This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.


It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.


It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Community VSI - GPS for Herding Cats?

The last blog post started to look at Virtual Systemic Inquiry as a viable method of collaboration in addressing difficult or even wicked problems. That first stage, and the original concept, was designed for a relatively small team of individuals, disconnected geographical coming together, albeit only virtually, for the purpose of addressing a specific issue. Individuals could perhaps serve on multiple VSI teams but it would be circumstances that would govern the make up of a specific team. It is unlikely, under this scenario, that many of the VSI team participants would be serving in the role of on the ground stakeholders to a truly significant extent.

It is no longer likely that the essential participants at the various stages of the process are all going to be located geographically close together. Traditional meetings will make little logistical sense. The manner in which we usually communicate ideas will not work, either because, as mentioned before, geographical separateness, time schedule conflicts or due to the size of the group or community involved. So if within the context in which we operate, virtual collaboration is appropriate but as the old tools and processes don't work well enough, what then are the options?

What then is the potential for expanding the concept of Virtual Systemic Inquiry into a larger community context, which would significantly involve stakeholders, and how could that be made to work? In this post we will look to the remaining elements of the VSI process and how they could start to be incorporated into a community context.

A good deal of virtual interaction has already been integrated into local institutions of government.  Most cities have a webpage, and possibly other systems of web based community governance, expanded with the inclusion of Facebook pages and Twitter for many advocacy groups. The next step is incorporating systemic inquiry into a systematic process. This, however, means reexamining not only how we work with virtual tools of community governance but how we engage in Virtual Collaboration.

The Internet and World Wide Web, provide much of the context in which we typically work today. How collaborators should go about effecting a meaningful result within such an environment is still a relevant question. The more traditional word processing and spreadsheets and even basic email will likely not suffice in this new context and will simply further overload any potential participants. It is not merely having a set of tools with which we've developed a level of comfort or that could be easily learned. 

It is also not a matter of having the latest apps freely available but also including changes as to how they are to be used. The rise of data journalism, as an example, not only incorporates new tools but also entirely new technical approaches to information with 'Big Data' and other community engagement approaches with 'Open Data'. At the same time, the simple excel type spreadsheet remains a very effective research tool and more importantly, the underlying principles of journalism still apply.

It is a matter, as was asserted earlier in this effort that one should run the technology; don't let the technology run you. It is a matter of how the tech tools are used by increasingly larger populated networks with correspondingly larger number of connections resulting in greater complexity with at least the potential for emergent attributes.

Discussion Groups are the standard first response to the question of collaboration, virtual or otherwise. It should be recognized though that there are important differences between discussion, dialogue and deliberation. Our community based discourse, including virtual discourse on web platforms such as LinkedIn, phpBB, etc. is too often stuck at the level of discussion. We need to find ways to evolve those discussions to the level of both dialogue and deliberation as envisioned together by the NCDDWe will use the term, 'means of discourse' or 'discourse' to cover all three.

The expectation or hope seems to be that thoughts initiated in a discussion will lead to other thoughts in a reinforcing manner finally leading to a better understanding of the situation as well as an approach for dealing with the situation. More often than not this turns out to be a fix that fails for structural reasons. Discussion groups seldom achieve consensus, particularly if it is perceived that there is little need for a consensus to be achieved. The unfolding of the content remains essentially linear although in truth is conceptually intertwined. It is very difficult for multiple participants to build on separate dimensions of understanding within this linear environment in any meaningful manner.

It seems the basic nature of discussion groups is to be divergent which is not necessarily a bad thing. From a design thinking perspective it can be a good thing. It is the nature of thoughts to provoke other thoughts, this divergence though can wear people down and cause them to lose interest because of being pulled in multiple directions by tangents of thought seemingly only slightly on topic, if at all. Keeping the discussion on track, from the perspective of those responsible for managing the collaboration, might seem as an impossible a task as herding cats.

The last post was on the first set of steps in the VSI process. Step one was Enabling Generative Interactions in which we looked to Integrating Interactions. If the stakeholders are seriously interested in understanding a situation as a basis for developing a project, program or a strategy to improve a particular situation then developing and working with models is seen as essential. Allowing collaborators then to keep track of the development of the model and their contributions to it is essential. The component tools should then be employed in a manner that glues things together.

The first thing that should be created is a focus page. A wiki is one means that could be used as the focus page because of the ease of multi-user updating allowing everyone involved in the collaboration to know that whatever aspect of the investigation they're looking for that the appropriate links can be found on that focus page. Discourse could be initiated with a link to the Focus Page with multiple discussion threads focusing on particular aspects on the inquiry.

Concept maps could be developed in Insight Maker and in Kumu. Once initiated a link to the concept map is also added to the wiki with thought exchanges on the concept map conducted though the discussions (at this phase it is discussion). Formal models have also been developed in Insight Maker and Kumu, again once initiated a link to the model is added to the wiki and exchanges on the model are conducted through discussions. Kumu is beginning to be seen as the best means of simplifying the architecture and integrating the multiple pieces of the puzzle, being Focus Page, Discourse, Concept Maps and Formal Models.

What is most essential for stakeholders engaged in developing a strategy for dealing with a difficult or complex situation or wicked problem facing their community is to optimize their understanding of the situation by understanding the relevant relationships and the implications of those relationships.

The most viable approach to accomplishing this is for stakeholders to work together to understand the particular relationships by building their own models. In this way they not only develop a better understanding of the relationships, someone else doesn't have to later help explain the resultant model to them. They gain ownership of the issue and can instead help explain the model to others when it is presented to larger portions of the community through a process of community discourse that rises to dialogue and deliberation.

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