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A Network Approach to Programme Interaction

International Organizations and the Generation of the Will to Change

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Appendix III of: International Organizations and the Generation of the Will to Change (UAI Study Papers INF/5, 1970)


The point has been made several times that projects and programmes, formulated and controlled by bodies which do not communicate effectively with one another (perhaps because they do not "recognize" each others existence), may nevertheless interact in an undesirable manner. A simple example of this is the case of a crop improvement project (e.g. FAO/Agriculture) which makes intensive use of fertilizers. The chemicals may be partially washed through the soil into the local river and cause the death of fish in a fisheries project (e.g. FAO/Fisheries) further downstream.

A common example in developed countries is the case of roadway repairs. A main roadway is first repaired by the roadway construction authority, then dug up again by the gas distribution authority, days later by the electricity supply authority, a week later by the water supply authority, etc. Although not dangerous, this results in needless waste of resources and disturbance to traffic (which can be very important to productivity). The visible lack of coordination in digging up and repairing the road surface is however symptomatic of methods and underlying attitudes which may be very difficult to detect and yet give rise to extremely dangerous or costly project interaction.

"We have no idea how large a proportion of our present production serves only to compensate for the disutilities and diseconomies created by other parts of our production." (Editorial. Fortune, February 1970, p. 92)

A very similar coordination problem is also faced by engineers designing multistory complex chemical or other factories, etc. Each specialized group of engineers is concerned with a different system: chemical, electrical, ventilation, cooling, effluent, fire security, etc. The results of the interacting activities of designers working simultaneously must be harmonized into a coherent architectural plan.

"The primary problem when designing a large complex system is to control the utilization of three-dimensional space during the layout process. In a large system the work of numerous specialists must be closely coordinated in order to ensure that no two objects are placed in the same space, and that the interaction of layout and systems characteristics does not necessarily degrade the performance of systems. Ideally, everyone would work on one large drawing....however, one large drawing -- actually -- is obviously impractical." (Genthner, H.J. Interactive computer graphics. Computer and Automation, November 1968, pp. 14-17)

In the design of a strategy against world problems, or any type of problem crossing jurisdictional or discipline lines, the "three-dimensional space" becomes a multidimensional function space with time as a dimension. The "objects" are project activities. (This is quite close to the concept of project control using PERT techniques.) The major difficulty is that coordination cannot be imposed over wide domains. It is essential to depend on the more democratic process of self-coordination on the part of groups and organizations responsible for potentially interacting projects. This must depend on their comprehension of the critical areas of potentially wasteful or dangerous interaction and their dynamic counter-balancing response to each others activities.

Groups cannot be persuaded to consider the effects of their activities on other parts of the system unless the effects are made clear to them. This brings up the whole problem of what constitutes an adequate presentation and explanation of a problem. The presentation of information must be such as to maximize insight and learning within short periods of time. It must also offer some means of retaining all the precision necessary to permit detailed examination of the system. For this reason it is interesting to note the solution now advocated and, in some cases, already implemented for the engineering problem mentioned above. The same author continues:

"Using interactive computer graphics, however, it is possible for everyone to work on a "single drawing"; through linkage of the graphics with analytical programs, the correlation between layout of a system and the system performance characteristics is automatic." (Ibid, pp. 14-17)

Each team of engineers makes use of a terminal linked to a remote computer. The interactive graphics terminal is a means of displaying complex drawings or three dimensional structures on a cathode ray (television-type) tube. Such drawings appear as thin lines of light and may be altered by each team with the use of a "light-pen". Structures like electronic circuits, pipeline networks or three-dimensional architectural or engineering structures are currently treated in this way. Each team can therefore interact with the computer, modify its part of the structure and ensure that the modification will not adversely affect the systems which are the responsibility of other teams. The results of each change on the system as the whole may be analyzed with the aid of the computer.

There is no reason why the interaction between the projects of different organizations or departments should not be handled in a similar manner. It is possibly the only adequate way of presenting the essentials of an inter-organizational situation simply, rapidly, comprehensively and with the facility that specific and amplifying details and analyses may be obtained from the computer at the push of a button on the terminal. This is the key to effective decision-making and public understanding of the implications of organization decisions. (Videotapes of the proposed changes could form highly informative newsreels.) It is also an ideal channel through which interested citizens can explore, learn about, or be briefed on the complex organizational environment which surrounds them each, and the key points at which they can effectively participate in the light of their own individual interests.

By the second half of the Second Development Decade, interactive graphics could prove to be the key to the problems of the following type:

"...the problem created by different and conflicting decisions taken by intergovernmental organs with"the same membership...defective national coordination...has so far proved relatively intractable to treatment by is potentially such an important source of dissipation of international resources in the fight for development that the Enlarged Committee felt that it could not be ignored." (E/AC.51/GR/25 p. 36)

In order to treat very large structural entities graphically (e.g. a complex organizational network), the display surface can be set up to represent a window on, or projection of, one aspect of one part of the structure. For a particular application, it may be necessary to work with a number of such detailed sections by "moving" the display window to view different portions of the structure as a whole. A capability can also be provided to "zoom" in on a small portion of the structure, if it is three-dimensional, in order to get a better picture of the relationship or lack of relationship between the parts.

The fundamental importance of interactive graphics is the ability to facilitate understanding. Progress in understanding is made through the development of mental models or notations that permit a simple representation of a mass of complexities not previously understood. The greater the complexity however, the more difficult it is to use mental models, and hence the greater the risk of dangerous conceptual short-cuts and oversimplifications. For example, in a description of his own mental models of the operation of electrical circuits one author writes.

"Unfortunately, my abstract model tends to fade out when I get a circuit that is a little bit too complex. I can't remember what is happening in one place long enough to see what is going to happen somewhere else. My model evaporates. If I could somehow represent that abstract model in the computer to see a circuit in animation, my abstraction would'nt evaporate. I could take the vague notion that "fades out at the edges" and solidify it. I could analyze bigger circuits. In all fields there are such abstractions. We havn't yet made any use of the computer's capability to "firm up" these abstractions. The scientist of today is limited by his pencil and paper and mind. He can draw abstractions, or he can think about them. If he draws them, they will be static, and if he just thinks about them, they won't have very good mathematical properties and will fade out. With a computer, we could give him a great deal more. We could give him drawings that move, drawings in three or four dimensions which he can rotate, and drawings with great mathematical accuracy. We could let him represent all kinds of very complex and very abstract notions, and we could let him work with them in a way that he has never been able to do before. I think that the really big gains in the substantive scientific areas are going to come when somebody invents new abstractions which can only be represented in computer graphical form." (Sutherland, I. Computer graphics; ten unsolved problems. Datamation, May 1966, pp. 22-27)

It is this sort of facility which the political, social, information and management scientists and educationists require in their studies of the world system and its subsystems. It appears highly probable that only abstractions of the above order will prove an adequate basis for an understanding and representation of the world system for purposes of sophisticated planning and decision-making.

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