Category Archives: Organizational Planning & Strategy

Real Life Applications of Cognitive Linguistics

Shopping's Goat...

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I have said it before and I will say it again: ANYTHING that requires thought benefits from a cognitive linguistic perspective.

We use language to help in making sense of the world, this goes for broad and general topics as well as specific expert domains; language is the medium of meaning, wherever that meaning occurs.

The idea I use in my professional life as an organizational culture planner is to use cognitive science to make sense out of the systems of thought expressed in the routine tasks of the organization and to see how they are described through culture in the form of business practices and personnel behaviors.  If I can see how thought and culture relate via language structures (i.e., conceptual metaphors, conceptual blends, force-dynamics, attention, figure-ground relations, et cetera), then I can help grow organizational culture from an informed perspective.

In BUSINESS:

If you take the communication produced in an average business meeting, break it up into sections that identify the underlying conceptual metaphors, see who communicates what message, and trace the outcomes of the meeting, you can start to get a feel for what drives the organization.

In DESIGN:

Because design is an artifact of human creativity, it reflects the processes of perception.  Pick up any art criticism, architecture and landscape writing, or pulp design magazine, and you will see a range of conceptual structures at play in the terms of the movement of a visual scene, the oscillation of figure and ground (which in many cases roughly correlate to grammatical subject and object), the directing of attention, and the general semiotic structure of the actual design or the commentary; each aspect of the design reflects conception and perception.

In TECHNOLOGY:

Since technology is used in every aspect of life, we can start to see how it becomes a part of culture and cognition; in fact, technology in many respects helps us to distribute our cognitive load across a piece of technology. Pieces of technology are like material anchors that helps us escape from merely thinking with our minds and instead enable us to think with our environment.  This is a matter of conceptual blending, and it plays out in the decisions we make using thought and language, since technology is a tool that helps us learn, decide, and act on collected knowledge.  This is as relevant for super-computers as it is for using a wooden ruler; technology of all forms enables us to actually have something to say about the sensed environment.

In LIFE WITH PEOPLE:

When people want to relate to each other, they use language and other models of symbolization to communicate.  One of the most frustrating and most interesting aspects of communication situations is knowing whether communication is actually happening, or if it is in fact failing.  A lot of this depends on negotiating the common ground to see what each party shares.  Since the language we use for communicating relies so heavily on metaphors, it is often interesting to look at which metaphors people use to communicate, and whether or not those metaphors are understood by the other conversation partners. This holds true for relationship counseling, for customer service relations, and for friendships.  Any time people get together, they use meaningful structures to communicate, and cognitive science offers a suite of tools to analyze that communication.

The idea I use in my work is to exploit the nuances in language and behavior to gain insight into what problems the organization is facing.  I use a three-pronged approach to collect, analyze, and present that data.  I then help the organization to see how to use the results in a meaningful way to produce actionable solutions.  What this does for me is invaluable; I get to have a good time working on different problems, and I get to see how different people work together to help me find solutions that work for them.

I welcome opportunities to participate in translating ideas into cultural practices and love to engage in productive collaboration with people who are open and curious.

Let me know if you want to talk. DM me: @SportLinguist, or leave a comment on the contact page.

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On Failure & Resilience in Optimization of Human Systems, Ecological Systems, and Networked Systems of Systems

I was recently watching Eleanor Saitta’s talk called “Your Infrastructure Will Kill You“.  Part of her talk outlined how optimization equals fragility (more or less).  That to the degree that something is cleaner, more elegant, or more efficient, it is fragile, and a break in the system can be potentially catastrophic.

In thinking about her comments I thought of a few examples where I have observed optimization creating a state of fragility, here are a few of my thoughts:

  • This has interesting considerations for general principles of design, specifically the form/function aspect of design. Probably the point at which form begins to extend beyond the needs of function the focus on form becomes gratuitous and potentially even hazardous (depending on the type of system).  Ironically, optimization in this case is not absolute optimization, but only optimization considering a specific set of requirements: when things are running smoothly then the system is optimized.
  • Another place for failure is when relationships are optimized; when the dispersal of information through a system relies on optimized relationships it only takes the breaking of one of the nodes in a network to create a chain reaction of subsequent nodes being uninformed.We think about how a well-connected network effectively distributes information, specifically in recent thought this informed an analysis of William Dawes vs. Paul Revere – showing how Revere’s relationship of network brokers enabled him to broadcast more extensively than Dawes’ impoverished closed network.  This is good thinking, except that it misses the point of threat: Revere was a weak link in that optimized chain of information; had he been eliminated his message would have been eliminated.  Revere and his network, although connected and optimized, were fragile.
  • In generative linguistics there is an optimization of the lexicon. Economy in space is valued above economy in processing; if this is opaque to you, I mean that generative linguistics tries to minimize the amount of information that it stores as unique units.  It is called “generative” because it generates complex utterances from values stored in the lexicon through recursion, instead of storing those values as wholes.  But there is a weakness; in optimizing the lexicon the generative power of the spell-out rules of Universal Grammar are fragile when it comes to dealing with actual language usage (which is the test of a linguistic theory, is it not?), and the rules fail to account for some foundational constructions of language (like idioms for example).

Ok, so there are lots of places where optimization leads to failure, but what are some ways in which optimization leads to resilience?  What are some solutions to these problems?

Redundancy is a great solution, but it is bulky.

  • When function is optimized it allows you to work backwards in the process of making things have better forms. This is actually how a lot of design progresses.  Think about how every piece of electronic technology that we have today had a larger predecessor.  Think about those clunky mobile phones from the eighties with the handset, base and cord in a leather bag, now look at the mobile phone you carry in your pocket.  Functionality was concept proven in the clunky design, and the form was optimized to enhance the function.
  • It seems to me that the optimization weakness in the Revere incident was that Revere was the weak link.  Instead of depending on the optimization of Revere’s relationships, perhaps the message itself needed optimization. One possible way to optimize the information load of a message is to abstract it (as was done with the signal of the hanging lanterns to indicate the route of attack), and another way is to reduce dependence upon a single messenger exploiting a network (In 1775 the sexton who hung the lanterns was a single messenger, Revere was a single messenger, et cetera).  Flooding a network with messengers bearing an abstracted signal would have been less fragile (put aside for the moment the need for secrecy in the 1775 incident).  In situations where secrecy is not vital, consider how this kind of network flooding would communicate the coherence of the message; when you hear the same thing from five people you at least start giving some credence to the constancy of the message.  In such cases what may have been unknown or even background information becomes salient and foregrounded through repeated exposure. Also, consider other types of signals that can be exploited to prompt a response of crowd mobilization, noises work particularly well.  Sirens and loud noises alert and orient people’s attentional systems toward the source of the signal, and that source becomes figural in the contextual noise of that signal.
  • Optimization can lead to resilience in online processing, like in a maximized lexicon that places the task of optimization on the processing skills required in the selection and extraction of form-meaning elements from the inventory.  Cognitive approaches to the lexicon seek to preserve economy in processing; instead of having a minimal lexicon with lots of processing rules, the cognitive approach has an ordered inventory of form-meaning pairings (including monomorphemic elements, constructions, and phrases that are learned whole), with an optimized processing system of constraints, schemas, and other elements of cognitive processing (see this week’s post on emergentist vs. universalist view for understanding the contrast in general cognitive processing vs. modular mind).
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Doing Strategic Planning #4: Adapting Existing Organization-External Materials for Internal Use

GDP Composition By Sector and Labour Force By ...

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This is part of the continuing series about Strategic Planning and outlines the process I am using with a particular organization.  I wanted to briefly explain something that I think is a viable pattern for learning from others, namely, looking at their work and seeing how you need to shape your own work in order to be considered a participating member of the industry.

The organization I am working for is trying to draft a strategic plan that also accounts for decision-making policies in how they invest in different causes.  Many of those causes include development work in places that have the shared features of extreme poverty, drastically different cultural values, and non-Western perspectives (i.e., post-colonial environments).  After listening to the organization talk about their vision and mission and seeing the history of their work and recognizing their place of respect in the development community I felt that it was important to make sure that they were at least in line with the ethical standards of similar industries (especially anthropology).  After looking through different industry codes of ethics I decided that the American Anthropological Association had a superb code of ethics and that without violating copyrights I would use it as a research tool to identify the major domains of concern for ethical conduct.  This is an ongoing process and it will be a few weeks before I am completely content with the results.  My approach will include working with my organization to help them see how the AAA code of ethics can inform their own tactics and methods that emerge to meet the strategic goals.  Basically, I hope that the organization can use this code of ethics to continue to drive their own policy and decision-making.

This is following my personal learning strategy: Collect, Analyze, Present.  And I am teaching the organization to collect the views of others, to analyze how they might apply to their own work, and present them in a format that suits the strategic goals of the organization.

Stay tuned for updates.

Post Script: WordPress has a feature that suggests related articles and before I published this article it suggested this interesting link: http://godspace.wordpress.com/2011/01/12/organic-strategic-planning-a-wave-of-the-future/

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Ham Radio was the original Twitter

Amateur radio station of DJ4PI

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So I was driving home last night and saw an old man in his station wagon, I happened to notice that his license plate was his amateur radio call sign.  This promptly reminded me of a recent occurrence at the Linguistic Society of America’s annual meeting where some of my Twitter friends had a “TweetUp” (for the uninitiated, it is akin to a “Meet Up”). In the lobby of the hotel we started to introduce ourselves by our Twitter profile names.  In fact, most people had their profile name on the back of their conference name badge printed like this: “@SportLinguist” (go ahead, follow me).

As my first exposure to this kind of behavior it was an interesting moment for me.  But this is certainly not the first time this has happened for Twitter users, and it is certainly not the firs time it has happened in technological history.  Pre-internet days had people using Citizen Band (CB) radios where everyone had a “Handle” (aka: radio name), and this was the tool that truckers and road-trippers used to stay connected on the lonely highway.  Before the CB was the Amateur Radio and the “Hams” that used them.  In fact, so as not to mislead you, Amateur Radio still has a strong presence and user base, even recently being used in OUTER SPACE at the International Space Station. Continue reading

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Doing Strategic Planning #2: Decision Making and Identifying Policy Material through Discourse Analysis

,., decision making

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Continuing on the posts about strategic planning, today I want to share how I encourage people to develop policy.  The organization that I am helping had a baseline report drafted by a committee member.  In the baseline report all of the areas of involvement were catalogued and this person identified several gaps in the way that the organization operated.  This person also organized all of the decision-making processes that the organization (a small foundation) uses to conduct day-to-day business and to make decisions about monetary investments & expenditures.

The organization has a long history of successful functioning and I am only a recent player in the story, but the organization is in a state of transformation and part of my role is to bring consistency to the process of adaptation.  Basically this project is sort of the development of a change-management strategy.  This means that a lot of policies will need to be rewritten.  In fact, decision-making is the prime goal of this particular strategic planning project.

Because the organization already had several documents and had recently drafted the baseline report I was able to compare the report to the historical documents and identify statements that would drive the prospective policy.  I borrow a common industry standard called “requirements” that are basically active-voice, single-proposition statements that elucidate a concept that is vital to be considered in the system (the decision-making process in our case).  Another feature of these statements is that they usually contain an auxiliary modal to indicate a degree of forcefulness behind the statement.  Again, the idea is to get at what things are vital to be considered in the decision-making process.

I took the baseline report and identified what the committee member found as criteria for decision-making.  I made a list of these items.  Next, I took the historical decision-making documents and identified where those criteria came from in the historical document and made a list of those locations.  This is like the process of making a concordance of references and is similar to the data management strategies that field linguists and anthropologists use in constructing data tables and dictionaries.

I asked the organization members to look through the documents and draft their own list of these vital statements so that through the process of this shared discourse experience they would become increasingly familiar with the actual textual material that we will be using to draft the strategy and goals in subsequent meetings.  The idea was to get people thinking about what their real needs actually are before they start looking to the future and to do this with an eye toward using policy to keep their strategy planning in line with their vision and mission statement and other relevant brand documentation.

Stay tuned for further updates.

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Doing Strategic Planning #1: Vision & Mission Statements

Post-It

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One of the services that I provide is to help small organizations and groups do strategic planning.  My approach is to shepherd the group through the process and get them thinking about how the different elements of a strategic plan actually work together to drive decision-making policy.  I don’t like to get caught up in mechanistic template driven planning, but really try to understand (with ethnographic insight) the soul of the organization and let the strategy emerge through a process of self-identification.  If you know anything about my research or my art, narrative is a key element in my beliefs about identity.  I like to bring that into the planning process.

All that to say, this morning I was helping a committee define a 5 year strategic plan that will account for a variety of goals and investments.  After I walked away from the first meeting I thought that this might be an appropriate thing to blog about since I feel that it relates to just about any organization whether it is individual as enterprise, research programs, community development organizations, et cetera.  In fact, it possibly even relates to the ways in which we manage ad hoc committees. Continue reading

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