Catalyzation of New Patterns of Collaboration
using a PC-based Structural Outliner as an Imaging Scaffold
- / -
Project proposal to the Collaborative Studies Competition
of the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation.
The project aims to facilitate the ability to envisage viable
configurations of functions based on structures more complex than those reinforced
by hierarchical organization charts. It responds to the need for potential collaborators
to design "conceptual keystones" essential to the coherence and viability of
unforeseen coalition possibilities in difficult situations of governance.
The project focuses initially on the creation or modification
of computer software for which an appropriate database is then developed in
collaboration with a number of bodies. These tools are then used to provide
a "catalytic context" from which new patterns of group and institutional action
could emerge. The principal output would not therefore be any form of "report"
but rather a piece of software (possibly a prototype). It is the dissemination
of this software, ultimately through commercial channels, which would enable
many people to explore the tool as a "collaboration enhancing" device. In this
sense the real output of the project is new forms of collaboration.
Its claim to originality would lie in its ability to open up
(and mid-wife) new and alternative patterns of collaboration -- especially across
discipline, faction and cultural boundaries. In creating this device, the purpose
of inter-institutional collaboration would be to enrich its scope (as represented
by the database) and explore opportunities it opened up (specifically in relation
to institutional arrangements for sustainable development).
In the light of the Earth Summit experience, and having carefully
read the guidelines of your Competition, it is appropriate to clarify our view
of the strategic opportunity represented by any Collaborative Studies grant
The guidelines point very clearly to the challenges of divergent
approaches and of different understandings of interconnectedness. They recognize
the need for new collaborative relationships amongst bodies "whose interactions
might yield new insights, integrated syntheses, and prescriptions for policy."
Questions and concerns
Despite resonance with the keywords that the guidelines use
so effectively, a legitimate question to be asked at this time is whether the
(professional) manner in which one naturally tends to respond to such a Competition
does not already inhibit a response of any wider social consequence. Is there
a pattern to inter-institutional initiatives, to collective project meetings,
and to report writing, which can usefully be seen as part of the problem?
This is not to deny that much can be done through such well-defined
procedures. However, in the light of past participation in several such initiatives,
the questions that might be asked include:
(a) to what extent does that pattern of activity uncover
new forms of action called for by the guidelines ?
(b) does the resulting "imaginative, interdisciplinary
work", once "widely disseminated to policymakers and the broader public",
in fact catalyze new approaches in practice?
The concern is that although pursuing any such collaborative
study might well meet some personal and institutional needs, the track record
tends to indicate that, however well disseminated, basically the output tends
to gather dust on library shelves -- although a strong point could be made that
the collaboration process was itself a form of social learning. There is also
the issue that, however well-planned, such collaborative exercises tend to be
sub-optimal in many respects. They do not rise to the "highest common multiple"
but tend to descend to the "lowest common denominator".
Possible strategic alternative
In the light of a number of collaborative international exercises
(and notably the design of a collaborative process culminating in the Inter-Sectoral
Dialogue in Rio de Janeiro on the occasion of the Earth Summit), it is legitimate
to consider whether there is not a strategically more appropriate approach to
"encourage imaginative, interdisciplinary work" of relevance to the policy world.
Hopefully this too can be seen to conform to your guidelines.
It is our view that an appropriate proposal needs to have a
self-reflexive dimension. This possibility was articulated in the proposal for
an Inter-Sectoral Dialogue (under the title Higher Orders of Inter-Sectoral
"Consensus"). By this is meant that it is no longer sufficient to have a "collaborative"
project to study issues of "interconnectedness" unless the substantive concerns
feedback to modify the collaborative process itself. In this sense the proposal
can be considered an exercise in design (or self-organization), in which the
collaborative process is open to continuing re-design in response to emerging
This said, there is a major problem. As with the construction
of any building, there is a basic need for "scaffolding" to hold the conceptual
and organizational elements in place, especially during the early phases of
"imaginative, interdisciplinary" interconnection. It may be argued that
it is the lack of this scaffolding feature which prevents many potentially useful
initiatives from "getting off the ground" -- and staying up. And the more complex
the psych-social structure, and the more communication space it spans, the greater
the need for more complex scaffolding.
The challenge is how to allow different category structures,
and the groups advocating them, to mesh before their incompatibilities tear
each other apart. This is a major issue when dealing with the strong, creative,
and often idiosyncratic, personalities (and groups) whose collaboration is ideally
required. It is seen in its most dramatic form in the Middle East peace process
and in negotiations among the warring parties in Yugoslavia. The apparently
disproportionate importance attached to "table layout" in any negotiation procedure
is a physical indication of the nature of the conceptual challenge.
Failure to respond to this issue leads to project outputs whose
only real integrative feature is the physical binding of a document containing
unrelateable "integrative" contributions -- however skilfully worded the introduction
may be (In German: Buchbindersynthese!).
The scaffolding required not only has implications for elaboration
of new structures. It also supports the learning processes through which others
subsequently come to grasp the scope of such structures as viable alternatives
to the simpler conventional patterns that have proven so inadequate to the challenges
of the times.
To be quite frank, we no longer believe that our society has
the collective ability to organize collaborative projects of a type capable
of making the breakthroughs to which your guidelines point. It is our suspicion
that your challenge (echoing that of others) calls for quite another approach
that makes greater, and more imaginative, use of the information tools that
our society has created in order to counteract the tendency for collaboration
to become tokenistic. Failing that, projects run the significant risk of being
undermined by dynamics with which many are already all too familiar
Many documents of fundamental importance to patterns of collaboration
within societies, organizations and groups (or even to an individual's creative
processes) are based on sets of principles, values, qualities, policies, initiatives
or other points (eg declarations, charters, action plans). These are usually
listed out as a numbered sequence, possibly with nested sub-points. The conventional
method of producing such documents favours (and reinforces) linear thinking
at a time when non-linear, contextually-oriented approaches are often believed
to be more appropriate to ensure higher levels of integration amongst the elements
of the set.
This proposal suggests the need for a computer-based structural
"outliner" to facilitate a non-linear approach to the creative production of
such "conceptual keystones". The need for a more integrative approach may be
seen in the occasional efforts to group conceptual elements, basic to a strategy,
into a table, a pie-chart, a diagram, or even into a form of mandala. Although
currently simpIistic, the structure provides an integrative perspective that
links a variety of disparate, but complementary, elements that together ensure
the viability of the larger pattern.
This project therefore focuses initially on the design of computer
software (possibly adapting an existing package) for which an appropriate database
is then developed in collaboration with a number of bodies. The intention is
then to use these tools to provide a "catalytic context" from which new patterns
of group and institutional action could emerge. The principal output would not
therefore be any form of "report" but rather a piece of software (possibly a
prototype). It is the dissemination of this software, ultimately through commercial
channels, which would enable many people to explore the tool as a "collaboration
enhancing" device. In this sense the real objective of the project is new forms
of collaboration. In subsequent use the database would be receptive to user-enhancement,
notably to patterns of concepts from non-western cultures.
Its claim to originality would lie in its ability to open up
(and mid-wife) new and alternative patterns of collaboration -- especially across
discipline and faction boundaries. In creating this device, the purpose of inter-institutional
collaboration would be to enrich its scope (as represented by the database)
and explore opportunities it opened up (specifically in relation to institutional
arrangements for sustainable development).
Towards a form language
Many of the geometric operations basic to fruitful exploration
of such a structural outliner are detailed in a classic study by Robert Williams:
The Geometrical Foundation of Natural Structure; a source book of design
(Dover, 1979). Part 3 of that work details 10 principal methods through
which polygons and polyhedra can be generated or have identity changes. These
include: vertex motion, fold, reciprocation, truncation, rotation-translation,
augmentation-deletion, fistulation, distortion, dissection, symmetry integration.
It is such operations which are required to explore transformations between
structures whose features are used to carry the conceptual (and even symbolic)
significance basic to any new patterns of collaboration.
Williams focuses on the creation of a "form language" as a
tool for design in all areas of human activity, whether dealing with physical
matter or the patterns in social and conceptual activity: "As in any developing,
changing, and vigorous area of human concern, design integrates both knowledge
and methodologies from other areas and uses new information in solutions to
design problems. Unlike those in many fields, the designer finds many areas
of human concern relevant to his field. For example, designers, artists, architects
-- those who make form -- have consistently borrowed from science, religion,
and nature in order to give a unified or integrated view of man and the universe."
The early part of his book clarifies the tragic consequences of lack of familiarity
with a sufficiently rich form language in ensuring "variety without chaos
and order without rigidity".
The proposal for your consideration calls for a shift of emphasis
in the interpretation of your guidelines leading to overlapping phases along
the following lines:
(a) Software Design Phase: Here the emphasis
is on working with computer-oriented institutions to clarify the specifications
of a software package. In this phase the intention is to limit the collaborative
dimension in order to move quickly towards a prototype. Information would
be sought to determine whether it was absolutely necessary to produce a
new package. Work would focus on identification of existing packages which
could fulfil the functions (by development of applications within them),
or of packages which could be readily modified to meet those needs.
(b) Software Production Phase: In this phase
an existing package would be adapted or, if necessary, a new one would be
developed. This phase, depending on the results of (a), might be sub-contracted
to a commercial body if no university-based group proved appropriate. Note
that any such package could ultimately be very attractive as a new product
for an appropriate software company.
(c) Database Creation Phase: During this phase,
which could overlap the previous one, the data base would be built up. This
phase should involve contributions from a number of groups, especially in
order to ensure the presence of patterns relevant to coalition formation
in (or with) non-western cultures.
(d) Group Collaboration Testing Phase: During
this phase, which could overlap the previous one, the product would be tested
to develop features which enhance the collaboration facilities and the implications
for group and institutional policies and operations. This would involve
using the software to facilitate creative interaction between representatives
of widely divergent perspectives to determine the extent to which the scaffolding
feature catalyzed the emergence of more viable coalitions under conditions
which previously would have been considered "impossible".
(e) Dissemination Phase: Several channels, including
commercialization, would be used to disseminate the package.
(f) User-initiative Phase: It is in this phase
that wider feedback on the implications of the software would emerge in
the light of initiatives by groups of users endeavouring to enhance their
level of collaboration.
A preliminary draft of the software specifications is given
in Annex I.
The software package envisaged would be able to benefit from
the current evolution towards databases on optical disk (CD-ROM), whatever preliminary
form it may take on other media. The CD-ROM environment would allow the incorporation
of extensive imagery into the database to complement the thesaurus-oriented
focus initially planned.
Although the principal phases of the project involve institutional
collaboration, the purpose is to produce a specific "collaboration enhancing"
software package. The intentions of the Collaborative Studies grant are however
realized to a far greater degree through the use of this device in settings
where new patterns of collaboration are called for. The objective is therefore
very much to enable people to make collaboration happen and to explore possibilities
in settings of their own design.
(a) Software Design Phase: Feedback would be
sought from colleagues in several institutions, notably:
- Union of International Associations (Brussels)
- Development Alternatives (New Delhi)
- Dept. of Policy, Context and Evaluation, Institute
of Education, University of Melbourne
- International Society for Knowledge Organization
(b) Software Production Phase: The range of
collaborators in this phase would depend on the results of investigation
in the previous phase. However, in principle, the work would be limited
to one or two bodies, especially if the work was sub-contracted to a university
or to a commercial software company.
(c) Database Creation Phase: Collaboration (of
whatever degree of intensity) with a number of institutions would be sought
to collect information for inclusion in the database. These would include
those named in (a) above. It is this phase which would help to build up
the pool of potential collaborators for the following phases.
(d) Group Collaboration Testing Phase: It is
at this stage that the package acquires a form which renders it meaningful
to bodies interested in the collaboration process. As such bodies were identified,
they would be invited to test the product and advise on its improvement.
(e) Dissemination Phase: In this phase a wide
range of bodies could be involved in the dissemination process, whether
or not commercial channels were also used.
(f) User-initiative Phase: It is to be expected
that some user-groups would emerge that would provide feedback on the design
of the software and the scope of the database.
Methods to be employed
The methods to be employed in the software design and development
phases are standard and do not call for any special comment. The Union of International
Associations has considerable expertise in commissioning software and in designing
databases. The methodology is implicit in the specifications (see Annex I).
In the Database Creation Phase, the methods are based on techniques already
used in the collection of quite disparate materials for the Encyclopedia
of World Problems and Human Potential, although these would have to be modified
as a result of the image component.
In the Group Collaboration Testing Phase, the approach would
be to develop monitoring techniques for groups using the software so as to understand
better its scaffolding potential in coalition formation. This could either be
done by getting collaborating bodies to use the software in their own working
environments, or several working meetings could be held between representatives
of the collaborating bodies.
The Dissemination and User-initiative Phases do not call for
any special comment on method. The strategic emphasis is on getting end-users
to develop imaginative uses of the software.
Related software concepts
1. Text outliners: There are many concept organizer
and text outliner packages. Such facilities are increasingly built into sophisticated
word-processors (such as Word and WordPerfect). The emphasis is necessarily
on developing and processing nested lists. This does not facilitate understanding
of configurations of elements. There is no thesaurus or pattern library dimension.
2. Mind mapping packages: Although no pure mind-mapping
software is yet available, several packages enable mind-maps to be developed
around an anchor point (notably MORE in the Mac environment). There may then
be an emphasis on switching between a visual presentation and a hierarchically
structured equivalent in a text outliner mode. The visual dimension is minimally
structured, if not free-form, leaving the user to cultivate a sense of configuration.
There is no thesaurus or pattern library dimension.
3. Creativity aids: There appears to exist a class of
software which is designed to facilitate creativity in a manner beyond that
provided by MORE. One of these is Idea Developer, another is IdeaFisher. The
latter makes use of a brainstorming IdeaBank containing 61,000 words and phrases
structured into 28 main categories and 687 topical categories linked in a manner
to offer 705,000 direct idea associations. A second module holds some 5,970
questions to help clarify and test emerging insights. There is no pattern library
to facilitate ordering thesaurus elements.
4. Network mapping: The packages available for social
network analysis do not, with one exception, make provision for producing a
graphic image of the network. The standard patterns detected by analysis are
not used to evoke possibilities of richer patterning in institutional collaboration,
and especially the possibility of less obvious configurations and coalitions.
5. Organization and flow charts: There are a number
of packages available to facilitate design and tracking of complex organizations
or systems. Most appear to be based on simple tree structures and do not offer
access to libraries of patterns or standard functions.
6. Chemical molecule display: There are a number of
packages enabling chemists to display and manipulate complex molecules, calling
up textual commentary. These may rely on libraries of patterns through which
the constraints on possible valid chemical combinations are held. It is questionable
whether other kinds of data could be imposed to allow the software facilities
to manipulate representations of conceptual and social structures.
7. Computer aided design (CAD/CAM): The many CAD packages,
of varying degrees of sophistication, tend to make use of libraries of structural
patterns which can be manipulated and combined in a variety of ways. Such structures
can be explored by zooming techniques and the optional display of text data.
Such packages may lend themselves most readily to modification along the lines
advocated in this proposal.
8. Computer aided structural engineering (CASE): This
relatively new class of software allows the user to develop and integrate complex
systems of concepts, typically for the development of complex institutional
information systems. Such software could in principle be extended to clarify
possibilities of intra- and inter-institutional collaboration. CASE software
however requires extensive computer resources and is only available on the most
powerful micro-computers. (The most recent product by Knowledgeware operates
in an OS/2 Presentation Manager environment.)
9. Hypercard stack: It is possible that the outliner
could be designed as a hypercard stack (Mac).
10. Groupware: This class of network-based, team-support
software does not use libraries of patterns or keyword-defined functions to
engender more coherent patterns of collaboration.
11. Developmental possibilities: Just as text-outliners
have been integrated into the most common commercially available computer packages,
there is a possibility that the advocated structural outliner might become available
as an associated module. Interesting candidates for this development are WordPerfect
(DrawPerfect), MORE and Windows.
Plans for dissemination
1. Group Collaboration Testing Phase: During this phase
a number of easily identified bodies could be involved in the dissemination
of the product and the resulting feedback cycles. The Union of International
Associations (as producer of the Yearbook of International Organizations) maintains
contact with several thousand international bodies which are potential candidates,
whether directly or through their members.
2. Dissemination Phase: Here there are several possibilities:
(a) Building on contacts developed during the testing
phase, a wider network of users could be involved in further dissemination
of the product.
(b) As a publisher in its own right, the Union of International
Associations could make available the software and database. Discussions are
already far advanced on the dissemination of other data on CD-ROM.
(c) There are obvious possibilities of ensuring that the software
is made available through commercial software companies, especially if these
are involved in any stage of its development.
(d) The Union of International Associations maintains contacts
with professional bodies in the international conference industry and is well-placed
to draw the product to their attention.
3. User-Initiative Phase: To encourage exploration
of unforeseen coalitions, there is the possibility of facilitating a user-group
network following a well-developed model initiated by users of specific software
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