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Collaborative reasoning in the age of Covid

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Ever since the start of the pandemic, there have been no end of opinions, presentations and reports on how we might navigate our way out of the crisis. Much of this takes a narrow, discipline-centric view, which is inadequate because the problem is multifaceted and thus defies traditional disciplinary boundaries. It is therefore of urgent importance to chart a course that considers all aspects of recovery, not just those relevant to specific interests.  A recent report produced by the Australian Group of Eight does just that.   The key points of the report are concisely described in an executive summary and snapshot, so I will cover just the main points in this article. My focus instead is on the platform used to create the report, as it offers an effective collaborative approach to tackling complex issues in a broad range of contexts.

To me the most amazing thing about the 192-page report is that it was produced by a taskforce comprised of over a hundred academics and researchers across diverse disciplines, collaborating over a three-week period. As stated in the exec summary:

To chart a Roadmap to Recovery we convened a group of over a hundred of the country’s leading epidemiologists, infectious disease consultants, public health specialists, healthcare professionals, mental health and well-being practitioners, indigenous scholars, communications and behaviour change experts, ethicists, philosophers, political scientists, economists and business scholars from the Group of Eight (Go8) universities. The group developed this Roadmap in less than three weeks, through remote meetings and a special collaborative reasoning platform, in the context of a rapidly changing pandemic.

Those who have done any collaborative work involving large groups will have stories to tell about how challenging it is to get a coherent result.  This taskforce achieved this in part by working on an online collaborative reasoning platform called SWARM, described in this paper.  This post is mainly about what SWARM is and how it works, but I will also describe how the Roadmap taskforce used the platform to come up with a comprehensive recovery plan and the key recommendations made therein. I’ll end with some thoughts on the use of SWARM in broader organizational and business contexts.

The SWARM platform

The platform was designed and implemented by a team led by Drs. Tim van Gelder and Richard de Rozario as part of a large Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) initiative. In essence,  SWARM is a cloud collaboration environment designed to enhance evidence-based reasoning in teams. It does this by supporting an approach called contending analyses, wherein team members produce and refine multiple distinct analyses of a problem, and then select the best one as their collective response.

On SWARM, team members create artefacts that represent their reasoning. Additionally, they can rate, comment on and contribute to artefacts created by others through the course of the challenge. This enables a “best response” to emerge through an iterative process of discussion, refinement and evaluation.

To understand how it works, it is necessary to briefly describe the various ways in which users can interact and contribute to solving the problem with each other in SWARM. The user interface of the SWARM platform consists of three panes (Figure 1).

Figure 1: SWARM user interface

 

The left pane contains the problem description and links to related documents. In the centre pane, users can post and update responses. A response may be a Resource (e.g. a link to an external article, a visualisation or an analysis) that contributes to understanding or solving the problem, or it may be a Report, which is a draft candidate for the team’s final output. Users can then comment on and rate others’ responses and comments. The most highly rated Report at the conclusion of the problem is submitted as the result of the group’s collaborative reasoning.

The right pane is a streaming chat window through which users can interact in real-time. To summarise, SWARM users can:

  1. converse with team members via the chat feed.
  2. post or update a Resource or a Report
  3. comment on a Resource or a Report, or
  4. rate a Resource, Report or Comment.

By design, SWARM does not prescribe (or proscribe) any particular analytical process. As van Gelder, de Rozario and Sinnott (2018, pp. 22-34) note, contending analyses:

…promotes engagement by providing the opportunity for any participant to contribute their own thinking (autonomy), to think in a manner matching their natural expertise (mastery or competence), and to earn the respect of others by drafting a well-regarded response (relatedness)’ – thus meeting each of the three psychological needs identified by self-determination theory.

The idea is that teams should be free to work in ways that suit them collectively, with individuals given the choice to contribute as and when they please. That said, SWARM, via its Lens Kit (https://swarm-help.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/categories/360000312751-The-Lens-Kit), offers participants a compendium of structured analytical techniques and other “logical lenses” that may be useful in analysing complex and uncertain scenarios in which the available information is scarce or  ambiguous.

The Roadmap to Recovery project

The Roadmap project involved over a hundred academics from the Group of Eight – a coalition of the oldest, largest and most research-intensive Australian universities. Over three weeks in April 2020, the team worked on developing scenarios for national recovery from the COVID crisis. Their recommendations are available in a comprehensive report.  The report is unique in that it synthesises the knowledge of a range of experts and takes a systemic, evidence-based view of the problem.  In the words of the co-chairs of the project:

How this document differs from the hundreds of articles and opinion pieces on this issue is that this report specifies the evidence on which it is based, it is produced by researchers who are experts and leaders in their area, and it engages the broadest range of disciplines – from mathematicians, to virologists, to philosophers.

Over a three-week period, this taskforce has debated and discussed, disagreed, and agreed, edited and revised its work over weekdays and holidays, Good Friday and Easter. All remotely. All with social distancing…

…It is research collaboration in action – a collective expression of a belief that expert research can help Government plot the best path forward…

Given the wide geographical distribution of the team and the requirement for social distancing, it was clear that the team needed an online collaboration platform that enabled collective deliberation. Traditional online methods would not have worked for a group this large. As noted in the report:

Standard remote collaboration methods, such as circulating drafts by email, have many drawbacks such as the difficulty of keeping track of document versions, integrating edits and comments on many different versions, and ensuring that everyone can see the latest version. It seemed clear this approach would struggle with an expert group as large as the Roadmap Task Force.

The steering committee therefore decided to give SWARM a go.

As noted in the previous section, SWARM works on the principle that a group should canvas multiple approaches and then collectively settle on the best one, a principle summarised by the term contending analyses. The benefit of such an approach is evident in the report in that it outlines two distinct strategies for recovery:

  1. Elimination: as the term suggests, this strategy aims at eliminating the virus within the country. This is the lowest risk approach and is technically feasible for a relatively isolated country like Australia. However, the cost in terms of time, effort and money is substantial. Moreover, a strict implementation of this approach would bar international travel for an unrealistically long duration.
  2. Controlled Adaptation: this involves controlling the infection within the country to a level that does not overwhelm the healthcare system. This is less expensive in terms of time, effort and money, but the outcome is also less certain. However, as the taskforce points out, this could lead to restrictions being eased as early as May 15th, a choice that the government had made before the report was released. This decision is understandable given the cost of extended restrictions; however, it isn’t clear at all how they will handle the inevitable resurgence of the disease down the line. The report considers how things could develop as a result of this decision.

The report aims to provide a balanced case for the two options, and also emphasises that in terms of implementation, the options have considerable overlap. For instance, there are three requirements for the success of either:

  1. Early detection and supported isolation
  2. Travel and border restrictions.
  3. Public trust, transparency and civic engagement.

It should be clear that all three require massive government involvement and support. To this end, the taskforce has formulated an ethical framework that should guide government decision-making and policy. The framework comprises of the following six principles:

  1. Democratic accountability and the protection of civil liberties.
  2. Equal access to healthcare and social welfare.
  3. Shared economic sacrifice.
  4. Attentiveness to the distinctive patterns of disadvantage.
  5. Enhancing social well-being and mental health.
  6. Partnership and shared responsibility

An ethical framework should serve as a check on policy-making that might disadvantage specific groups. If followed, the six principles listed above will ensure that policies are fair to all sections of the community, both in terms of burdens and benefits This is perhaps the trickiest part of policy-making.

Finally, the taskforce has formulated six imperatives (essential rules) that should guide the actual implementation of a recovery. They are:

  1. The health of our healthcare system and its workers.
  2. Preparing for relaxation of social distancing.
  3. Mental health and wellbeing for all.
  4. The care of indigenous Australians.
  5. Equity of access and outcomes in health support.
  6. Clarity of communication.

Each of the above requirements, ethical principles and rules for action are unpacked in detail in the full report and summarised in the executive brief.

How the project unfolded

The Roadmap process was a bold experiment. The Group of Eight had never attempted to pull together such a large report, with so many participants and diverse perspectives, in such a short time, and where no face-to-face meeting was possible. The SWARM platform, still a research prototype, had never previously been used to address a real problem, let alone a problem of this scale and importance.

The project had a steering committee consisting of the project chairs, Professor Shitij Kapur and Go8 CEO Vicki Thomson, and two reasoning experts from the Hunt Lab, Drs. Tim van Gelder and Richard de Rozario.  The committee proposed a project design which would involve two weeks working on the SWARM platform, followed by a week of off-platform final report drafting by a small group from the Go8. The two weeks on SWARM would involve the panel of experts working on 9 major topics, corresponding to the anticipated major sections of the final report, such as “How and when to relax social distancing.” It was expected that the experts would distribute themselves across the topics, with “emergent teams” coalescing to work on producing a draft report for each section. Week 1 on SWARM would be mostly “exploratory” thinking, with panelists mostly posting Resources, comments and chat. Week 2 would be mostly “synthetic” thinking, with emergent teams posting early draft Reports for each topic, and collaboratively refining the most promising drafts. In Week 3, these draft section reports would be integrated into a single overall final report.

The steering committee planned to closely monitor progress over the first two weeks and, if/as necessary, modify the process. The project did unfold largely as planned, but the steering committee had to intervene mid-late in the second week when it was apparent that some topics lacked emergent teams with “critical mass,” and in some cases even where critical mass had developed, the teams needed some guidance and prodding to deliver an adequate section report. At this point, the committee, and in particular one of the Chairs, Shitij Kapur, convened a series of zoom meetings meetings the emergent teams, and developed with them a plan for finalising their section reports. From that point on, most work on the draft section reports was done, over just a few days, using more traditional collaboration techniques, such as as circulating a Word document and communicating by email.

Thus, as things turned out, the process was a novel hybrid of a pure SWARM platform-based approach, and more standard methods. The steering committee were committed from the outset to expediency in getting the intended result (a high-quality final report) rather than being “purist” about the approach being used. The use of more traditional collaboration tools and methods later in the process, was driven by a number factors, including some limitations in the SWARM platform (most importantly, the lack of a “track changes” function in the platform’s document editor), and the natural tendency for people to revert to habits and reflexive behaviours when under great pressure.  It was clear, however, that the SWARM platform played a crucial role in the first half, allowing participants range across all topics, share lots of ideas and discussion, form emergent teams, and at least start drafting reports.

Whither collaborative reasoning?

The Roadmap project highlights the value of collaborative reasoning platforms like SWARM. It is therefore appropriate to close with a few thoughts on how such platforms can help organisations build internal capability to deal with complex issues that they confront – for example, developing a strategy in an uncertain environment (such as the one we are in currently).

The first point to note is that such problems require stakeholders with diverse viewpoints and skills to work collaboratively to craft a solution. Long-time readers of this blog will know that I advocate tools like Issue-Based Information System (IBIS) to help such groups reach a consensus on problem definition, and thus settle issues around “Are we solving the right problem?” or “How should we approach this issue?” However, once the problem is defined by consensus, the group needs to solve it. This is where platforms like SWARM are particularly useful.

Although SWARM was designed for the intelligence community, the Roadmap  project shows that it can be used in other settings. As another example, Tim van Gelder notes  that citizen intelligence (where ordinary citizens collaborate on solving intelligence problems) is becoming a thing, but lacks a marketplace. As a possible solution, he envisages the creation of a Kaggle-like platform for complex problems (rather than data problems). He notes that there are challenges around setting up such platforms, but there is interest from large private (non-intelligence) organisations. New deployments of the platform are already underway.

The problems organisations confront in the post-Covid world will be more complex than ever before. There are those who believe such problems will yield to computational approaches that rely primarily on vast quantities of data.  However, complex situations cannot be characterised by data alone, so computational approaches will need to be augmented by human sensemaking and reasoning. The success of the Roadmap to Recovery project demonstrates that platforms like SWARM can help organisations tackle such problems by harnessing the power of collaborative reasoning.

Note: For more information on SWARM, please visit the Hunt Lab for Intelligence Research.

Acknowledgement: My thanks to Dr. Tim van Gelder for reviewing a draft version of this article and for contributing the section on how the project unfolded.

Written by K

May 26, 2020 at 8:39 am

Complex decision making as an infinite game

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A decision is the act of choosing between two or more options.

There are two kinds of decisions, computable and non-computable [1]. In the former, options are well-defined and finite in number, and there are unambiguous facts (data) available based on which options can be rated. In the latter, options are neither clear nor enumerable and facts, if available at all, are ambiguous.

Computable decisions are simple, non-computable decisions are complex. We’ll refer to the two decision types by these names in the remainder of this article.

An example of a simple decision is buying a product (TV, car or whatever) based on well-defined criteria (price, features etc.). An example of a complex decision is formulating a business strategy.

It should be clear that simple decisions involve smaller temporal and monetary stakes – i.e. the cost of getting things wrong is limited and the effects of a bad decision wear off in (a relatively short) time. Neither is true for complex decisions: the cost of a poor choice can be significant, and its negative effects tend to persist over time.

A key feature of complex decisions is that they (usually) affect multiple parties. That is, they are socially complex. This has implications regarding how such decisions should be approached. More on this later.

Conventional decision theory is based on the notion of maximizing benefit or utility. For simple decisions it is assumed that utility of each option can be computed; for complex decisions it is assumed they can be estimated, or at least ranked. The latter assumption is questionable because each party affected by a complex decision will have its own notion of utility, at least at the outset. Moreover, since neither options nor facts are unambiguous at the start, it makes little sense to attempt to estimate utility upfront.

The above being the case, it is clear that complex decisions cannot be made on the basis of maximizing utility alone.  Something else is needed.

–x–

James Carse’s classic book, Finite and Infinite Games, begins with the following lines:

There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite for the purpose of continuing the play.

A finite game ends when a player or team wins. However, “just as it is essential for a finite game to have a definitive ending, it must also have a precise beginning. Therefore, we can speak of finite games as having temporal boundaries.”

The parallel between simple decisions and finite games should be evident. Although less obvious, it is useful to think of a complex decision as an infinite game.

When making a complex decision – such as a business strategy – decision-makers will often focus on maximising potential benefits (aka utility). However, as often as not, the outcome of the decision will fall far short of the expected benefits and may, in some cases, even lead to ruin. This being so, it is perhaps more fruitful to focus on staying in the game (keep playing) rather than winning (maximising utility).

The aim of a complex decision should be to stay in the game rather than win.

How does one ensure that one stays in the game? Heinz von Foerster’s ethical imperative offers an answer”

Always act to increase your choices.

That is, one should decide in such a way that increases one’s options in the future thereby increasing chances of staying in the game. One can frame this discussion in terms of adaptability:  the greater the number of options the greater the ability to adapt to unexpected changes in the environment.

How can one “act to increase one’s choices”?

One way to do this is to leverage social complexity: get different parties to articulate their preferred options. Some of these options are likely to contradict each other. Nevertheless, there are ways to handle such a diversity of potentially contradictory views in an inclusive manner (for an example, see this paper; for more, check out this book). Such an approach also ensures that the problem and solution spaces are explored more exhaustively than if only a limited number of viewpoints are considered.

infinite_options_graphic

The point is this: there are always more options available than apparent. Indeed, the number of unexplored options at any stage is potentially infinite. The job of the infinite player (decision-maker) is to act so as surface them gradually, and thus stay in the game.

–x–

Traditionally, decision-making is seen as a logical undertaking based on facts or data. In contrast, when viewed as an infinite game, complex decision-making becomes a matter of ethics rather than logic.

Why ethics?

The answer lies in von Foerster’s dictum to increase one’s choices.  By doing so, one increases the chances that fewer stakeholders’ interests are overlooked in the decision-making process.

As Wittgenstein famously said, “It is clear ethics cannot be articulated.” All those tedious classes and books on business ethics miss the point entirely. Ethical matters are necessarily oblique:  the decision-maker who decides in a way that increases (future) choices, will be acting ethically without drawing attention to it, or even being consciously aware of it.

–x–

Any honest discussion of complex decision-making in organisations must address the issue of power.

Carse asserts that players (i.e. decision-makers in the context of this article) become powerful by acquiring titles (e.g. CEO, Manager etc.). However, such titles can only be acquired by winning a finite game– i.e. by being successful in competitions for roles. Power therefore relates to finite rather than infinite games.

As he notes in his book:

Power is a concept that belongs only in finite play. To speak meaningfully of a person’s power is to speak of what that person has already achieved, the titles they have already won.

Be that as it may, one cannot overlook the reality that those in powerful positions can (and often do) subvert the decision-making process by obstructing open and honest discussion of contentious issues. Sometimes they do so by their mere presence in the room.

How does a complex decision-maker deal with the issue of power?

Carse offers the following answer:

How do infinite players contend with power? Since the outcome of infinite play is endlessly open, there is no way of looking back to make an assessment of the power or weakness of earlier play. Infinite players look forward, not to a victory but toward ongoing play. A finite player plays to be powerful; the infinite player plays with strength. Power is concerned (and a consequence of) what has happened, strength with what has yet to happen. Power will be always restricted to a relatively small number of people. Anyone can be strong.

What strength means is context-dependent, but the following may help clarify its relationship to power:

Late last year I attended an end-of-year event at the university I teach at. There I bumped into a student I had mentored some time ago. We got talking about his workplace (a large government agency).

At one point he asked, “We really need to radically change the way we think about and work with data, but I’m not a manager and have no authority to initiate changes that need to be made.”

“Why don’t you demonstrate what you are capable of? Since you are familiar your data, it should be easy enough to frame and tackle a small yet meaningful data science problem.” I replied.

“What if my manager doesn’t like my taking the initiative?”

“It is easier to beg forgiveness than seek permission.”

“He might feel threatened and make life difficult for me.”

“If management doesn’t like you’re doing, it’s their loss. What’s the worst that could happen? You could lose your job. With what you are learning at university you should have no trouble moving on to another role. Indeed, by doing so, you will diversify your experience and increase your future options.”

–x–

To summarise:  when deciding on complex matters, act in a way that maximises possibility rather than utility. Such an approach is inherently ethical and enhances one’s chances of staying in the game.

Complex decision making is an infinite game.

[1] There are many other terms for this classification:  tame and wicked (Horst Rittel), programmed and non-programmed (Herbert Simon), complicated and complex (David Snowden). Paul Culmsee and I have, perhaps confusingly, used the terms uncertain and ambiguous to refer to these in our books.  There are minor contextual differences between how these different authors interpret these terms, but for the most part they are synonymous with computable/non-computable.

 

Written by K

January 21, 2020 at 4:09 am

Learning, evolution and the future of work

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The Janus-headed rise of AI has prompted many discussions about the future of work.  Most, if not all, are about AI-driven automation and its consequences for various professions. We are warned to prepare for this change by developing skills that cannot be easily “learnt” by machines.  This sounds reasonable at first, but less so on reflection: if skills that were thought to be uniquely human less than a decade ago can now be done, at least partially, by machines, there is no guarantee that any specific skill one chooses to develop will remain automation-proof in the medium-term future.

This begs the question as to what we can do, as individuals, to prepare for a machine-centric workplace. In this post I offer a perspective on this question based on Gregory Bateson’s writings as well as  my consulting and teaching experiences.

Levels of learning

Given that humans are notoriously poor at predicting the future, it should be clear hitching one’s professional wagon to a specific set of skills is not a good strategy. Learning a set of skills may pay off in the short term, but it is unlikely to work in the long run.

So what can one do to prepare for an ambiguous and essentially unpredictable future?

To answer this question, we need to delve into an important, yet oft-overlooked aspect of learning.

A key characteristic of learning is that it is driven by trial and error.  To be sure, intelligence may help winnow out poor choices at some stages of the process, but one cannot eliminate error entirely. Indeed, it is not desirable to do so because error is essential for that “aha” instant that precedes insight.  Learning therefore has a stochastic element: the specific sequence of trial and error followed by an individual is unpredictable and likely to be unique. This is why everyone learns differently: the mental model I build of a concept is likely to be different from yours.

In a paper entitled, The Logical Categories of Learning and Communication, Bateson noted that the stochastic nature of learning has an interesting consequence. As he notes:

If we accept the overall notion that all learning is in some degree stochastic (i.e., contains components of “trial and error”), it follows that an ordering of the processes of learning can be built upon a hierarchic classification of the types of error which are to be corrected in the various learning processes.

Let’s unpack this claim by looking at his proposed classification:

Zero order learning –    Zero order learning refers to situations in which a given stimulus (or question) results in the same response (or answer) every time. Any instinctive behaviour – such as a reflex response on touching a hot kettle – is an example of zero order learning.  Such learning is hard-wired in the learner, who responds with the “correct” option to a fixed stimulus every single time. Since the response does not change with time, the process is not subject to trial and error.

First order learning (Learning I) –  Learning I is where an individual learns to select a correct option from a set of similar elements. It involves a specific kind of trial and error that is best explained through a couple of examples. The  canonical example of Learning I is memorization: Johnny recognises the letter “A” because he has learnt to distinguish it from the 25 other similar possibilities. Another example is Pavlovian conditioning wherein the subject’s response is altered by training: a dog that initially salivates only when it smells food is trained, by repetition, to salivate when it hears the bell.

A key characteristic of Learning I is that the individual learns to select the correct response from a set of comparable possibilities – comparable because the possibilities are of the same type (e.g. pick a letter from the set of alphabets). Consequently, first order learning  cannot lead to a qualitative change in the learner’s response. Much of traditional school and university teaching is geared toward first order learning: students are taught to develop the “correct” understanding of concepts and techniques via a repetition-based process of trial and error.

As an aside, note that much of what goes under the banner of machine learning and AI can be also classed as first order learning.

Second order learning (Learning II) –  Second order learning involves a qualitative change in the learner’s response to a given situation. Typically, this occurs when a learner sees a familiar problem situation in a completely new light, thus opening up new possibilities for solutions.  Learning II therefore necessitates a higher order of trial and error, one that is beyond the ken of machines, at least at this point in time.

Complex organisational problems, such as determining a business strategy, require a second order approach because they cannot be precisely defined and therefore lack an objectively correct solution. Echoing Horst Rittel, solutions to such problems are not true or false, but better or worse.

Much of the teaching that goes on in schools and universities hinders second order learning because it implicitly conditions learners to frame problems in ways that make them amenable to familiar techniques. However, as Russell Ackoff noted, “outside of school, problems are seldom given; they have to be taken, extracted from complex situations…”   Two  aspects of this perceptive statement bear further consideration. Firstly, to extract a problem from a situation one has to appreciate or make sense of  the situation.  Secondly,  once the problem is framed, one may find that solving it requires skills that one does not possess. I expand on the implications of these points in the following two sections.

Sensemaking and second order learning

In an earlier piece, I described sensemaking as the art of collaborative problem formulation. There are a huge variety of sensemaking approaches, the gamestorming site describes many of them in detail.   Most of these are aimed at exploring a problem space by harnessing the collective knowledge of a group of people who have diverse, even conflicting, perspectives on the issue at hand.  The greater the diversity, the more complete the exploration of the problem space.

Sensemaking techniques help in elucidating the context in which a problem lives. This refers to the the problem’s environment, and in particular the constraints that the environment imposes on potential solutions to the problem.  As Bateson puts it, context is “a collective term for all those events which tell an organism among what set of alternatives [it] must make [its] next choice.”  But this begs the question as to how these alternatives are to be determined.  The question cannot be answered directly because it depends on the specifics of the environment in which the problem lives.  Surfacing these by asking the right questions is the task of sensemaking.

As a simple example, if I request you to help me formulate a business strategy, you are likely to begin by asking me a number of questions such as:

  • What kind of business are you in?
  • Who are your customers?
  • What’s the competitive landscape?
  • …and so on

Answers to these questions fill out the context in which the business operates, thus making it possible to formulate a meaningful strategy.

It is important to note that context rarely remains static, it evolves in time. Indeed, many companies faded away because they failed to appreciate changes in their business context:  Kodak is a well-known example, there are many more.  So organisations must evolve too. However, it is a mistake to think of an organisation and its environment as evolving independently, the two always evolve together.  Such co-evolution is as true of natural systems as it is of social ones. As Bateson tells us:

…the evolution of the horse from Eohippus was not a one-sided adjustment to life on grassy plains. Surely the grassy plains themselves evolved [on the same footing] with the evolution of the teeth and hooves of the horses and other ungulates. Turf was the evolving response of the vegetation to the evolution of the horse. It is the context which evolves.

Indeed, one can think of evolution by natural selection as a process by which nature learns (in a second-order sense).

The foregoing discussion points to another problem with traditional approaches to education: we are implicitly taught that problems once solved, stay solved. It is seldom so in real life because, as we have noted, the environment evolves even if the organisation remains static. In the worst case scenario (which happens often enough) the organisation will die if it does not adapt appropriately to changes in its environment. If this is true, then it seems that second-order learning is important not just for individuals but for organisations as a whole. This harks back to notion of the notion of the learning organisation, developed and evangelized by Peter Senge in the early 90s. A learning organisation is one that continually adapts itself to a changing environment. As one might imagine, it is an ideal that is difficult to achieve in practice. Indeed, attempts to create learning organisations have often ended up with paradoxical outcomes.  In view of this it seems more practical for organisations to focus on developing what one might call  learning individuals – people who are capable of adapting to changes in their environment by continual learning

Learning to learn

Cliches aside, the modern workplace is characterised by rapid, technology-driven change. It is difficult for an  individual to keep up because one has to:

    • Figure out which changes are significant and therefore worth responding to.
    • Be capable of responding to them meaningfully.

The media hype about the sexiest job of the 21st century and the like further fuel the fear of obsolescence.  One feels an overwhelming pressure to do something. The old adage about combating fear with action holds true: one has to do something, but the question then is: what meaningful action can one take?

The fact that this question arises points to the failure of traditional university education. With its undue focus on teaching specific techniques, the more important second-order skill of learning to learn has fallen by the wayside.  In reality, though,  it is now easier than ever to learn new skills on ones own. When I was hired as a database architect in 2004, there were few quality resources available for free. Ten years later, I was able to start teaching myself machine learning using topnotch software, backed by countless quality tutorials in blog and video formats. However, I wasted a lot of time in getting started because it took me a while to get over my reluctance to explore without a guide. Cultivating the habit of learning on my own earlier would have made it a lot easier.

Back to the future of work

When industry complains about new graduates being ill-prepared for the workplace, educational institutions respond by updating curricula with more (New!! Advanced!!!) techniques. However, the complaints continue and  Bateson’s notion of second order learning tells us why:

  • Firstly, problem solving is distinct from problem formulation; it is akin to the distinction between human and machine intelligence.
  • Secondly, one does not know what skills one may need in the future, so instead of learning specific skills one has to learn how to learn

In my experience,  it is possible to teach these higher order skills to students in a classroom environment. However, it has to be done in a way that starts from where students are in terms of skills and dispositions and moves them gradually to less familiar situations. The approach is based on David Cavallo’s work on emergent design which I have often used in my  consulting work.  Two examples may help illustrate how this works in  the classroom:

  • Many analytically-inclined people think sensemaking is a waste of time because they see it as “just talk”. So, when teaching sensemaking, I begin with quantitative techniques to deal with uncertainty, such as Monte Carlo simulation, and then gradually introduce examples of uncertainties that are hard if not impossible to quantify. This progression naturally leads on to problem situations in which they see the value of sensemaking.
  • When teaching data science, it is difficult to comprehensively cover basic machine learning algorithms in a single semester. However, students are often reluctant to explore on their own because they tend to be daunted by the mathematical terminology and notation. To encourage exploration (i.e. learning to learn) we use a two-step approach: a) classes focus on intuitive explanations of algorithms and the commonalities between concepts used in different algorithms.  The classes are not lectures but interactive sessions involving lots of exercises and Q&A, b) the assignments go beyond what is covered in the classroom (but still well within reach of most students), this forces them to learn on their own. The approach works: just the other day, my wonderful co-teacher, Alex, commented on the amazing learning journey of some of the students – so tentative and hesitant at first, but well on their way to becoming confident data professionals.

In the end, though, whether or not an individual learner learns depends on the individual. As Bateson once noted:

Perhaps the best documented generalization in the field of psychology is that, at any given moment, the behavioral characteristics of a mammal, and especially of [a human], depend upon the previous experience and behavior of that individual.

The choices we make when faced with change depend on our individual natures and experiences. Educators can’t do much about the former but they can facilitate more meaningful instances of the latter, even within the confines of the classroom.

Written by K

July 5, 2018 at 6:05 pm

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