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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Fandom & Information Literacy: Discussion with Ludi Price

Sometimes – often – the most interesting ideas comes from the margins. The status quo is best challenged from the borderlands and fringes, the shadows, anywhere that is overlooked.

In our digitalised world, new ways to create, manage, and share information are emerging all the time. The most innovative and rewarding approaches might not come from the institutions that are longest established, have the best trained staff, or the most substantial budget.

They might come from places where people are driven by passion to experiment with something new.

I recently sat down for a chat with Dr. Ludi Price, China & Inner Asia Librarian at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, and an Honorary Visiting Fellow at City University’s School of Library & Information Science. Her research has focussed on fan information behaviour: the ways in which communities of people with a shared passion for pop culture have managed, organised, and distributed information relating to their fandom.

What can information professionals, the institutions and communities they serve, learn from the way that fans deal with the same challenges and opportunities faced by those who deal with information for a living? Ludi has some answers.

PSICC 2020: Celebrating Public Sector Information Professionals

Next Monday, 28th September 2020 is International Right to Know Day – a global event raising awareness of our rights to access government information, promoting freedom of information as a fundamental of democracy and good governance.

Lake Louise, Banff – Image via Wikipedia, public domain

In Canada, the Public Service Information Community Connection (PSICC), a membership-based social enterprise, supports teams and individuals tasked with meeting public institutions’ obligations around open government, freedom of information and protection of personal data. Their contribution to Right To Know Day 2020 is a weeklong online event addressing issues relevant to public sector information professionals. PSICC’s Dustin Rivers joined me for a brief chat in advance of the event.

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“The Futures You Didn’t See Coming” at CIL & IL Connect Conference, 23rd September

On September 23rd, at 09:30 AM Eastern Time, I’ll be joining Erik Boekesteijn at the online CIL & IL Connect 2020 conference for a quick chat about foresight and futures for information professionals, their institutions, and the communities they serve. Erik is running a daily interview strand with a range of information professionals and their allies as part of the event.

You can see more about the session, “The Futures You Didn’t See Coming”, at the CIL & IL webpage, and find out more about the whole conference in the video below:

After Frederic Laloux: Reinventing Information Organizations

“Something is broken in today’s organizations…The pain we feel is the pain of something old that is dying…while something new is waiting to be born.”

Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations

So much of organizational life is onerous and frustrating these days. For many of us, the day job is characterised by aggravation and a sense of soullessness: a “cold, mechanical approach” which trades agency and responsibility for box-checking accountability and loss of control.

Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations ...

That’s what Frederic Laloux argues in his 2014 book Reinventing Organizations, which explores alternative models for those institutions and businesses willing to dissolve hierarchies and pursue new management paradigms.

Laloux’s case studies include the Dutch healthcare organization Buurtzorg, which delivers community care in leaderless self-organizing teams of ten to twelve nurses, and FAVI, a French automotive supplier which has divided itself into self-managing “mini-factories” whose teams operate without executive management. These businesses and institutions, Laloux argues, resemble living systems more than the organisations of old. They are evolving beyond previous, rigid ways of bringing people together to achieve a goal: the army, the university, the corporation…even the organized crime syndicate.

Laloux presents a practical vision for a world where “no one is the boss of anyone else”, and our organizations begin to take on an organic character.

The approach is intended to work across many sectors, with examples including highly regulated industries such as the energy industry and food processing. I thought I’d spend some time thinking about what it would mean for information organisations – archives, libraries, and other entities which create, store, share, and manage information – to explore Laloux’s approach. What would it take for us to reinvent the Information Organization? Read more

“Nexter” Webinar with Canadian information professionals, August 13th

I’ll be talking with Canada’s Rebecca Jones as part of the “Nexter” webinar series next month.

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We’ll be discussing questions of leadership for information professionals in these times of strategic uncertainty. How do we rethink community access to information, knowledge, and culture through the COVID era and beyond?
 

Psychodynamic literacy? New column for Information Professional

“Group dynamics are ‘like an iceberg – you see some of the relationship on the surface and then there is also everything beneath the water. There are the explicit, seen, and formal aspects; then all that is implicit, unseen, unspoken, and even unconscious.'”

The second instalment of “Scripturient”, my new quarterly column for Information Professional magazine, is out now.

Iceberg_in_the_Arctic_with_its_underside_exposed
Iceberg in the Arctic, by Wikipedia user AWeith – CC BY-SA 4.0

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?

The latest instalment explores questions of “psychodynamic literacy”. If we were better at reading the forces that shape our relationships, could we rewrite them to get better, happier outcomes?

I talked to two expert practitioners, a leadership coach and a mediator, to find out more. Find out what they had to say in the article (PDF download).

Getting Your Head Around Post-Normal Science

Something of a long read on the blog today. I first came across Jerome Ravetz’s work in his 2011 piece on feral futures co-written with Rafael Ramírez in the journal Futures. In that piece, the authors argue that complex, uncertain issues such as environmental disasters can be made worse by conventional risk-based thinking. I think through some of the ways in which this is important for us to consider in 2020 in this blog, “Our feral future: working on the crises you did(n’t) see coming.

I find Ravetz’s approach thought-provoking, pragmatic, and deeply relevant to the present moment. It attends to questions of uncertainty and emphasises that science itself is situated within complex social, political, cultural, and economic contexts. Especially when we find ourselves being told that, for example, decisions on quarantine and lockdown measures are being “guided by the science” under contested circumstances, it’s worth getting your head around the idea of “post-normal science.”

Today, I want to go through some of the key points articulated in Ravetz’s 2006 No-Nonsense Guide to Science and the updated 2020 version of his landmark 1993 essay with Silvio O. Funtowicz, “Science for the Post-Normal Age“. Check those texts out, if you want to go deeper.

Defenders of the Truth
Climate Marchers, by Wikipedia user Mark Dixon CC BY-SA 2.0

Post-normal science is a way of rethinking science for situations – and eras – in which facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, the stakes are high, and decisions are urgent. It recognises that the social and political dimensions of science cannot be sidelined, isolated, or ignored.

The increasingly complex systems of today’s world are threatened by environmental catastrophe, pollution, and other incidents, like the COVID-19 outbreak, which are exacerbated by the technologies sustaining our way of life.

Science must therefore find new ways to cope with contradiction, uncertainty, and an ever-wider political conversation featuring a wide range of perspectives. It must now address the problems of a global system which itself was based on science.

Why “post-normal”?
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