Poetry and information – A conversation with Helen Heath

The latest instalment of Scripturient, my column for Information Professional, is out now.

In this series, I’m looking at how we can push the boundaries of literacy in the 21st century, to encompass new areas of representation. What does it mean to read the future? To read risks? To read the forces that underpin our relationships and drive us psychologically? To read the signs and signals which exist in the natural world?

In the latest issue of Information Professional, I talk to writer Helen Heath from Aotearoa New Zealand about birdsong, technology, poetry, and the natural world.

What would change about your work if you read, or even wrote, a poem on waking up every morning? To what new things would you attend? What would you learn about information, and our relationship to it?

You can read the column in a PDF download here, or get your own copy of Informational Professional magazine here.

7 magic words to challenge the wisdom of systems: getting your head around Claudio Ciborra’s Labyrinths of Information

The late Claudio Ciborra (1951-2005) was an information systems researcher, organizational theorist, and Chair in Risk Management at the London School of Economics. Energetic, pioneering, unafraid to take a contrarian position, his work remains thought-provoking for readers today – even though he wrote on information, communication technologies, and organizational theory for a pre-smartphone age.

The Labyrinths of Information, published three years before Ciborra’s death, is a slim but densely written volume which sets out to “challenge the wisdom of systems”. It puts the complex and ambiguous realities of human existence and interaction at the heart of research into information systems and business processes.

Among other questions, Ciborra asks: Why are systems ambiguous? Why do they not give us more time to do things? Is there strategic value in tinkering even in high-tech settings? Are age-old practices valuable for dealing with new technologies? What is the role of moods and emotional concerns in influencing how we think and act?

As he reminds us, “the very definition of information systems as a set of technical […] and human resources devoted to the management of information in organizations spells out the composite nature of the field.” Humanity is always woven into the fabric of information systems.

Ciborra challenges our tendency to describe how information technology is used in terms of rationality and formal method. Academics, management consultants, journalists and other commentators tend to frame what is happening in business in terms of established concepts, neat little pigeonholes for the messy business of the world.

They tend to share basic assumptions: “there is a complex problem to be solved or a task to be executed; a corresponding strategy is deployed to achieve the goals and solve the problem; and a new structure is put in place to implement the solution.”

“To be sure,” Ciborra goes on to say, “decision makers would admit that day-to-day management is run in a more organic, ad-hoc fashion, and that textbooks and journal articles seldom seem to capture the intertwining of market events and managerial responses.”

Often rationalizations are brought in after the fact, and the “gap between what theoretical, ex post explanations and models can deliver and the actual garbage-can style of managerial choice is considered to be a fact of life by practitioners, and an unavoidable result of the limitations of any modelling approach[.]”

Yet Ciborra wants to move away from this approach, attending precisely to what he calls “the hidden or dark side of information systems […] focussing on the obvious, the workaday, and the very well known to any practitioner in the field.” He’s not excited by the latest management buzzwords or theories, and he’s disdainful of their “hospitality on PowerPoint slides by consultants and practitioners.”

Ciborra seeks improvisations, hacks, awkward real-life experiences, and the hard work involved in taking care of complex systems. He probes at the blank space papered over in presentations by phrases such as “You know no organizational model will fully capture the actual flow of events”, “The strategy was well laid out, but then, as you know, life is interesting because it is full of surprises”, and, simply: “You know what I mean.”

He builds his collection of essays around seven words, deliberately chosen for their unfamiliarity to English speakers – words that are meant to stop us in our tracks, shake us out of routine thinking, and apprehend the world of organizations and information systems anew.

No précis can fully do Ciborra’s rich, complex little book justice. But I can take you through a tour of those seven magic words to get you started. Magic for beginners, if you like.

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Interview with Peter Morville: Planning for Everything in Times of COVID-19

Peter Morville is one of the pioneers of information architecture and user experience, working with clients including AT&T, Cisco, Harvard, IBM, the Library of Congress, Macy’s, the National Cancer Institute, and Vodafone. His books include Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Intertwingled, Search Patterns, Ambient Findability and, most recently, Planning for Everything: The Design of Paths and Goals.

With a background like that – and more than a quarter of a century’s experience in helping people and organizations to plan – I was keen to talk with Peter about what he was learning from the turbulence of the COVID era. We spoke early in October 2020.

Peter Morville

A man writes a book called Planning for EverythingHow has this year affected your paths and goals?

2020 is a special year, in all sorts of terrifying ways, but I think that the trends towards unpredictability have been growing for us in recent years. It’s not just 2020, right?

In my book, Planning for Everything, one of the biggest encouragements is for people to be mindful of the balance that we strike between planning and improvisation. Even though it’s a book about planning, part of my message is that we should have humility when we think about the future, and our ability to predict or control it.

I remember several years back talking with a friend who was spending some time in Rwanda. She said that, when she was there, it was a country where it was harder to plan that it was in the United States. There were more unexpected things that happened, you couldn’t count on stability, even down to the level of deciding that next Wednesday was going to be a good day for your coffee date, because something might come up.

Stability has been unevenly distributed around the world, probably forever. In countries such as the UK and the United States, many of us have been fortunate to enjoy significant amounts of stability and predictability, where we can say, “I’m going to plan a vacation in three months, or a wedding in nine months.” Many of us have a lifetime of experiencing that the things we plan, happen! 

The last few years have really eroded our sense of confidence in our ability to plan for the future. I would say in the United States right now, I’ve never experienced a period where there’s so much uncertainty, whether that’s from COVID-19, climate change and wildfires, the upcoming presidential election, civil unrest…Planning a vacation three months from now seems a bit crazy!

Sometimes instability creates opportunity as well as jeopardy. Obviously one wouldn’t wish this pandemic on the world, but can you see opportunities arising from the current moment?

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“The first, the fast, and the least reluctant to change will succeed”: Interview with Saskia Van Uffelen, Digital Champion for Belgium, Part 2

Saskia Van Uffelen is the Digital Champion for Belgium, tasked with promoting the benefits of digital society as part of the European Commission’s efforts to ensure every European citizen acquires the digital skills they need to remain productive, employable and enfranchised. After a career encompassing roles at Xerox, Compaq, HP, Arinso, Bull, and Ericsson, she is currently Corporate Vice President for the French group GFI, supervising developments in the Benelux countries. Saskia is also the author of Dare For Tomorrow: Leading, Working, Learning, and Living in a Digital World. You can read the first part of our interview here.

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As Digital Champion, you have an interest in the future of the public library, an institution which is also very dear to my heart. The social changes you’re describing will have an impact on our civic information institutions, and the context they operate in.

You’ve said elsewhere that, “If anything has remained the same in your organisation (culture, processes, eco-systems), it will simply not work anymore. You need to adapt your company and your culture. Adapt or die.”

Are libraries too prone to thinking about what used to work, instead of looking strategically to the future and to forces outside their sector?

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“We have stretched our society to breaking point…These issues are the responsibility of all of us”: Interview with Saskia Van Uffelen, Digital Champion for Belgium Part 1

Saskia Van Uffelen is the Digital Champion for Belgium, tasked with promoting the benefits of digital society as part of the European Commission’s efforts to ensure every European citizen acquires the digital skills they need to remain productive, employable and enfranchised. After a career encompassing roles at Xerox, Compaq, HP, Arinso, Bull, and Ericsson, she is currently Corporate Vice President for the French group GFI, supervising developments in the Benelux countries. Saskia is also the author of Dare For Tomorrow: Leading, Working, Learning, and Living in a Digital World.

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The crises of 2020 have moved many aspects of our lives online, not always without complications. I started by asking what this year looks like from the perspective of Belgium’s Digital Champion.

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Future health: Oslo and the ‘a-ha’ moment

Our University of Oslo scenarios for the future of schools, out this week, surfaced health, and perceptions of health, as a battleground between parents and institutions in the education sector of 2050.

This was an “a-ha” moment for university researchers seeking new issues to explore around the digitalisation of education.

In scenario planning, we don’t aim to predict the future, but rather to generate plausible visions which can usefully inform present-day decision-making.

The future stories we create together are intended to highlight issues and drivers which exist in the present; the future scenario can then be set aside in order to focus on the issue at hand.

For the Oslo education researchers, a world in which parents and institutions warred over children’s health in a heavily-surveilled society – bickering with ‘the algorithm’ even over when to wipe your child’s nose – highlighted the extent to which their research should explore questions of health and wellbeing.

Today, in the Norwegian news, we see a parent-led Facebook group urging the city to close schools while the municipal authorities maintain that there is no reason yet to do so.

The campaigners argue that if businesses are sending staff home, then young children – who are less able to follow guidelines on infection control, like coughing into your elbow – should certainly go back to their families too.

Questions of distance learning, and education via screens and digital devices, may be sharpened by the current pandemic – even for the youngest children.

How will coronavirus affect the way we teach and learn, in the short and long term? Could it impact even the youngest children, irrespective of whether they contract the disease?

Good foresight work can help communities, institutions, and individuals navigate such turbulent and uncertain situations. You can read more about the Oslo education scenarios project here.

New strategic plan for Supreme Court Library Queensland

I’m pleased to announce the publication of one of my recent projects, the new five-year strategic plan for the Supreme Court Library of Queensland, Australia (SCLQ).

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Queen Elizabeth II Courts of Law, Brisbane by Wikipedia user Kgbo – CC BY-SA 3.0

The project, which ran through 2018 and early 2019, comprised research, interviews, survey and workshop design, plus co-writing the finished plan with Supreme Court Librarian David Bratchford.

Researching and writing the plan gave me the opportunity to explore one of the most fascinating and challenging sectors of the information profession – the law.

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Politics and youth participation in the digital age – interview with @PhilippaCollin, pt.2

On the blog this week, I’m joined by Dr. Philippa Collin, a Senior Research Fellow at Western Sydney’s Institute for Culture and Society. Read Part One of this interview with Philippa on political, participation, youth engagement and the digital world here.

How does your role contribute to discussions around youth engagement – and activities which bring young people together with different institutions and organisations?

In the last few years I’ve been involved in large-scale, cross sector engaged research initiatives that bring together young people, industry, community, policy and academic partners to collaboratively identify, design and undertake research on a range of issues such as youth mental health, engagement, employment and online safety.

In this work I’ve been a strong advocate for participatory approaches and thinking about how to be inclusive of young people’s views – from agenda-setting about what gets researched and the terms of inquiry, through to translation and application of research findings. I hope I’ve had some influence!

My most recent project has involved collaborating with eight colleagues at WSU to run a Young and Resilient Living Lab Foundation Project. We brought together 100 participants over five workshops to co-create a community and an agenda for engaged research to inform technology-based strategies to promote the resilience of young people and their communities.

Fo us, resilience should be understood as the capacities to transform the conditions of social life – achieved through ongoing processes of individual and collective receptivity and responsiveness. Read more

Politics and youth participation in the digital age – interview with @PhilippaCollin, pt.1

On the blog this week, I’m joined by Dr. Philippa Collin, a Senior Research Fellow at Western Sydney University’s Institute for Culture and Society. Philippa is a social scientist who previously worked at www.reachout.com, the world’s first online suicide prevention initiative aimed at young people. She researches the role of digital technology and media in young people’s lives, including a focus on political participation, identity, and exclusion.

Portrait of Dr. Philippa Collin
Dr. Philippa Collin

I hear a lot of concern from public institutions about the notion of “making better citizens” right now. Political upsets, fear of ‘fake news’: the powers that be are concerned about the nature of citizenship in the digital age.

Institutions could adapt their structures to meet the needs of people they perceive as “disengaged”. Or, instead of the institution adapting, they might try to help people develop the skills & capacity to engage with existing structures.

What pitfalls are there for organisations seeking to engage the (apparently) disengaged?

I come from a community of scholars who have actively argued against the normative framing of ‘politics’ and ‘participation’. For example ‘politics is about what happens in parliament’ and the ‘good’ forms of participation are to vote, join a party or get involved with set activities or processes – usually all designed by adults! Read more

This Digital Life @usqedu @thewritplatform: Mums, Dogs, and Inmates

The Writing Platform has published my three-part series on the work of Australia’s Digital Life Lab, an academic unit at the University of Southern Queensland exploring our experiences of the digital world.

Part 1 in the series, “Mums“, looks at fake news, parenting decisions, and the information world of new mothers on social media, as researched by social scientist Kate Davis.

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Part 2, “Dogs“, follows researcher Ann Morrison’s investigations into animal-computer interaction, teasing out the implications of a world where animals and digital devices interact without a human intermediary.

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Finally, part 3, “Inmates“, looks at digital engagement in remote communities – principally the Australian prison population – through the lens of two projects: the Shakespeare Prison Project and Digital Life Lab’s ‘Making the Connection’ initiative, led by Professor Helen Farley.

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Find the whole series here at The Writing Platform.