How literature review is changing my own mindset and perspective

Diving deep in to the literature of specific topics and on narrowly focused subject matter has been surprisingly pleasurable. And unexpected. The presence of the blog as an accompaniment is like a condiment for food for thought. In the month since I began to take blogging again seriously, even with the struggles to write down my thoughts and feelings at the start, I have found a flow, even if its just a trickle right now.

At some point, my writing shifted from the introspective navel gazing inspired by the magic of the Kalevala towards more academic words reflecting the work I was doing in parallel in the real world. And though I would not call the process smooth nor effortless, I cannot deny that being able to come on here and ponder ‘stuff’ has made a difference. To my overall sense of wellbeing, providing a sense that some sort of deep and unrecognized healing was taking place, even if I was not able to identify or articulate it.

In the past ten days alone, I have submitted one abstract for an upcoming conference that I’m rather pleased with; discovered that a literature review on the blog was rather well received and ended up in my scholar profile; and, my utilization of the blog format as a tool to support my dissertation research and doctoral study is constantly being iterated and refined as I learn to leverage the flexibility to customize it for my needs.

In the last two working days, I have experienced little sparks of joy that led me to write this here today. These ‘joy sparks’ occurred when the reading and review of literature I was doing converged with the thinking and talking I was doing with friends & relatives – I’ve been on voice & video calls with Cotonou in francophone West Africa, Nairobi in anglophone East Africa, rural Wales, urban Berlin, unrecognized Hargeisa on the Horn of Africa, and good old Wageningen in The Netherlands in less than a week. Oh, I forgot Bonn and New Delhi.

As my reading and writing progressed on the blog, I found this being reflected in my conversations – I was ideating more deeply and conceptualizing with an awareness of academe in addition to professional practice. And particularly memorable sparks of joy were when at least three different journal article abstract concepts fell into place in the magic of the words being exchanged. There was a sweetness in the serendipity of happenstance that occurred regardless of whether my conversationalist was into academia or not, and unconnected to whether we’d co-author or not.

My brain was sparking with ideas derived from new lenses by which to reflect on old work, and a fresh perspective on the past decade’s body of research and data which had long had me bored by the sameness of the old arguments. I had originally thought I’d write a screed on how literature review was transforming my perspective of the informal economy and the vegetable vendors I’d been working with last year.

That is worth noting down – I do not feel trapped by the old development research arguments on the viability of the informal sector in developing countries, nor do I feel the need to debate the old arguments whether the mama mbogas of Nairobi were vulnerable and marginalized or empowered agents of their own economic stability. Key to this transformed worldview is a special issue of the Global Strategy Journal (2017) that focused on Africa. Simply reading the way the rigorously shortlisted journal articles addressed the African business and industrial context was a revelation and opened whole new doors to the way I would reframe my own work.

An example is Manning, Kannothra & Wissman-Weber’s paper (2017) which begins their abstract with the sentences:

As a latecomer economy, Africa faces persistent difficulties with catching up in global markets. This study examines the strategic potential of community-based hybrid models, which balance market profitability with social impact in local communities.

Shorn of the socially conscious language of development and impact, they frame the very same topic in a way that repositions African business challenges in globally strategic way. This reframing and language also touches upon my recent rant on taxonomy and its implications for the way we approach design and innovation for the continent’s economic ecosystems.

I was immediately moved to reframe the findings from my own recent dataset on the village economy in such an internationally relevant manner, feeling empowered thereafter that I’d found a way out of the gravity well of the language of saviourdom that dominates the discourse. I do not have to push the envelope anymore if I can just chuck it in the recycle bin and leapfrog into a whole new context.

Reference:

Manning, S., Kannothra, C. G., & Wissman‐Weber, N. K. (2017). The strategic potential of community‐based hybrid models: The case of global business services in Africa. Global Strategy Journal, 7(1), 125-149.

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Book Review: The graphic novel as a format for visual sensemaking and the change poets of ‘Unrig’

My local library – part of the Helsinki City system – had this book on display yesterday among the handful of English language books accessible for browsing within the current constraints of the pandemic. I devoured it in one sitting.

As I wrote in a private paid-for social media platform where I’m part of the founding membership, it was a lucid and clear explanation of the way the participatory democracy system has faced challenges due to the impact and influence of money. Author Daniel G. Newman has the uncanny ability to explain complicated concepts that I was wholly unaware of from history and government in a few brief sentences which George O’Connor illustrates in a lowkey manner using a subdued yet aesthetically sensible palette.

In light of recent thinking and writing on KE Weick’s works on sensemaking and change in organizations, and my own explorations of visual sensemaking tools, I cannot help but connect the two dots in order to frame this graphic novel as a exemplar of high art. Here’s an example of their work that succinctly draws the historical development of the electoral college – something I was completely unfamiliar with – in a manner that clearly explains the what, why, and how of the current day system.Newman strips the extraneous from his narrative – the social media platforms and their role & impact for example – yet manages to outline the underlying patterns and framework of the system so well that one can easily see the role played by digital technologies, without them ever being mentioned.

I hope that someone will bring this book to the notice of Weick and his sensibilities regarding the role of explicit words and sensemaking as a means to effect positive beneficial transformation of human organizations are stirred enough to think of the graphic novel format as the tool for change poets of this decade.

Ample supplementary research exists to provide evidence that people do not read long screeds as they used to and that small screens are the most popular delivery mechanism. For the young and for those who aren’t as comfortable reading corporate jargon or academic papers – those who probably need the knowledge contained in this book the most – this format is a powerful visual tool for sensemaking and thinking about action.

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The Magic of Sensemaking

Really, there’s no other way to say this but Weick (Weick, 2011) here is clearly struggling to express in words his song of magic that he’s perceived in the decades spent in sensemaking and its power.

After all, if indeed the Kalevala highlights the core aspect of Finnish magic from the time before writing, when the word for writing was patternmaking, then one cannot help but arrive at the conclusion – not a leap without looking, mind you – but the clearly demarcated path from ‘knower’ – the shaman, the tietaja – whose power lay bound up in his ability to know the origins of things and thus chant magical incantations leading to change and transformation based on this knowledge. What would this magical power be without the seer’s inner eye and an innate gift for sensemaking in the form of evocative narratives – the runot – the word song of the Finnish peoples?

Did not the powerful words of the Kalevala’s magic unfreeze language and meaning in word songs for me almost exactly one month ago when I began to struggle with written words again as a way to make sense of chaos and confusion characterized by silence?

Who then is the change agent and who the poet in this transformation journey?

Clearly, Weick inspired change agents in stodgy academic journals and organizations alike with his words. And I am not the first to use the word shaman in this context. Waddock (2015) goes as far as to frame sensemaking in the ancient language of magic and healing, medicine men and women, the shaman or the witchdoctor, the label is immaterial. I quote her below the image:

“If we hope to create Large System Change (LSC) and are thinking about it holistically, then I strongly believe that focus needs to be paid to the memes that shape perceptions of reality, beliefs, values, and norms, and ultimately behaviours. In this foundational change context, there is a need for some people to assume the role of shaman – and in particular the intellectual shaman who provides new and compelling sensemaking (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005) that allows those perceptions, beliefs, and ultimately behaviours to change. Intellectual (and other types of) shamans, I believe, serve in this capacity through the sensemaking role of the shaman in generating and (re-)shaping memes. (Waddock, 2015)
[…]
“I argue that as academics who wish to foster a better (healed) world in one way or another, we can and need to take on the three central roles of the shaman: healer, connector, and sensemaker (Egri & Frost,1991; Frost & Egri,1994; Waddock, 2015).

Here, however, I want to argue in the context of LSC, the role of the sensemaker becomes a primary one, since it is sensemaking that constructs, changes, or reshapes memes that is core to whether a system changes in the desired direction. (Waddock, 2015)

I came to these reflections – writings on thinking and sensing/feelings – almost immediately in the search for literature linking agency and empowerment to sensemaking. I can only say the serendipity of the convergence of my own journey on this blog with the literature I have literally stumbled over is in its own way, a form of word magic. I will review the more pragmatic papers in another post, and let the poets and the mystics and magic remain standing still for a moment here.

 

References:
Maitlis, S. and Christianson, M., 2014. Sensemaking in organizations: Taking stock and moving forward. Academy of Management Annals, 8(1), pp.57-125.

Vanderlinden, J.P., Baztan, J., Chouinard, O., Cordier, M., Da Cunha, C., Huctin, J.M., Kane, A., Kennedy, G., Nikulkina, I., Shadrin, V. , Surette, C., Thiaw, D., and Thomson, K., 2020. Meaning in the face of changing climate risks: Connecting agency, sensemaking and narratives of change through transdisciplinary research. Climate Risk Management, 29, p.100224.

Waddock, S.. 2015. Reflections: Intellectual shamans, sensemaking, and memes in large system change. Journal of Change Management, 15(4), 259-273.

Weick, K. E., 2011. Reflections: Change agents as change poets–On reconnecting flux and hunches. Journal of Change Management, 11(1), 7-20.

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Vanishing Point

Or, does one step outside of the system in its entirety in order to discover one’s humanity?

What is the system that threatens you the most?

Which system oppresses you?

Is it possible to extricate oneself from such systems entirely?

Or one must make do with what one can to shield oneself from such systems?

I recognized my rebellion today.

I found myself telling a friend with whom I had scheduled a Skype call to use email to let me know she was running late or having network issues connecting from Cotonou, and not a message sent via a social media platform as has been our long established habit in recent years.

I said I was avoiding dark patterns and persuasive design in order to conserve my cognitive capacity for my doctoral study. That the numbed down Pavlovian response to intermittent dopamine hits designed to neurally create addiction to the attention economy’s biggest players’ leaderboards on invested screen time was a mindless way of life I wanted to leave behind in the past.

For the now, in answer to Joseph Campbell’s question, my answer is not to consider any of the more ambiguous and amorphous systems but to ponder the socio-technical one currently giving form to our global zeitgest online, this shared space of the internetworked world wide web of humanity dominated by fast moving content and shaped by machines and algorithms.

In which case, the only way to play is to step out. This is a system designed to flatten you while it steals your humanity to power its mighty engines.

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Digitalization’s discontents and the meaning of life

I was musing on the concept of grand purposes last night, and how the concept of finding meaning in one’s life work tends to be correlated with world changing scale.

What if it wasn’t so anymore?

Sitting here isolated by externally imposed constraints restricting movement and in person meetings, I got to wondering how I would remember to human again – the daily little interactions and acts and thoughts that all work together to build and maintain the unseen qualities of trust and compassion and caring and concern and sympathy.

A quick search on challenges to remote user research constrained by covid brought up only one relevant piece of writing – on compassion in crisis by Marta Zarzycka. Lots of material out there on the technicalities of conducting remote user research accompanied by the practicalities, but do none dare touch the loss of humanity that continuous screen to screen interaction brings? Or, worse, do none notice it or consider it important – with implications for generation gaps or cultural & societal ones.

How do you ‘read’ the room you’re entering in the context of zoom rooms? Where is the energy generated by the brainstorming session or hands on design workshop? As the human animal, we are wandering around blind without the use of half our senses – smell, body language, reading the energy of the room through our skin and the hair at the back of our necks.

If so, then what is the future of the grand projects for transforming quality of life for the greater good? The meaningful ones that bring so much purpose to the teams of social impact/entrepreneur/visionary/dreamers etc? Technology is already demonstrating to us how well programmable we are and how easily we can be roused by simple algorithms.

If the grand challenge and the big idea – the ones that have long been considered to be at the scale worth giving life meaning – are better implemented by a machine, then what is the purpose of a life lived at human scale?

 

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Have I found my new focal length?

When I picked up the metaphorical pen again last month, here on this blog, after almost a decade of silence, I discovered in the course of my writing that I must find a way to change the focal length of my mind’s eye. As I wrote on March 20th, only my second post in the new series:

That this orientation on far horizons of time, rather than space, has come to serve its purpose, and that a new orientation was now required for this later stage of my life.

While part of this transformation journey at this age has to do with coming to terms with the ending of a long phase of choosing to embrace liminality as the constant lived in experience, I cannot deny that this effort in itself is its own form of liminal space – defined as that between what is over and what is not yet. I wrote:

…without commitment, it would not be possible to gain clarity much less figure out where exactly to focus. That is, one can already see that the need to shorten focal length of my mind’s eye requires a commitment to the distance from the lenses based on which to calculate the curvature of the new lens.

Late last night, in that sleepless zone, it came to me that perhaps I had found the new distance for my focal length. On the necessary commitment required to gain clarity and focus, I have long turned to EM Forster’s words:

” … is not a matter of contract – that is the main difference between the world of personal relationships and the world of business relationships. It is a matter for the heart, which signs no documents.

And, if, going forward, matters are for the heart to decide, then one’s mind’s eye must necessarily then invert its viewpoint entirely, not simply change its focal length. That is, one must first look within, as I have been doing – hesitantly and with great effort – and then, and only then, turn one’s gaze outward to the world outside, contemplating the view from the inner directed perspective rather than being driven by the far sight that is by nature always externally focused, pulling us along towards the intensity of its visions of an emerging future.

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The fast moving river flowing unseen beneath still waters

I do not yet have all the words to craft an articulation of the movement I can sense occurring beneath the surface of my thinking and feeling. But happening it is, and so I play the keyboard tonight in hopes of picking up the faint sounds of the music I haven’t given up looking for in the magic of the word song.

I must not lose sight of the more profound albeit subtler discoveries I have been making through the introspection originally inspired by reading the Kalevala. Recent days have seen long hours immersed in study. Recent thinking and writing full of academic references and intellectual analysis.

Having arrived at a point where I can put my scholar’s pen down for a few days, I have been reminded of my own self’s journey which, when begun, had led to the opening of long lost doors to more thoughtful reflection and pondering before writing.

There is a deeper world than this that you don’t understand
There is a deeper world that this tugging at your hand
Every ripple on the ocean
Every leaf on every tree
Every sand dune in the desert
Every power we never see
There is a deeper wave than this, swelling in the world
There is a deeper wave than this, listen to me girl ~ Sting

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Do digital lyrics convey the magic?

One of the questions being raised in social conversations – over digital means – with friends in different countries is whether the acceleration of digitalization brought about by the pandemic’s constraints might not, in fact, be influencing those of us of a certain age to think like Luddites. This sentence could probably have been framed better but I’m learning as I write to search for magic and music that its the flow that matters more than the perfection of the craft. Let it be, as Paul sang Mary said to him.

Until now the digital divide has been categorized as the Haves and the Have Nots, with the latter being lower income less literate peoples of the global South without infrastructure and systems to affordably access technology – particularly Information and Communication Technology (ICT).

Today I wonder whether we’ll see the emergence in the future of a different flavour of digital divide, with the rise of the Want Nots. Or the So Far and No Furthers.

That is, where do we draw the line to push back on the encroaching digitalization of our humanity? Assumptions – explicit and implicit – begin with the premise that this is an inevitable trend and it has no end.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. ~ Arthur C. Clarke

Is this the magic I want to manifest, asks the aging engineer who has worked hard to make things in the real world for all his life?

Is magic the search for manipulation and control of humanity, asks the technologist a generation younger?

Can we pause and ask if this is the only one way to “progress” says the grandmother who picked up a digital brush 40 years ago?

The people beginning to question the technological dominance of human are not those who have had little experience of technology or less exposure to digitalization. In fact, for most of them these questions arise after the swamping of their daily life with nothing but digital tools and ICT in all shapes and forms.

As life long innovators and early adopters, they better than most are aware of recent developments and the directions of research. Perhaps its this greater awareness that has caused them to pause and question where things are going so fast that one has not had a chance to catch breath nor to ask the questions that need to be answered. I have seen questions raised in all fora and in numerous articles, blogs, and tweets. What I haven’t seen are any real answers.

Maybe then Opt-Out will come to mean more than just unchecking the radio button for a newsletter.

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Finding the magic of word song in the literature of change agents: Weick’s change poets

The minute I set off on a path to unknown discovery, I came across Weick’s reflections on change poetry. Given that I picked up my metaphorical pen to write again after a decade or more of constricted silence after being inspired by the magic of word song – the runot of Finland’s Kalevala. Simplistically put, the Finnish concept of magic takes the form of incantations based on one’s deep knowledge of the origin of things, and such shamans have been known as Tietäjä – literally ‘knower’.

These elements of the foundation of the Kalevala epic captured my trapped throat, and encouraged me to begin writing out thoughts and emotions, putting them into words, learning to articulate again and aspiring to craftmanship. That healing journey opened up long blocked songs of words in the form of writing freely – I called it the sluggish thaw that begins to move the long frozen waters of a deep and dark winter when warmed by the sun in the spring. It is no wonder then that as I begin this long period of writing my dissertation research that Weick’s paper should resonate so well with my beginnings.

To quote Weick’s 2011 “Change Agents as Change Poets“:

The core insight that is the foundation for the poet’s work is straightforward: perception prompts our thought, and thought in turn enriches our perception. The more we see, the more we think; while the more we think, the more we see in our immediate experiences, and the greater grows the detail and the more significant the articulateness of our perception. (James, 1996, pp. 108–109)

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Theoretical background for contextualizing User Agency in Participatory Processes

Scandinavian participatory design practices are not distinguished by particular methods but rather by political commitments to societal concerns and relationships with participating users and communities. Pelle Ehn writes:`In the interest of emancipation, we deliberately made the choice of siding with workers and their organisations, supporting the development of their resources for a change towards democracy at work…'[1993, p.47]. ~ Judith Gregory (2003)

While the evolutionary trajectory of the Scandinavian tradition and approach has emerged from the formal economy’s work places, and the concerns of labour rather than owner/managers; I do not think it a stretch to extrapolate the fundamental values and underpinning philosophy that distinguishes it from other design traditions to the context and conditions of the operating environment of the informal trade ecosystem, as mapped and studied in east Africa.

The concerns of emancipation and agency are rather more critical than less in these focus areas. Questions may arise on whether the informal market woman or vegetable vendor in Nairobi’s slums experiences the same oppression that labour did from management – the original drivers for Scandinavian researchers in their development of the basics of their design and research practices. After all, is she not the free agent of her own trade?

The easy answer is that a moment’s reflection will show that perhaps her oppression is vastly different but not dissimilar in the nature of its ability to disempower and take away decisionmaking and choice in the course of her efforts to improve not the quality of her working conditions but also the quality of life. And, that her expertise in her own experience has never been recognized, nor her fulltime occupation as a sourcer and supplier of fresh produce.

From the perspective of the Scandinavian tradition (Bodker & Kyng, 2018) I am clearly embracing its first principles by choosing to side with her rights to recognition and agency, in my role of designer and researcher. It is from this position that I will now explore further the role of agency of the participant in the process, and how to contextualize the literature for the vastly different operating environment in which I implemented my own project last year.

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