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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 in 1992.

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 insights.


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".

Project phases

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.

Specification outline

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.

Collaborative process

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 (Frankfurt)

(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 packages.


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