January 17, 2020

Executive Sponsorship

A very interesting model from Venkat Rao on how change happens in large organisations. He says it happens through Executive Sponsorship.

So the real answer to how organizational behavior actually changes is: through executive sponsorship.” Sponsorship of what, and how? Sponsorship of an emerging capability development option through a series of progressively higher-stakes fractional farm-bets. I’ll explain what this means in a minute.

January 10, 2020

January mood

Patrick Stewart in a black suit with a red windowpane check. He is wearing sunglasses.

(via Variety)

January 5, 2020

PDFs in Academic Publishing

Today Erika Hall tweeted:


And it is awful that a paper about professional practice seems to ignore what we in industry would see as good professional practice.


Colusso, Bennett, Hseih and Munson are following best practice (or at least standard practice) in their profession. Specifically, they’re HCI academics so the main and most prestigious publishing outlet is the Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM) set of HCI-related conferences. It’s safe to say that the ACM is… idiosyncratic… when it comes to publishing.

Before I escaped to industry, I was an academic, in roughly the same area as Colusso and colleagues, for 10 years and a PhD student for four years before that. It’s safe to say that Academic publishing is a total garbage fire.

This post is not to excuse the poorly formatted PDF or the difficult language, but to outline how a PDF similar to the one produced by Colusso et al probably made its way into the world.

The production of the PDF and its appearance on the web is the result of satisficing a workflow for several discrete steps:

  1. collaboration among co-authors
  2. production of text with suitable references to pre-existing sources
  3. peer review
  4. print production for consumption by academics

Yes, this seems backward and is clearly stuck in 1999.

The first draft was probably written in whatever text editor the main author prefers. It could have been Pages, Word, Google Docs or something that is more markdown-y like Ulysses or Bear. Eventually the main author would need to share that their co-authors use and understand so they could provide input, either substantially or as supervisory comments. This would mean exporting the draft into whatever editing software all four authors could access and use fluently — probably Word — because for all its faults Word still has the most widely understood change tracking and editorial mark-up system of most mainstream text-production software.

At some point a draft would be produced that had all 52 references in it, correctly formatted, and appropriately referred to throughout the text. This is enormously frustrating to do by hand, so the main author would have used a tool such as Endnote, Zotero, Mendeley or any number of other reference management software packages. These tools can talk to markdown-y text editing software but in practice, you drive these tools as plug-ins to Word. Getting the referencing wrong can be grounds for rejection at peer review, so it’s imperative this is done correctly.

After the referenced draft was produced, the Word file would have been passed around the co-authors again for a final round of contributions and edits.

At some point, likely as late a possible, the main author would have put the text into the ACM template. The ACM template has been around more-or-less forever. Everyone hates the ACM template. It’s only available in Word or LaTeX format (don’t laugh). After checking that none of the meaningful formatting is broken, the main author would have created a PDF of the paper, and uploaded it for peer review.

Peer review is mostly a garbage fire, but ignoring that, it’s also partly responsible for why academic papers look and read the way they do. Peer review for the venues that many HCI-ish papers get submitted to is nasty, brutish and short. The reviewers, who are fellow academics, are over-worked, pressed for time, and completely uncompensated. Standardisation, however janky it is, in presentation and structure is enormously helpful in getting through the review burden. Formalism and over-precision of language is also helpful in establishing a tone of authority which is more highly valued than clarity. And finally, especially in ACM-associated conferences, some part of peer review is also gatekeeping that the template is used correctly.

After peer review the co-authors would probably have some edits to make to the paper. The main author would likely make the edits, share the Word doc around again for a final round of comments, and then upload the final PDF to the ACMs publishing system. Eventually the PDF makes its way on to the web.

Not so long ago, the PDF would have been compiled into a real printed book and the submission of the final PDF would have made that relatively easy.

Colusso and colleagues’ paper, for all its presentation faults, was the product of an enormous system of people, organisations and technologies that have existed for a very long time. The technical debt doesn’t just exist at the ACM but in the chain of software used way back to the production of the first draft. Changing the final output to be accessible in the way that modern web pages should be, requires no small amount of effort as it changes a long established worldwide workflow. Apparently the ACM is working towards this change:

ACM is changing the archive format of its publications to separate content from presentation in the new Digital Library, enhance accessibility, and improve the flexibility and resiliency of our publications. This approach requires a new workflow that utilizes a simplified review” format and a final submission” format. The final submission” is submitted to ACMs new production platform where authors will be able review PDF and HTML output formats before publication.

As I said at the start, this isn’t to excuse the formatting, just to contextualise it as being highly optimised for four things:

  1. collaboration among co-authors
  2. production of text with suitable references to pre-existing sources
  3. peer review
  4. print production for consumption by academics

Optimising for a new thing: consumption by people who aren’t academics, requires substantial intervention. The choke-point of just before final publication is the best place to intervene but is also the place with the greatest inertia. Change will come, but slowly. Until then, know that academics, especially design academics, think that the system is broken too.

January 3, 2020

Try not to suck

We’re now in charge of making this a cool decade so when people 100 years from now are thinking about how incredibly old-timey the 2020s were, it’s old-timey in a cool appealing way and not a boring shitty way.”

It’s 2020 and you’re in the future — Wait But Why

January 3, 2020

December 31, 1959

Natalie Weiner’s 1959 Project has ended.

This is the crux of the whole thing: Who gets to be important? Why is jazz niche — still more often understood as a lusty cliche than an actual artistic movement — and not at the center of our understanding of 20th Century American intellectual and creative life? Racism, obviously.

January 1, 2020

Stubbornness as a useful concept in Wardley Mapping

If you need a primer on what on earth this post is about, I suggest the introduction at Learn Wardley Mapping.

It’s a fundamental principle of Wardley Mapping that  everything evolves through supply and demand competition.

Looking at Mapping through the lens of 80s and 90s sociology of innovation literature, it’s not clear to me that evolution is the best, or most complete, or clearest, metaphor for what is happening when something moves rightward on a Map.

I came across this recently when teaching a workshop where I used some ideas from Mapping. The participants were looking at a situation that involved the use of paper forms to gather information from customers.

Where do paper forms belong on a Map?

Obviously it depends, so for this example, imagine there is a paper form that is part of a long-established government department process. The process is essential to the function of the department. The form is the only way that the department is allowed to collect a very specific piece of information from the public. The forms are professionally printed, are well typeset, and are updated as usability problems are found. There is a process for distributing the forms to all relevant government shopfronts in the state. Processing the forms is the job of several people in the department. There are clear processes for managing data entry, error correction and data management.

Using the cheat sheet for evolutionary characteristics, this paper form sits at Stage III or Stage IV. But that seems wrong. It’s a paper form and it’s (only just) 2020. One way to more accurately capture what’s going on is to introduce more components to the Map. If we introduce practices, we get this:

And yet this fails to capture what’s supposed to be going on with the X-axis in evolutionary terms.

Something more like this, where the form is at Stage I and the practices are more evolved seems more like what the X-axis is intended to capture.

Suppose we do some game-play and evolve the paper form into a digital form. We should see the form and practices move from left to right. Digital forms are more evolved that paper forms, right? But no-one in the department knows how to manage digital forms, so the form management practices go left.

Here’s a naive Map, where we assume that the paper form is not evolved” and that digitising it makes it more evolved”.

In this map, though, we hit a weird snag where the practices for managing a digital form are less evolved in the department than the practices for managing the paper form.

There’s two ways to make a more correct” version of this change. In the first version, we indicate that the form and practices both move to the right through some inertia between Stages.

The other way to make a correct” version is to show both the form and practices moving left (and up) before co-evolving.

That’s probably a fair representation of what could happen. It doesn’t sit well with me, though.

Let’s get Latourian

The paper form and its associated practices are undoubtedly connected to a wide range of other elements. Some of those elements are more evolved and some are less evolved. Some are connect to multiple other elements and some are less well connected.

In the sociology of innovation literature, the number and strength of those connections is important — more important than the elements themselves! They’re important because they show how the network of elements is held together.

If the network has lots of elements, all firmly connected to each other, the network is strong but potentially brittle. Someone who is interested in maintaining the network probably doesn’t have to do much to sustain the connections. One word that’s used for these kind of connections is obdurate which means refusing to change one’s course of direction”. This kind of obdurate network is potentially brittle because if too many connections are severed, or if a well-connected element fails, the network collapses.

If the network has lots of elements all tenuously connected, the network is weak but potentially flexible. Someone who is interested in maintaining this network has to put in a lot of effort to sustain the connections. However, if one element fails, because it’s weakly connected, it’s easy to substitute a new different element. I’d call this a more plastic or ductile network.

According to people like John Law, Madelaine Akrich, Michel Callon and Bruno Latour, moving an element around, or replacing it, is easier when that element isn’t well connected and is harder when an element has many connections. That means it’s possible to use the obdurate/plastic terminology for individual elements too. An element with lots of connections is more obdurate; an element with few connections is more plastic. You could create metrics from this if you were so inclined. In mapping terms:

If one element A is connected to only one other element B, the difficulty of replacing B with C is related to how strongly A resists disconnecting from B and how strongly A resists connecting with C. If you don’t completely sever the A-B connection and simultaneously sufficiently strengthen the A-C network, the inertia in the network could snap it back to A-B.

Scaling up to more complex arrangements of elements, some of which are strongly connected and some of which are weakly connected, obviously leads to far more complex situations.

What’s wrong with evolution?

Nothing’s wrong with the Mapping idea of evolution, but I think the strength of connection between elements, and the relative ease with which an element can be moved or replaced is more important than anything that can be said about the evolutionary status of any one individual element.

Lots of highly evolved elements are also highly obdurate. Lots of less well evolved elements are more plastic. But sometimes, the concepts don’t match up. The paper form and its associated practices are highly obdurate. Whether they’re highly evolved seems harder to say.

If the rightward-ness of elements on a Map show evolutionary status, the question I have is from where does the judgement of evolutionary status get made? (I know it’s a judgement call. All Maps are wrong, some Maps are useful. etc.) If rightwardness is about obduracy, or resistance-to-change, can we express other things with Maps?

I’m not at all convinced that the evolutionary axis should be re-termed the obduracy axis. I am convinced obduracy is a useful concept.