts.

3. A generating system is not a view of a single thing. It is a kit of parts, with rules  about the way these parts may be combined.

4. Almost every ‘system as a whole’ is generated by a ‘generating system’. If we wish to make things which function as ‘wholes’ we shall have to invent generating systems to create them.  [Alexander 2011, p. 59; Alexander 1968, p. 605]

In a properly functioning building, the building and the people in it together form a whole: a social, human whole. The building systems which have so far been created do not in this sense generate wholes at all.  [Alexander 2011, p. 58; Alexander 1968, p. 605]

Let’s leave analytical explications of the original 1968 text as secondary, to first appreciate the idea of “systems generating systems” through sensemaking done some decades after 1968, and in the broader context of Alexander’s other writings and interviews.

Molly Wright Steenson, as part of her 2014 dissertation, has a 66-page digest of Alexander’s work between 1962 and 1968.  Her deep reading was reflected in a 2009 recorded presentation on “Loving and Hating Christopher Alexander“.  Generally speaking, interaction designers love Christopher Alexander’s approach, while architects hate Christopher Alexander’s approach.

SVA Dot Dot Dot Lectures: Molly Wright Steenson from MFA Interaction Design.

Amongst the lovers and haters of Christopher Alexander is a predisposition towards interaction compatible with systems thinking.  For built environments, architecture can be described through a language of patterns, where those patterns may or may not be generative.  In her 2014 dissertation, Steenson fleshes out Alexander’s 1968 “Systems Generating Systems” with the broader context of the 1979 The Timeless Way of Building, and 1983 publication by Stephen Grabow of interviews with Alexander.

Generating Systems

Alexander describes pattern languages as “generative,” referring to the quality of multiplicity, of a system that operates both as a whole and as a set of rules.  A system, like a language, works on multiple levels.  The system presents itself on the surface, he writes, when “we are confronted with an object which displays some kind of behaviour which can only be understood as a product of interaction among parts within the object.  We call this kind of behaviour, holistic behaviour.”262 It also incorporates the rule set for the manipulation of the elements that it composes. This dualistic system is analogous to the functions of the pattern language. Just as a generating system is a kit of parts, “Each pattern is a rule which describes what you have to do to generate the entity which it defines.”263 [Steenson 2014, pp. 90-91]

262Christopher Alexander, “Systems Generating Systems,” AD 38(1968): 606.
263Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building, 182.

April 10th, 2014

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The thinking behind GIGA-mapping, as a technique from designers, echoes some research into (computer-supported) collaborative work from a decade ago.  In “GIGA-Mapping: Visualisation for Complexity and Systems Thinking in Design“, Birger Sevaldson wrote in 2011:

GIGA-maps are the central device in the Rich Research Space which includes social spaces, media spaces and physical spaces.

This reminds me a lot about the design of mediating spaces coming from Ian Simmonds and myself in 2002:

We propose a framework for designers of business organizations and designers of information systems that portrays three forms of “space” that mediate social interactions: physical space, social space and informatic space. The framework aids organizational designers and information technology designers to understand some of the complexities of enabling knowledge work, by contrasting the properties of the spaces and their interactions:

  • Social interaction enabled by physical spaces is the focus of architects of buildings and urban planners, managers locating individuals and team who work together, and conference organizers who plan events to encourage networking.
  • Social interaction enabled by social spaces is the focus of organizational designers who develop supporting social structures such as centers of excellence or practitioner support networks.
  • Social interaction enabled by informatic spaces is the focus of knowledge architects and process analysts, who administer and moderate groupware and workflow applications.

In addition,

  • Informatic spaces hosted in physical spaces are the focus of Information Technology architects, who ensure appropriate geographical coverage, performance, availability and security through appropriate computer hardware and software (e.g. servers, access points and networks).

Since the ways in which knowledge work can be carried out vary from person to person across a community, and innovations are naturally introduced over time, an enabling infrastructure should be capable of adaptation to those changed needs. We draw on research in general systems theory, architectural theory, and social theory to inform our practices in advising on business design, and methods and tools for information modeling.

Across disciplines, our starting points were definitely different.  However, the trends driving this direction would appear to be complementary, as described by the Rich Design Research Space in Sevaldson (2008):

The Rich Research Space is a “tool” or a meta-tool for research-by-design.  [….]   The Rich Research Space is here regarded as a complex and manifold tool that will
enable an inclusive and complex research process.

March 8th, 2014

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As a way to enable conversations about wicked problemsIBIS (Issue-Based Information Systems) software seems to have evolved over the past few years.  While the academic support of IBIS software has carried an open source license, part of the community has become independent of the university.

For those unfamiliar with how an IBIS might work, Jeff Conklin (at the Cognexus Institute) had done a lot of work on Issues-Based Information Systems (IBIS) based on Rittel and Webber‘s “wicked problems”. The open source software supporting this is Compendium.   See the “Limits of Conversational Structure” | Jeff Conklin | April 10, 2008 at .

Simon Buckingham Shum, from the Knowledge Media Institute at The Open University UK, mapped the first UK election Tv debate in 2010 (or at least the few first minutes before his connection was interrupted).  “Dialogue Mapping election debate video” | Simon Buckingham Shum | April 23, 2010 at

Paul Culmsee, an issue and dialogue mapper in Australia, shares some of his experience in facilitation based in three videos.

March 6th, 2014

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The Oxford Futures Forum 2014 committee requested an image and an abstract as an application for an Open Space event for 70 participants on May 30-31.  The event description reads:

Purpose and aims

  • Forging and supporting an international community of future-minded practices aimed at stimulating actionable, impactful knowledge;
  • Identifying and investigating academic and practitioner interests at the forefront of scenarios and design, and relating them to each other;
  • Uncovering and pushing the boundaries of scenarios practices and theory, to clarify and extend their effectiveness through critical review and linking with other fields;
  • Enabling networking and publishing  (e.g. two books from first OFF in 2005; a set of sense-making scenarios and two published papers after OFF 2008, which saw another workshop based on the Oxford one organised by Arizona State University; so far one paper from OFF 2011)
  • Leveraging the neutral, highly respected and international convening power of Oxford University.

Theme – scenarios and design

The theme of the fourth Oxford Futures Forum will explore the possible synergies and differences between work on design and the so-called ‘intuitive logics’ school in scenarios.   See “Scoping the Dialogue Space” and OFF2014 supplementary information.

To clarify, in the basic “intuitive logics” method, say Wright, Bradfield, and Cairns (2013):

This model follows the approach developed over many decades by a number of writers … and organizations (e.g. Global Business Networks (GBN; SRI International). It relies upon the application of “intuitive logics” …, and is focused on the development of multiple scenarios that explore the “limits of possibility” for the future, rather than on the development of singular, “normative” scenarios of some ideal future.

March 2nd, 2014

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In the IBM Archives, there’s a “IBM Management Principles & Practices” document that reflects the culture of an organization where I spent 28 years.  The 19 pages includes articles by seven IBM chairmen over a span of 90 years (published in 2002):

# Article Author Date
01. Basic Beliefs and Management Principles Thomas J. Watson, Jr. April 1969
02. Basic Management Responsibilities Thomas J. Watson, Jr July 1960
03. Be Yourself Frank Cary September 1975
04. Community Education Thomas J. Watson, Jr. August 1961
05. Community Service T. Vincent Larson December 1971
06. Conformity Frank Cary August 1973
07. Decision-Making Thomas J. Watson, Jr. October 1963
08. Equal Opportunity Frank Cary February 1974
09. Ethical Conduct Thomas J. Watson, Jr. June 1961
10. Gobbledygook Thomas J. Watson, Jr. February 1970
11. Human Relations Frank Cary December 1975
12. Managing People Thomas J. Watson, Jr. October 1964
13. Moves Thomas J. Watson, Jr. May 1968
14. Provincialism Thomas J. Watson, Jr. June 1962
15. Quality John R. Opel December 1981
16. Recognition Thomas J. Watson, Jr. March 1970
17. Thinking Thomas J. Watson, Sr. February 1930
18. Trust John F. Akers June 1986
19. Why Thomas J. Watson, Jr. May 1963
20. Women T. Vincent Learson August 1970
21. Win, Execute and Team Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. 1998

The article that led my interest was “Basic Beliefs and Management Principles”, which alphabetically happens to be first.  The “codification of the basic beliefs” is placed in the year 1962 by the IBM Archives, so the 1969 restatement by Thomas J. Watson, Jr. came seven years later.  The letter was addressed to IBM managers:  the first three points review the basic beliefs, followed by four principles for managers to heed:

Basic Beliefs and Management Principles

As you all know, we have long held to three basic beliefs in the conduct of this business: Respect for the individual, the best customer service and superior accomplishment of all tasks.

June 7th, 2013

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