IBIS, dialogue mapping, and the art of collaborative knowledge creation
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.
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:
- They are seen as threatening the status quo (creativity is to feared because it invariably leads to changes).
- 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.
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.