Discovering people / viewpoint networks in conferences
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Prepared on the occasion of the World Forum of International/Transnational Associations (Brussels, 1980) appeared in Transnational Associations, 33, 2, pp. 103-106. A description of the technique, based on documents, tables and maps prepared by Stafford Beer, Syd Howell, Alan Mossman, and Gordon Pask on the occasion of a conference of the Society for General Systems Research (London, 1980) appeared in: Transnational Associations, 32, 1980, 10, pp. 411-420. [PDF version; see also collection PDF version] ]
This document describes investigations subsequent to the article "Metaconferencing: Discovering people / viewpoint networks in conferences" (Transnational Associations, 1980. 8). In that article it was suggested that online terminal access to computer facilities from a conference site could open up an entirely new approach to the conference process. The first part of this document outlines, in the light of discussions with an international computer time-sharing service (CEGOS-TYMSHARE), specific possibilities which are described in more detail in the second part of the document. This also includes examples of results and the computer instructions used to obtain them during the course of the World Forum of Transnational Associations (Brussels, 1980).
2. Participant questionnaires
A series of questionnaires to participants based on selected viewpoints, is planned. The first is included here and is self-explanatory. It is received by the participants in their registration folders.
3. Data input from questionnaires
For the first round, the questionnaires are sent to CEGOS-TYMSHARE after the first morning session. The responses are typed into a computer storage file with the indication of participant name/pseudonym. The advantages of doing this off-line are speed and reduction in risk of errors. There is no limit to the number of participants or questions.
4. Conceptual distance separating participants or viewpoints
The data is processed using a standard factor analysis routine. There are practical limitations on the number of participant responses that this routine can reasonably handle. These are primarily cost limitations because of the non-linear increase in processing time required as the number increases. Thus for 100 participants answering 30 questions each the cost is of the order of 2.000- Belgian Francs ($ 65.00) for 3.000 elements. This is the major cost factor.
5. Plot of graphical display ("map")
Only a few instructions are required to get the terminal to print out a graphical display. Because of the complexity of the calculation, the results can only be considered a simplification in two-dimensions of a many-dimensional situation. However, compared with the conventional one-dimensional meeting agenda of a series of poorly related items, this is already a major step forward. There are a number of possibilities.
5.1. All participants: In this form all participant names (or pseudonyms) are printed out on an area of specified dimensions (Document 1). The names are positioned so as to reflect the "distance" between the participants in the light of the degree of difference between their responses.
6. Clusters of participants or viewpoints
As a possible alternative or complement to factor analysis (point 4 above), a different routine may be used to create categories.
6.1. Participants: In this case, the number of categories into which the participants are to be grouped is specified (e.g. 5). As a result the names are clustered into those (5) categories according to an assessment of the degree of difference between the participants in the light of this response to the viewpoints.
7. Proximity lists
On the basis of the factor analysis (point 4 above), lists may be established in relation to individual participants or viewpoints. With a few additional intructions, this may be done systematically for all of them.
7.1 Participants: For a given participant lists may be printed out of
(a) Names of a selected number of other participants who are closest to him in terms of an absolute measure of distance between them defined by the difference between their viewpoints responses. (b) Names of a selected number of other participants most distant from him.
7.2. Viewpoints Similarly for a given viewpoints, lists may be printed out of
(a) Viewpoints closest to the given viewpoint, as perceived by participants. (b) Viewpoints most distant from a given viewpoint.
Note that because this is based on an absolute measure of distance it conveys more information than the plotted graph (map) of point 5 which is merely a projection.
8. Global measures of distance
8.1. Average for participants The average distance between all participants may be computed from which lists may be established of
(a) Participants who are "closer" together than the average ("the central clique"). (b) Participants who are more "isolated" than the average. These lists may be refined by narrowing the parameters.
8.2. Average for viewpoints A similar procedure may be adopted for viewpoints, namely the "core" and "isolated" viewpoints.
8.3. Standard deviation for participants The standard deviation of the distance between participants may be computed as an indication of the level of disagreement between them.
8.4. Standard deviation for viewpoints A similar procedure may be adopted for viewpoints as an indication of the level of "incompatibility"between them.
9. Detailed analysis of responses
Tables may be easily produced giving the responses by participant to viewpoint statements with an analysis of these.
10. Comparison between successive rounds
All the above can be based on responses to one questionnaire. If a second questionnaire is subsequently used the responses may be analyzed in the same way. It is however useful to examine ways in which participant opinions appear to have shifted from one round to the other. This may be done as follows :
10.1 Based on factor analysis results (distance) The change in the distance between any two pairs of participants may be computed. Whilst this may be easily done for any given participant pair, time/cost constraints appear once this is done for all participants in cases when these exceed about 500-1000.
10.2 Based on cluster analysis results (groups) Using the tables (see point 6 above), an analysis may be made of the change in the way each participant is grouped in the case of 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. categories.
11. Configuration possibilities
The results indicated above enable participants to get some impression of how the conference as a whole may be analysed. This may suggest actions which individuals could take individually or collectively. A further step may be envisaged, at least as an experiment. The question is whether it is possible to use the questionnaire information to recommend configurations of participants for dialogue or group discussion.
A first step in this direction is the indication of the participants who are closest to one another (as was described above). If however it is assumed that participants benefit more from discussion with those who are most dissimilar, this possibility was also described above. A more useful refinement may be that participants would benefit most from discussing with others who represent a compromise between those two extremes namely :
This assumes that this would provide sufficient "common ground"and sufficient stimulating "differences of opinion".
11.1. "Doubles" The results may be used to indicate, for each participant, other participants for whom :
11.2. "Triples" The analysis may be extended to cover groups of 3 people who have a similar overlap of shared and divergent opinions.
11.3. Groups Clearly the analysis may also be extended to recommend the creation of groups with a balance of divergent and shared opinions. Note however that, especially for groups of more than 3, there are two possible approaches to this analysis :
(a) Same opinions strongly held by all group members. In this case it is only the strong differences of opinion between pairs of group members which vary from pair to pair. (b) Both shared opinions and differences in opinion vary from pair to pair amongst the group members. Groups of type (a) can lose a member without affecting the basic consensus linking all members together - although some members may thereby lose the stimulus of disagreement. Groups of type (b) are more fragile because each member is essential to the viability of the whole. Much greater diversity is possible in such groups.
11.4. Stabilized groups
The groups of type (b) above are derived from an essentially dualistic analysis of patterns of similarities and differences of opinion. By extending the analysis to locate somewhat more complex patterns, a new type of high diversity may be found which is not as vulnerable as the type (b) group. These are the tensegrity groups described in the previous metaconferen-cing paper.
The following remarks indicate a direction for exploration only. They require further refinement before making use of the computer analysis which can be easily adapted to them.
What these patterns seem to signify are the conditions of equilibrum for minimal bonding requirement. In other words they indicate the most complex groups that can be created with minimal consensus. Returning to the questions represented in the matrices of Fig. 1 and 2, these could be conceived as forming a third dimension with the matrices of Figs. 3 to 7. This opens up interesting possibilities for analysis and pattern recognition, but much further reflection is required for designing computer routines to make use of it. (Further study may benefit from the Japanese discipline of "go", which is specifically concerned with the elegance of the evolving balance between opposing patterns).
Clearly in the first round of a metaconfer-ence the selection of questions may not distinguish sufficiently strongly between the participants. They may not give the opportunity for strong and variegated patterns of agreement/disagreement bonds between participants. A means is required to discover for later rounds, more fundamental questions which polarize the participants more strongly, but in a variety of ways.
A "highly tuned" conference would thus be one in which there was :
There are clearly many possibilities of which the value and constraints can only be determined in practice. But other opportunities will be required to push the analysis further as indicated in point 11.4 (above).
In response to the question "why produce such documents" one could imagine that the ideal conference centre of the future -modifying the motto of the oracle at Delphi - might bear the following phrase over its doors : "Conference : Know Thyself". Such documents contribute to that end
The computer-assisted search either for questions which could move a conference into a highly-tuned condition, or for groups of participants which could function in such a condition, may appear time-consuming and not worth the effort. However, if the metaphor can be forgiven, it is rather like mining for gold. But it is worth the effort. Or, with a slightly different metaphor, it is a question of locating diamonds in dross, the most valuable being those of the largest number of carats. Such are the patterns which it seems could be discovered with a new approach to conferences.
this work is licenced under a creative commons licence.