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Decision-making aids

Comprehensible Policy-making: Guiding Metaphors and Configuring Choices (Part I) (Part #4)

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Accessibility of information as the key to decision-making is increasingly suspect as an assumption, because of the problems of information overload. Thus John Michon (1984) expresses the future challenge as 'how to connect a library with a mind'. For him: 'The problem is located in the nature of internal representations....the librarian, and more' generally the information scientist, should...assume the role of experts on access structures. On the basis of deep understanding of representations in general and of the formal properties of knowledge as such, they should be able to design, build and manage access structures, that is procedures and equipment for interpreting knowledge such that a 'graceful interaction' between the cognitive environment and the user's cognitive processes is made possible...we shall have to concentrate on the accessibility of knowledge, rather than on the management and availability of symbols....The only way of connecting a library with a mind is to provide inputs so structured that they are maximally compatible with representations already held by the user.' It is questionable whether the conventional decision-making aids are adequate to this challenge.

3.1 Conventional decision-making aids

(a) Graphic imagery: This ranges from battle plans (traditionally drawn in sand), through 'back-of-envelope' schematics and 'business graphics' (bar and pie charts, tables, graphs, etc), to sophisticated slide shows, video presentations, and physical models. They have proved highly desirable, if not essential, to adaptive decision-making (Group A). Their weakness would seem to lie in their limited capacity to represent radically new insights, and especially dynamic situations, unless these are an extrapolation from existing structures. They might be described as a porthole onto a limited portion of reality.

(b) Mathematical models: Much favoured by econometricians, and extended through the analysis of systems dynamics, these too have proved of great value in adaptive decision-making, especially when the number of variables is large. Their weakness would seem to lie in their limited capacity to process non-quantitative information characteristic of innovative decision-making (Group D) in a useful manner, and to render insights comprehensible to non-initiates. There is also the question of competition between models supposedly in response to the same information.

(c) Conferencing / Situation rooms: The interaction between experts and policy-makers has to some extent been facilitated by conferencing environments, whether local or geographically dispersed. Both graphic imagery and mathematical models can be incorporated into this process. Cost factors aside, their weakness would seem to lie in their limited ability to provide a matrix for the emergence and development of new ideas and gestalts, especiallythose characterized by facets with a complex relationship to one another. There is a sense in which they reinforce the illusion of being 'on top of' a situation, whilst at the same time failing to produce innovative responses to it.

3.2 Emerging decision-making aids

(a) Mental maps / Mind mapping:

Increasing attention has been accorded to mind maps as part of the process of creative reframing of a situation in which decisions are called for (Buzan, 1977; Russell, 1979). Through such maps decision-makers (re)configure the set of categories that they perceive as relevant to encompassing the situation with which they are confronted. An advantage over the above approaches is the shift from linear to non-linear configurations, from prioritized brainstorming lists to a network of co-existing categories. Such maps can themselves be massaged into memorable forms which focus attention on critical issues whilst preserving the topology of the network. A weakness at this point in time is the failure to develop computer software to facilitate the elaboration and manipulation of such maps -- unless they are either of very limited size and/or are hierarchically 'anchored' to some central category.

There is little concern with the need to render such maps widely comprehensible -- other than in such isolated circumstances as for bus and subway networks. Thus, although technically trivial, no software is available to elaborate and manipulate the maps which could be generated from the data on the 13,000 perceived 'world problems' and their 80,000 relationships as documented by the Union of International Associations in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (1991), or from the data on the 26,000 international organizations and their 60,000 relationships in the Yearbook of International Organizations (1991). Indeed it has even proved impossible to maintain an organization chart of the United Nations system, or of many government ministerial systems for that matter. One possible reason for this failure is that it leads to an intolerable level of transparency at a time when most initiatives can only successfully develop under the cover of a restricted flow of information.

The development of hypertext software techniques (notably as a consequence of the Apple Hypercard) offers a way of embedding a mind map in a data base. Little effort has however been made to render the embedded map comprehensible in graphic terms, since the user explores the hypertext pathways rather like a rat exploring a maze, without every gaining an overview. A notable exception to this is detailed by Robert Horn (1989) in a discussion of hypertext mapping.

(b) Metaphor:

Metaphor and politics:
The language of political inquiry would seem to be inescapably metaphorical. 'Metaphor is essential to political inquiry, because it permits us to extend our knowledge from our familiar world to a region that is not open to immediate experience....Metaphor is necessary to political knowledge precisely because the meaning or reality of the political world transcends what is open to observation' (Miller, 1979). (An international symposium on 'Political Metaphors in Historical Perspective' was organized in Naples in June 1991.) Especially with the constraints of media communication, politicians in particular resort extensively to the use of metaphor as a means of explaining complex policies, whether to their peers or to their constituencies. Thus, for example, in June 1991 those involved in the EEC Commission efforts to articulate the new treaty details for European economic and political union were clarifying alternatives using code words including 'pillars', 'hats', 'temples', 'trees' and 'ivy'. The pillars were separate chapters of the treaty, the hat was the prologue creating a European union embracing three pillars. The alternatives were described in a 'temple-versus-trees' debate in which the Commission argued that the treaty should look more like a 'tree trunk with branches' than a 'shaky temple supported by pillars'. Others criticized a revision as 'pillars covered in ivy', namely with largely cosmetic change's (Independent, 17 June 1991).

Metaphor and media:
The extent to which policy-making is now media driven, or led, has been widely remarked. Policies are, to some extent at least, defined and epitomized for the public through 'photo opportunities' and 'sound bites'. If a policy cannot be articulated successfully through the media, increasingly it can only be implemented covertly.

Metaphor in international organizations:
Within the corporate world, much use is made of military, sporting and sexual metaphors in daily management language (whether with or without presidential expletives) to articulate tactics and strategy: 'eliminating' the opposition, 'target' audiences, 'ammunition' for advertising 'campaigns', 'keeping the ball in play', 'running with the ball', and the like. Much of this language has been taken over by international organizations where it is especially ironic to find the 'mobilization' of public opinion with the use of 'ammunition' in 'campaigns' with 'target audiences' to promote peace and cooperation.

Metaphor and policy:
Aggressive use of metaphor is widely used to stigmatize the policies of opponents. Thus Boris Yeltsin attacked Michael Gorbachov's proposals as 'an attempt to marry a hedgehog to a snake'. Such useof metaphor probably dates back to the origin of politics and policy-making. Advisors and experts have long been obliged to make use of metaphor to communicate the intricacies of emerging options to their patrons, who may even be content to see the world in such metaphoric terms.

Metaphor and comprehension:
Metaphor has however always been viewed with disdain by academics, administrators of programs, and documentalists, even when they find themselves obliged to use it. It is seen as implying intellectual sloppiness, an inability to be rigorous, and even basic incompetence. This perception is increasingly challenged by those exploring the cognitive role of metaphor, namely the fundamental manner in which metaphor enables and conditions most thought processes (Lakoff, 1987). Of immediate relevance, this is seen in the root metaphors governing different styles of organization (Morgan, 1986) and management (Belbin, 1981; Handy, 1979). From this perspective metaphor provides the patterning by which categories emerge and are organized. This has always been relatively clear to those engaged in any form of creative activity, whether artists, advertisement designers, educators or fundamental physicists. As Anne Buttimer (1982) notes: 'Metaphor, it has been claimed, touches a deeper level of understanding than 'paradigm', for it points to the process of learning and discovery -- to those analogical leaps from the familiar to the unfamiliar which rally imagination and emotion as well as intellect.'

Metaphor and the martial arts:
It is appropriate to note the manner in which Japanese management language is currently influenced by such classical texts as The Book of Five Rings (Miyamoto Musashi, 1982 tr) which is a treatise on swordsmanship expressed in poetic metaphor. It may be argued that whereas Japanese strategy is also articulated through military and sporting metaphors, these are more subtle and less mechanistic than those of the West -- leading to subtler and more sophisticated strategies in which the principles of flower arrangement (ikebana) and warfare are mutually reinforcing. A study by a political scientist of the influence of chess- and go-based strategic thinking on the USA and Vientnamese respectively, in the Vietnam conflict, reflects such differences. Such richer metaphors might naturally be expected to permit the credible articulation of more complex policies. Along these lines, well documented counter-intuitive approaches have been developed as 'paradoxical strategies' by a number of psychotherapists (Seltzer, 1986). How might the policies of sustainable development be approached in the light of metaphors from the 'martial arts'?

Metaphor as a language of appropriateness:
These examples highlight the important distinction between isolated metaphors of essentially ephemeral value (the hedgehog/snake case) and the extensive use over time of a pattern of metaphors -- a rich metaphoric 'language' (as with the use of military metaphors in business). The first are primarily of rhetoric value in contrast to the fundamental cognitive influence of the second.

The authors most closely associated with the exploration of the cognitive role of metaphor are George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980), notably in their collective work on Metaphors We Live By. The processes of categorization are now being shown to involve metaphor at the most fundamental level, implying an organization of knowledge by cognitive models. Thus the 'conduit' metaphor, implicit in much discussion about communication, maps knowledge about conveying objects in containers onto an understanding of communications as conveying ideas in words. As with other memorable metaphors, the 'container' metaphor, implying a boundary distinguishing an interior from an exterior, defines the most basic distinction between 'in' and 'out', notably in transactions between organizations and economic sectors. The container schema is inherently meaningful to people by virtue of their bodily experience. It is through that bodily experience that the schema has a meaningful configuration. Whilst this may be relatively obvious in dealing with physical concepts, the mode of understanding is also carried over to the understanding of abstract concepts. It thus conditions ability to elaborate and comprehend complex structures and policies. The challenge is to discover how to overcome the habitual cognitive constraints implied by these insights, especially as they effect the capacity to formulate more appropriate, and possibly counter-intuitive, policies.

Donald Schon (1979) has most closely linked this perspective to the appropriate formulation of (and response to) social problems in policy-making: 'the framing of problems often depends upon metaphors underlying the stories which generate problem setting and set the direction of problem solving'. He explores the case of slum housing, contrasting the use of slums as a 'blight' (implying remedies based on medical metaphors, including 'surgery') with slums as a 'natural community' (implying the need to enhance the life of that community). Such insights have been further explored by Judge (1991).

Oscar Nudler (1988) has explored the use of metaphor as applied to conflicts between worldviews or frames, namely the sets of 'assumptions or principles which enable us to structure situations and, by the same token, make them real for us'. He concludes that: 'Metaphor dialogue opens the possibility of fully profiting from the heuristic potentiality of metaphors as 'condensed' forms of thought, while at the same time helping to overcome the limitation imposed on our vision by our own preferred metaphor.'

Whether because of the media constraints experienced by politicians, or in the light of the fundamental cognitive role of metaphor, it would appear that there is a strong case for exploring metaphor as a decision-making resource.The challenge is to discover whether judicious selection and design of metaphor can be used to uncover and articulate more appropriate strategies and options for institutional organization. Above all, perhaps, is the question of whether existing strategic options are not emerging because of the widespread use of inadequate, simplistic metaphors (including nuclear 'shields' and 'umbrellas') -- rendering the long-term success of such options quite dubious.

(c) Visual metaphors:

A policy of adequate complexity may pose the same problems of comprehension as a spiral staircase when explained through words alone. By the time the explanation is complete the audience is bewildered if not alienated. A visual presentation ('worth a thousand words') instantly clarifies the simple elegance of the concept, subsuming its necessary complexity. The vital importance of the latter dimensions to those who mould the major policy options through various processes of governance has been strongly emphasized by Harold Lasswell (1968): 'Why do we put so much emphasis on audio-visual means of portraying goal, trend, condition, projection, and alternative? Partly because so many valuable participants in decision-making have dramatizing imaginations. They are not enamoured of numbers or of analytic abstractions. They are at their best in deliberations that encourage contextuality by a varied repertory of means and where an immediate sense of time, space and figure is retained'. The lack of any need for visual aids to explain sustainable development policies suggests that they may be of a level of complexity inadequate to the challenge.

The great developments in computer hardware and software for the generation and manipulation of graphic images have been principally applied to special media effects (notably advertising clips and science fiction movies), to computer-aided design (architecture, engineering, etc), and to representations of systems (process control, chemical molecules, physical systems). No effort has yet been made to use techniques of this sophistication to represent social processes in all their complexity as an aid to more appropriate forms of decision-making. These techniques have become so sophisticated that they can now generate comprehensible visual representations of dynamic structures which could not exist under the laws governing physical space. They are also used to enable people to experience, explore and generate 'virtual realities' (Helsel, 1990) -- if only as a leisure experience (currently recognized as the major market for which such products are being developed).

It is quite possible that the more readily accessible metaphors may themselves be of insufficient richness to encompass the complexity of processes on which decisions are called for at this time. Or if they are rich enough, in a period of increasing functional illiteracy, they may be essentially incomprehensible to the constituencies from which mandates for new strategies are sought. There is therefore some probability that the metaphors required to sustain the conceptual frameworks for new strategic options may only be expressible through dynamic visual forms generated by the computer techniques noted above. It would be deplorable if techniques of great value to new forms of decision-making were only developed for (and accepted in) video parlours and home entertainment especially favoured by the functionally illiterate -- as has already been the case.

(d) Embedding data in images:

The task of managing and accessing large information spaces is one of large scale cognition. Currently 'scientific visualization' allows scientists to make sense out of intellectually large data collections by reducing them to graphic form in such a way that human perception can detect patterns revealing underlying structure (Herdeg, 1974; Miller, 1986). They succeed by exploiting the human perceptual system, using animation and visualization to stimulate cognitive recognition of patterns in the data. Equivalent techniques of 'information visualization' are currently being developed to display structural relationships and context that would be more difficult to detect by individual retrieval requests (Furnas, 1986; Fairchild, 1988; Card et al, 1991). They respond to the difficulty of comprehending a complex structure. These visualizations of 'cone trees' and 'cam trees' (Robertson et al, 1990) are based on animated 3D visualization of hierarchy. Other examples of structural browsers are the 'perspective wall' and the 'data sculpture' (Mackinlay et al, 1991), both of which allow the user to explore a data structure at what ever level of detail avoids a loss of a a sense of context. It is unfortunate that these exciting techniques assume the hierarchical organization of the data, and are effectively trapped by the low-order geometrical metaphors (see below) through which the approach is articulated (cf 'cone', 'wall'). Part of the challenge of 'policy visualization' is that many significant systemic relationships are not hierarchically structured, as is evident from the above-mentioned data of the Union of International Associations (1991) on international organizations and world problems.

It has long been recognized that some of the most complex problems of process control, call for a totally new way of presenting hard data to the human brain. Instead of a multiplicity of dials and graphs, use needs to be made of the full range of visual images (landscapes, animals, imaginary objects) as vehicles onto which to project or hang complex patterns of data so that they can be more readily comprehended. Thus when the 'wind' agitates a 'tree' on a 'landscape' image, a particular control action may be called for. Much larger amounts of data can becompressed into such images (which may also be used as an interface to hierarchically organized information).

Recalling Douglas Engelbart's early vision (1962), this suggests the need to explore how policy makers can embed their insights into comprehensible images, notably landscapes providing continuity between contrasting epistemological domains. In particular it suggests the possibility that the collective task of a policy conference might also be perceived in terms of 'sculpting' such an image -- with every conceptual contribution leading to a modification or articulation of it. (Note the current use of 'crafting' a proposal). This calls for a very special marriage between conceptual contributions and image processing (currently seen in embryonic form in desktop dialogues between computer-aided graphic designers and their clients). Of special interest, in the light of the above-mentioned techniques, is the possibility that the insights of some policy conferences could only be effectively carried by dynamic imagery, and especially by imagery governed by other rules than those of the physical world (as is the case with some computer generated imagery). It is clear that computer image manipulation skills are well developed, but much needs to be done to determine how to 'hang' data on the images such that changes to the data modify the image, and changes to the image modify the data.

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