Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

Conversations: for action, for clarification, for possibilities, for orientation

In the Adaptive Enterprise research that I had conducted between 1998 and 2001, I was primarily focused on conversations for action, towards a commitment action protocol. I extended, in 2008, those ideas into a research paper to recognize (at least) four types of obligations:

  • commitments to produce a deliverable;
  • commitments to follow a process;
  • commitments to provide a capability; and
  • commitments to contribute to a relationship.

These four types were not considered exhaustive, but helpful in understanding how service systems work.

In the background, I’ve always known that there are other kinds of conversation.  To be explicit about these, I’ll refer to a 1987 article by Terry Winograd (that was a revision of 1986 workshop paper reprinted in 1988).

Winograd provides the foundations back to speech act theory, from Austin, and then Searle.

Austin (1962) noted that not all utterances are statements whose truth or falsity is at stake. Performatives, such as I pronounce you husband and wife are actions, which can be made appropriately (felicitously) or not, but which are neither true nor false in a simple sense. Similarly, the language actions of commands, questions, and apologies are not descriptions of a non-linguistic world.

Searle (1975) identified five fundamental illocutionary points — things you can do with an utterance:

Assertive Commit the speaker (in varying degrees) to somethings being the case — to the truth of the expressed proposition.
Directive Attempt (in varying degrees) to get the hearer to do something. These include both questions (which can direct the hearer to make an assertive speech act in response) and commands (which direct the hearer to carry out some linguistic or non-linguistic act).
Commissive Commit the speaker (again in varying degrees) to some future course of action.
Declaration Bring about the correspondence between the propositional content of the speech act and reality (e.g., pronouncing a couple married).
Expressive Express a psychological state about a state of affairs (e.g., apologizing and praising).

[pp. 7-8]

The conversations for action tend to focus on the commissives, but the other illocutionary points happen as well.

Winograd describes three other types of conversations.

We distinguish several additional kinds of conversation that go along with conversations for action (CfA):

  • conversation for clarification,
  • conversation for possibilities, and
  • conversation for orientation.

There is no sharp line between them, but they are accompanied by different moods.

In a conversation for clarification the participants cope with or anticipate breakdowns concerning interpretations of the conditions of satisfaction for a CfA. The conditions are always interpreted with respect to an implicit shared background, but the sharing is partial and needs to be negotiated. As a simple example, the request “Give the patient some diazine” might evoke responses such as “Right now, or with the morning meds?” or “What dosage?” One can never guarantee that everything is totally precise. Precision is relative to each party’s implicit anticipation that the other party will have a sufficiently shared background to carry out the action in a satisfactory way.

In a conversation for possibilities, the mood is one of speculation, anticipating the subsequent generation of conversations for action. Specific conditions of satisfaction will emerge in the course of the conversation, and associated conversations for action will be initiated. Many gatherings that are called meetings are best conducted in this mood. The meeting is a failure if some action does not come out of the discussion. Some conversations for possibilities are highly routinized. For example, work rounds on a hospital ward is a routine conversation for possibilities, during which the medical team visits each patient and specific requests and commitments are generated.

In a conversation for orientation, the mood is one of creating a shared background as a basis for future interpretation of conversations. This shared background includes specific knowledge, interpersonal relations, and general attitudes. The most obvious examples are meetings labelled orientation, in which newcomers begin to develop the understanding that is required to function in the organization. Conversations for orientation are prominent in less formal settings (shooting the bull). Although the mood here is not directed towards action, it is important to recognize the importance of developing mutual orientation as the basis for future effective action and for appropriately shared interpretation of language acts.

Each of these types of conversation has its own regularities of structure, which in turn can be reflected in the design of the tools for conducting it.  [p. 15, editorial emphases and paragraphing added]

A case study of work in a hospital is analyzed for each of these kinds of conversations.  The context of the “larger web of conversations” is recognized.  These include written documents (e.g. on the quality of care), as well as non-written and/or uncaptured electronic communications that would have to be recalled as declarations by individuals with subjective interpretations and purposes.

The language action perspective is seen as superordinate to semantics, with profession-oriented meanings resulting in distinctions that may not be understood to practitioners out of an immediate context, let alone the layman.  Winograd surfaces some “blindnesses” that are introduced through the technological medium of computing.

Beyond having conversations recorded in writing or via electronic media, recognition of the above types of conversations may help communications and coordination in business, not only in superior-subordinate relationships, but also peer-to-peer relationships.  Haeckel (1999) calls for rigour as necessary but not sufficient in a commitment-based governance system.

The commitments made and and registered must also be authentic.  By authentic, I mean two things.  First, both parties must mean what they say and say what they mean — they must be sincere.  Second, each party must know and understand what they mean — they must be competent.  [p. 150]

Beyond commitments — in clarifications, in possibilities, and in orientation — these three principles are good practice:  (a) mean what you say, (b) say what you mean, and (c) know what you mean.  In a turbulent conditions, this third principle — to know what you mean — can be a challenge.  Reorienting, exploring alternative possibilities and/or gaining additional clarification may drive revisiting and renegotiating commitments made under uncertainty.


References

Stephan H. Haeckel, Adaptive Enterprise: Creating and Leading Sense-and-Respond Organizations, Harvard Business School Press, 1999.

Terry Winograd, “A Language/Action Perspective on the Design of Cooperative Work”, Human-Computer Interaction volume 3, number 1 (1987-88), pp. 3-30, available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/s15327051hci0301_2 posted at http://hci.stanford.edu/winograd/papers/language-action.html

Terry Winograd, “A Language/Action Perspective on the Design of Cooperative Work”, Computer-Supported Cooperative Work: A Book of Readings (Irene Greif, editor), Morgan-Kaufmann, 1988, pp. 623-653.

Commissive

5 Comments


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • RSS qoto.org/@daviding (Mastodon)

    • daviding: Very long article, o September 4, 2020
      Very long article, oriented towards policy change. Issues should be familiar to everyone on this platform (and appreciation of that is probably why you are here). #CoryDoctorow on Surveillance Capitalism https://onezero.medium.com/how-to-destroy-surveillance-capitalism-8135e6744d59
    • daviding: A small wording shif July 27, 2020
      A small wording shift, yet I really like the idea on belonging rather than just including. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/business/commentary/article-want-a-more-diverse-work-force-move-beyond-inclusion-to-belonging/
    • daviding: On the post-pandemic July 18, 2020
      On the post-pandemic world, #MargaretAtwood says: > "this is like being in 1952, except with birth control and the internet".https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/books/opinion/2020/07/17/margaret-atwood-on-post-covid-hopes-plus-baking.html
    • daviding: Instead of using a t July 4, 2020
      Instead of using a text editor or Notepad on my computer for everyday work, I now use #Zettlr as a persistent scratchpad, a new page each day. The feature of creating #Markdown often helps in copy-and-paste to other applications. I haven't exercised #Zotero citations, yet, but probably will, shortly. > Roam let’s you manage knowledge, […]
    • daviding: The #GlobeAndMail ed June 29, 2020
      The #GlobeAndMail editorial declares that the brain drain of 15,000 Canadians to the United States between years 2000-2010 could be reversed, with corporations near-shoring northwards. > Canada already exerts a powerful pull on people from the rest of the world. A global Gallup survey, conducted from 2015 through 2017, shows Canada is one of the most […]
  • RSS on IngBrief

    • 1969, 1981 Emery, System Thinking: Selected Readings
      Social Systems Science graduate students in 1970s-1980s with #RussellAckoff, #EricTrist + #HasanOzbehkhan at U. Pennsylvania Wharton School were assigned the Penguin paperback #SystemsThinking reader edited by #FredEEmery, with updated editions evolving contents.
    • 1968 Buckley, “Modern Systems Research for the Behavioral Scientist: A Sourcebook”
      Resurfacing 1968 Buckley, “Modern Systems Research for the Behavioral Scientist: A Sourcebook” for interests in #SystemsThinking #SocioCybernetics #GeneralSystemsTheory #OrganizationScience . Republication in 2017 hardcopy may be more complete.
    • Wholism, reductionism (Francois, 2004)
      Proponents of #SystemsThinking often espouse holism to counter over-emphasis on reductionism. Reading some definitions from an encyclopedia positions one in the context of the other (François 2004).
    • It matters (word use)
      Saying “it doesn’t matter” or “it matters” is a common expression in everyday English. For scholarly work, I want to “keep using that word“, while ensuring it means what I want it to mean. The Oxford English Dictionary (third edition, March 2001) has three entries for “matter”. The first two entries for a noun. The […]
    • Systemic Change, Systematic Change, Systems Change (Reynolds, 2011)
      It's been challenging to find sources that specifically define two-word phrases -- i.e. "systemic change", "systematic change", "systems change" -- as opposed to loosely inferring reductively from one-word definitions in recombination. MartinReynolds @OpenUniversity clarifies uses of the phrases, with a critical eye into motives for choosing a specific label, as well as associated risks and […]
    • Environmental c.f. ecological (Francois, 2004; Allen, Giampietro Little 2003)
      The term "environmental" can be mixed up with "ecological", when the meanings are different. We can look at the encyclopedia definitions (François 2004), and then compare the two in terms of applied science (i.e. engineering with (#TimothyFHAllen @MarioGiampietro and #AmandaMLittle, 2003).
  • Recent Posts

  • Archives

  • RSS on daviding.com

    • 2020/08 August 2020
      Moderate summer temperatures in a city normally overheated with activity, residents gradually emerging as public venues opened cautiously.
    • 2020/07 Moments July 2020
      Daytimes full of new work assignment and training, evenings and weekends bicycling around downtown Toronto as it slowly reopens from pandemic.
    • 2020/06 Moments June 2020
      Most of month in Covid-19 shutdown Phase 1, so every photograph is an exterior shot. Bicycling around downtown Toronto, often exercising after sunset.
    • 2020/05 Moments May 2020
      Life at home is much the same with the pandemic sheltering-in-place directives, touring city streets on bicycle, avoiding the parks on weekends.
    • 2020/04 Moments April 2020
      Living in social isolation in our house with 5 family members, finishing off teaching courses and taking courses.
    • 2020/03 Moments March 2020
      The month started with a hectic coincidence of events as both a teacher and student at two universities, abruptly shifting to low gear with government directives for social distancing.
  • RSS on Media Queue

  • Meta

  • Creative Commons License
    This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
    Theme modified from DevDmBootstrap4 by Danny Machal