Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

IBIS, dialogue mapping, and the art of collaborative knowledge creation

with 23 comments


In earlier posts  I’ve described a notation called IBIS (Issue-based information system), and demonstrated its utility in visualising reasoning and resolving complex issues through dialogue mapping.  The IBIS notation consists of just three elements (issues, ideas and arguments) that can be connected in a small number of ways. Yet, despite these limitations, IBIS has been found to enhance creativity when used in collaborative design discussions.  Given the simplicity of the notation and grammar, this claim is surprising,  even paradoxical.  The present post  resolves this paradox by viewing  collaborative knowledge creation as an art, and considers the aesthetic competencies required to facilitate this art.

Knowledge art

In a position paper entitled, The paradox of the “practice level” in collaborative design rationale, Al Selvin draws an analogy between design  discussions using Compendium (an open source IBIS-based argument mapping tool)  and art.  He uses the example of the artist Piet Mondrian, highlighting the difference in  style between Mondrian’s earlier and later work. To quote from the paper,

Whenever I think of surfacing design rationale as an intentional activity — something that people engaged in some effort decide to do (or have to do), I think of Piet Mondrian’s approach to painting in his later years. During this time, he departed from the naturalistic and impressionist (and more derivative, less original) work of his youth (view an image here) and produced the highly abstract geometric paintings (view an image here) most associated with his name…

Selvin points out that the difference between the first and the second paintings is essentially one of abstraction: the first one is almost instantly recognisable as a depiction of dunes on a beach whereas the second one, from Mondrian’s minimalist period, needs some effort to understand and appreciate, as it uses a very small number of elements to create a specific ambience. To quote from the paper again,

“One might think (as many in his day did) that he was betraying beauty, nature, and emotion by going in such an abstract direction. But for Mondrian it was the opposite. Each of his paintings in this vein was a fresh attempt to go as far as he could in the depiction of cosmic tensions and balances. Each mattered to him in a deeply personal way. Each was a unique foray into a depth of expression where nothing was given and everything had to be struggled for to bring into being without collapsing into imbalance and irrelevance. The depictions and the act of depicting were inseparable. We get to look at the seemingly effortless result, but there are storms behind the polished surfaces. Bringing about these perfected abstractions required emotion, expression, struggle, inspiration, failure and recovery — in short, creativity…”

In analogy, Selvin contends that a group of people who work through design issues using a minimalist notation such as IBIS can generate creative new ideas. In other words:  IBIS, when used in a group setting such as dialogue mapping,  can become a vehicle for collaborative creativity. The effectiveness of the tool, though, depends on those who wield it:

“…To my mind using tools and methods with groups is a matter of how effective, artistic, creative, etc. whoever is applying and organizing the approach can be with the situation, constraints, and people. Done effectively, even the force-fitting of rationale surfacing into a “free-flowing” design discussion can unleash creativity and imagination in the people engaged in the effort, getting people to “think different” and look at their situation through a different set of lenses. Done ineffectively, it can impede or smother creativity as so many normal methods, interventions, and attitudes do…”

Although Selvin’s discussion is framed in the context of design discussions using Compendium,  this is but dialogue mapping by another name.  So,  in essence, he  makes a case for viewing the collaborative generation of knowledge (through dialogue mapping or any other means) as an art.  In fact, in another article, Selvin uses the term knowledge art to describe both the process and the product of creating knowledge as discussed above.   Knowledge Art as he sees it, is a marriage of the two forms of discourse that make up the term. On the one hand, we have knowledge which, “… in an organizational setting, can be thought of as what is needed to perform work; the tacit and explicit concepts, relationships, and rules that allow us to know how to do what we do.” On the other, we have art which “… is concerned with heightened expression, metaphor, crafting, emotion, nuance, creativity, meaning, purpose, beauty, rhythm, timbre, tone, immediacy, and connection.”   

Facilitating collaborative knowledge creation

In the business world, there’s never enough time to deliberate or think through ideas (either individually or collectively): everything is done in a hurry and the result is never as good as it should or could be; the picture never quite complete.  However, as Selvin says,

“…each moment (spent discussing or thinking through ideas or designs) can yield a bit of the picture, if there is a way to capture the bits and relate them, piece them together over time. That capturing and piecing is the domain of Knowledge Art. Knowledge Art requires a spectrum of skills, regardless of how it’ practiced or what form it takes. It means listening and paying attention, determining the style and level of intervention, authenticity, engagement, providing conceptual frameworks and structures, improvisation, representational skill and fluidity, and skill in working with electronic information…”

So,  knowledge art requires a wide range of technical and non-technical skills.  In previous posts  I’ve discussed some of  technical skills required – fluency with IBIS, for example.  Let’s now look at  some of the non-technical competencies.

What are the competencies needed for collaborative knowledge creation?  Palus and Horth offer some suggestions in their paper entitled, Leading Complexity; The Art of Making Sense.  They define the concept of  creative leadership as making shared sense out of complexity and chaos and the crafting of meaningful action.  Creative leadership is akin to dialogue mapping, which Jeff Conklin describes as  a means to achieve a shared understanding of wicked problems  and a shared commitment to solving them.  The connection between creative leadership and dialogue mapping is apparent once one notices the similarity between their definitions.  So the  competencies  of creative leadership should apply to dialogue mapping (or collaborative knowledge creation)  as well.

Palus  and Horth describe  six basic competencies of creative leadership. I outline these below, mentioning  their relevance to dialogue mapping:

Paying Attention:  This refers to the ability to slow down discourse  with the aim of  achieving a deep understanding of the issues at hand. A skilled dialogue mapper has to be able to listen; to pay attention to what’s being said.

Personalizing:  This refers to the ability to draw upon personal experiences, interests and passions whilst engaged in work. Although the connection to dialogue mapping isn’t immediately evident, the point Palus and Horth make is that the ability to make connections between work and one’s interests and passions helps increase involvement, enthusiasm and motivation in tackling work challenges.

Imaging:  This refers to the ability to visualise problems so as  to understand them better,  using metaphors, pictures stories etc to stimulate imagination, intuition and understanding. The connection to dialogue mapping is clear and needs no elaboration.

Serious play: This refers to the ability to experiment with new ideas; to learn by trying and doing in a non-threatening environment. This is something that software developers do when learning new technologies. A group engaged in a dialogue mapping must have a sense of play; of trying out new ideas, even if they seem somewhat unusual.

Collaborative enquiry: This refers to the ability to  sustain productive dialogue in a diverse group of stakeholders. Again, the connection to dialogue mapping is evident.

Crafting: This refers to the ability to synthesise issues, ideas, arguments and actions into coherent, meaningful wholes. Yet again, the connection to dialogue mapping is clear – the end product is ideally a shared understanding of the problem and a shared commitment to a meaningful solution.

Palus and Horth suggest that these competencies have been ignored in the business world because:

  1. They are seen as threatening the status quo (creativity is to feared because it invariably leads to changes).
  2. These competencies are aesthetic, and the current emphasis on scientific management devalues competencies that are not rational or analytical.

The irony is that creative scientists have these aesthetic competencies (or qualities) in spades. At the most fundamental level science is an art – it is about constructing theories or designing experiments that make sense of the world. Where do the ideas for these new theories or experiments come from? Well, they certainly aren’t out there in the objective world; they come from the imagination of the scientist. Science, in the real sense of the word, is knowledge art. If these competencies are useful in science, they should be more than good enough for the business world.

Summing up

To sum up:  knowledge creation in an organisational context is best viewed as an art – a collaborative art.  Visual representations such as IBIS provide a medium to capture snippets of knowledge and relate them, or  piece them together over time. They provide the canvas, brush and paint to express knowledge as art  through the process of dialogue mapping.

23 Responses

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  1. Great essay, Kailash! Another solid contribution to the emerging field of issue mapping. Thank you.



    Jeff Conklin

    July 25, 2009 at 3:19 am

    • Jeff,

      Thanks for your appreciative remarks!





      July 25, 2009 at 5:34 pm

  2. […] IBIS, dialogue mapping, and the art of collaborative knowledge creation « Eight to Late […]


  3. Thanks for the very cogent write-up; I’ve passed it on to Chuck Palus as well.

    There is more on this theme on the Knowledge Art blog: http://knowledgeart.blogspot.com

    One small point — although it is fair to say that the kinds of design discussions I refer to are ‘dialogue mapping by another name’, I would say that they (can) include dialogue mapping, but can and do use many other forms as well.



    Al Selvin

    July 25, 2009 at 5:16 am

  4. Hi Kailash! Ditto to Jeff… Great essay.

    And, if you are interested in the “non-technical” aspect of “making shared sense out of complexity”, you may want to take a look at our Dynamic Facilitation manual, at http://www.diapraxis.com/materials.html

    Though it’s an independent invention, in some ways it’s a “barefoot doctor’s” version of Dialogue Mapping… while we use similar categories, we don’t use software or even make explicit connections between the various elements, just keep numbered lists on chart paper. It’s amazing how the human mind can retain all of the various connections internally!

    Of course, when working with large amounts of data, I highly recommend Compendium and Dialogue Mapping… still, you may find it of interest to see some similar underlying principles at work in our “low-tech” version…

    with all best wishes,



    Rosa Zubizarreta

    July 25, 2009 at 6:23 am

    • Rosa,

      Thanks for your comments and the links to your site. I’ve had a quick look and it seems very interesting. Will have a read as soon as I get a chance.

      Thanks again for your comments and the references.





      July 25, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    • Fascinatin’ … but say, can you give us a link for “Facilitating Democracy”? http://www.tobe.net/papers/RosaDFThesis.html is 404 and though http://www.tobe.net/df_resources/df_resources/publications.html is rich your thesis doesn’t appear there.



      Ben Tremblay

      July 26, 2009 at 5:39 am

      • Hi Ben, sorry for the delayed response. I’m embarrassed to say that i’m fairly technologically challenged and don’t have an easy way to update my website at this point (i’m working on it.) However i am happy to e-mail you the pdf of Facilitating Democracy if you’d like…

        thanks for your interest,



        Rosa Zubizarreta

        August 2, 2009 at 1:34 am

  5. Recently I’ve been playfully applying the term entasis; data might have some ontic / objective value but what I’m grappling with is the way the human individual projects meaning … cognitive schema in action … valence. I think that’s the hidden variable in decision making.

    Thanks for this, and thanks for the pointer to Al Selvin’s PDF!


    Ben Tremblay

    July 25, 2009 at 6:25 am

    • Ben,

      Thanks for your comments. This is interesting – as I understand it, you’re looking into how data is interpreted and how that interpretation leads to decisions. Is that right? As you may have guessed, I’m relatively new to this area and not familiar with much of the terminology and literature. I’d be grateful if you could expand on this and/or point me to some references.





      July 25, 2009 at 5:51 pm

      • Kailans, greets – Yes, something like that. Please understand I’m very much “out of the loop” (http://gnodal.livejournal.com captures some of my 15yrs+ survey) so my use of terms is heh quite other than hermetic.😉 My take on things is probably more abhidharmic than cog-psych.

        “Discourse variance” isn’t well enough known; depending on context (i.e. situational motivation) individuals can adopt quite different rhetorical positions, each one showing some consistency. That, for me, is seminal. In designing a soc-psych experiment (Dalhousie) is occurred to me that control of discourse via computer might “tease out” a person’s “cast of characters”. By an accident of scholarship I happened to have a Jurgen Habermas text at my left elbow one evening and I realized such an approach might simulate an honest interlocutor … drawing out the subjective narrative w/o doing violence to shared facts.

        So … entasis curves a line so that it appears straight, yes? My “gnodal” approach follows the bends that are introduced by individuals who wish a given argument to appear true. (If I were a scholar I’d explore this as an aspect of rhetoric … aesthetics and communicative gestures?)


        Ben Tremblay

        July 26, 2009 at 3:44 am

      • Kailash, I just came across an item that speaks to entasis i.e. assessment is conditioned by category, so “banana” is perceived differently than “yelow tube”. see my latest soup


        Ben Tremblay

        August 1, 2009 at 7:32 am

    • K, do you see Rosa’s reply to me starting with “sorry for the delayed response”?
      I can’t reply to that. There’s no “Reply” link in that div.

      You see what I mean?
      I was working with this stuff in ’72 … interdicting the Evuhl Empire … and since then I’m been spidering “principled practitioners”.
      But I see poor trade-craft. And I’m the sorta fellow who reads Heideggers “Essays on Technology” at night, before bed, as a reminder of sentient life on planet earth.

      I respect academics. But I know (existentially) that praxis is not in their pay grade.

      HeyHo, and so it goes …
      simulacrum. Is why I grabbed “protension”, and talk about entasis; I have an infantryman’s appreciation of craft.



      Ben Tremblay

      August 2, 2009 at 12:19 pm

  6. Some comments about IBIS

    The statements I am referring to (in the blog) may be predominantly applicable to one or several of the mapping programs now on the market under the IBIS label. My comments on the one hand go back to the original concepts and applications of IBIS that I worked on with Rittel, and on the other hand to the evolution of the idea resulting from my own research into the related problems of assessment (evaluation) of arguments in the design discourse.

    Terms such as ‘minimalist notation’, ‘force-fitting’ and the notion of IBIS as a tool for creating knowledge’, triggered my I urge to revive the reminder that IBIS — Issue Based Information Systems — were conceived as just that: information systems recording and documenting information generated in and for the design discourse. This means that it would have to accommodate any other conceptual frames of reference (however non-minimalist) — and Rittel was adamant in holding up this ability to contain all previous and alternative vocabularies as a key criterion for evaluating any theoretical framework. So all such constructs, in his view, could be represented as ‘topics’ (ideas) , ‘questions’ (which become issues when they are controversial, i. e. when people hold significantly different positions as to their answers) and ‘answers’ and ‘arguments’. So the mimimalist aspect here lies just in the concept for organizing the collection of contributions to the discourse — from tis point of view, a library or data bank using the concept ‘document’ as the key label for the things is organizes and contains is even more mimimalist. For both, the minimalist label does not begin to describe the content of the items stored.

    Any IBIS, just like any documentation system or library, by necessity must use some kind of format or encoding — the first level of course being the language in which a discourse is recorded. The ‘code’ of IBIS was an attempt to organize the collection in a manner more clearly related to the content of the discourse, understood, as indicated, as an exchange of questions, issues, answers and arguments.

    Problems arise, I agree, when the format is then used to govern the process or work of designing itself. Here, the prevailing acceptance of the need to arrive at a decision in a collective or group in which opposing positions are held leads to a reliance on parliamentary procedure in organizing the process — which is arguably not the best format for either the creative aspects of designers’ work in seeking to understand the problems, developing solutions, preferably innovative solutions, and then juggling, fitting, coordinating the components of the solution ideas into coherent overall plans: the parliamentary procedure is more appropriate for arriving at a decision about complete plan proposals once all that detail work has been completed. When changes (amendments) must be made to the plan, things become procedurally difficult.

    This does not mean that certain aspects of the IBIS approach cannot be valuable additions ot the process (not just its documentation), even the creative process. For example, the constant reminder (that Rittel suggested should be repeated at every turn of the process and on every page) of the question “Wrong question?” (“Are we stuck in fruitless discussion of an inappropriate problem understanding?”) Or, the automatic generation of all the potential issues that can be raised about some topic — the ‘issue family’ of factual, deontic, explanatory or conceptual, factual-instrumental or ‘how – to’ questions — can nudge participants into exploring different points of view and solution possibilities. The fact that the IBIS format also is more conducive to elicit pertinent information from people affected by the plan proposals (but not part of the ‘creative team’ that seems to be the predominant concern in the discussion here) — in other words: citizen participation — is another aspect leading to temptations to impose the format onto the process. In this, the visualization of the problem and discourse — the mapping efforts — can be extremely valuable in helping all participants and contributors gain and keep an overview of the process. (One might disagree about whether a graphical network of issues and arguemnts already constitutes true ‘imaging’ visualization, though…)

    The key problems however, are not yet adequately addressed yet. One such problem is that the parliamentary procedure is expected to arrive at a decision by means of a vote. This is a decision tool that, for all the admirable underlying rationale (first we talk, each side presenting its best arguments, then we decide) does not guarantee that the decision will actually be based on the merit of the arguments brought forth in the discussion. None of the systems ‘on the market’ today, to my knowledge, are addressing the underlying task and challenge of this: the systematic and transparent evaluation of the arguments contributed to the discussion. As long as this aspect is left out, there will be an inexplicable hiatus between all the argumentation and mapping, and the framing of the decision. And, as parliamentary procedure itself has demonstrated, party allegiance as well as preconceived positions and hidden agenda issues can determine decisions in blatant disregard of any argument — so if we already know the outcome, the argumentation itself becomes a nuisance, to be expediently dealt with by all kinds of clever and devious means. Is anybody listening to filibusters? And will this apply to mapping as well?

    I have been working on an approach for doing just that: evaluation the arguments we use in design discourse, and exploring the way including this in the process may change the process. It too, it will be argued, will apply more to the process of working towards a decision on complete plan proposals than to the work of a ‘knowledge creating’ design team involved in their development and preparation of presentation. It remains to be seen whether the expectation of subjecting the plan to such a deliberative evaluation rather than a majority vote will also change the way a design team goes about its work.

    This point brings up a related aspect that is missing from the discussion here: the question of the incentives or rewards involved in the process. As long as there is no deliberative argument evaluation mechanism, the incentives for anybody involved will remain the current, traditional ones: ‘expediency’ (working fast), ‘coming up with something new’, (not necessarily better), winning the votes (necessary for a majority decision), which all too means compromises below the surface of overt argumentation, slick presentation, etc. There is no real incentive for contributing relevant, meritorious arguments or information — because there is no mechanism for evaluating it. This distorts and constrains both the ‘creative’ design development work and the collective decision-making process. These aspects are explored in my book ‘The Fog Island Argument’; I am waiting for one of the IBIS and mapping groups to pick up on these crucial ingredients of deliberative decision-making in design, planning and (political) policy-making.


    Thorbjoern Mann

    July 28, 2009 at 12:27 am

    • @Thorbjorn – Your “On different kinds of truths” reminded me of my less expansive “GroundPlane 101“. My thinking was that even with a fine lever and a good position on which to stand discourse required something of a fulcrum with a firm footing.


      Ben Tremblay

      July 28, 2009 at 9:13 am

    • Thorbjoern,

      Thanks so much for your detailed comments. It is great to get a perspective from someone who has worked with Rittel, and with IBIS in its original form.

      You make an excellent point about the minimalist tag applying to organisation of content, rather than content itself. Seen in this light, IBIS is a “sophisticated” archive because it allows the designer to organise material in a way that makes context and connection obvious. This is something that a “standard” archive (such as a library) simply cannot do.

      Yet, in my limited experience with IBIS in group discussions, I have indeed found it helpful in surfacing issues, ideas and arguments that might have otherwise been ignored, or even left unsaid. I think this is partly because the notation forces people to think more deeply and logically about items that are already on the map, and also anticipate how their own unarticulated issues, ideas or arguments might fit in. Further, because it makes context and connections explicit, participants are able to grasp the discussion “as a whole.” (Admittedly this gets harder in long discussions, where maps can quickly get out of hand). I think these features assist in enhancing the group’s collective creativity.

      Lastly, as you say, the decision making aspect of IBIS requires a degree consensus, or some other way of reaching a decision, which does not always take into account the merits of opposing arguments. I’m reading – with great interest – your ideas on deliberative argument evaluation as presented in your book. A couple of concerns I have are: a) just how objective such a evaluation process is – i.e. does it really result in the best decision, or is it just a means of legitimising a majority opinion (which may or may not be the best one) ? and b) whether the evaluation process adds too much overhead to the overall deliberation.





      July 29, 2009 at 11:01 pm

  7. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by eekim: Creative leadership as “making shared sense out of complexity.” http://bit.ly/IYhPp via http://bit.ly/T52Wp


    uberVU - social comments

    January 13, 2010 at 2:33 pm

  8. […] a  post on collaborative knowledge creation, I discussed how a specific kind of argument – design discussion – can be seen as a act of […]


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