Adventures in Semiotics

Reading time: 4 – 6 minutes

As a literature graduate student in the late 1990s, I participated in a baffling seminar discussion on Lacanian semiotics. I didn’t get it, but an amazing tutorial video from EPIC 2016 prompted me to take another look at the power of visual and verbal cultural analysis.

In April and May, I participated in an online workshop on applied semiotics analysis organized by EPIC and led by Cato Hunt from Space Doctors.

During the workshop, we leaned basics tasks of semiotic analysis, including:

  • Exploring gaps between intended meaning and experienced meaning
  • Analyzing cultural assets to create codes
  • Analyzing tensions to create  semiotic squares
  • Using a residual-dominent-emergent framework to analyze codes
  • Field work to collect data to inform semiotic analysis

Culture Map of Mobile Learning

Since the workshop, I have been using what I learned to develop a semiotic map of residual, dominant, and emergent codes for mobile learning.

To develop this map, I conducted a visual analysis of many images on Google Images related to mobile learning. I used mobile learning and other  broad key terms like “augmented reality”  and “virtual reality” and “robots”. I explored a range of geographic markets as well. It was far from a scientific sample, but it was fun.

I used Pinterest to gather the images and Mural as a platform to group and cluster the images.

10 Mobile Learning Codes

  1. Learn Alone Together (Residual)
  2. Access the World From Anywhere (Residual)
  3. Gather Around a Screen (Residual)
  4. Augment how You Live (Dominant)
  5. Simulate a Situation (Dominant)
  6. Augment your Experience of Here (Dominant)
  7. Try Immersive Learning (Emergent)
  8. Wear Your Learning (Emergent)
  9. Integrate Learning into Yourself (Emergent)
  10. Interact with Robots (Emergent)

4 Mobile Learning Spaces

I created the culture map by iteratively positioning the codes on semiotic squares constructed using cultural tensions that emerged through exploring the visual data. These tensions included:

  • Familiar / Unfamiliar
  • Augment / Integrate
  • Create / Consume
  • Ready at Hand / Present to Hand
  • Private / Public

From playing with the coded and tensions, I developed the following four quadrants on my semiotic square:

  1. Become a Cyborg (Unfamiliar / Private)
  2. Engage with the Machines (Unfamiliar / Public)
  3. Use the Data (Familiar / Private)
  4. Mediate Together (Familiar /Public)

This thought experiment has been a fun way to apply my learning. Since doing the initial semiotic exploration, a couple of additional ideas occurred to me:

  1. Semiotics aimed at settings has great potential as a tool for analyzing learning settings. I am intrigued by Bonnie Shapiro’s work on analyzing sustainability in learning settings. Laura Oswald‘s case studies on analyzing retailscapes with semiotics points to the potential for using semiotics to analyze learning settings (e.g. programs and learning spaces) in comparison to competitive and aspirational programs.
  2. Where do emergent products like smart speakers, particularly niche products like the Amazon Echo Look, fit on within the frame of mobile learning. They are likely somewhere between dominant and emergent because they are still relatively unfamiliar and sit somewhere on the boundary between public or private?
  3. What might happen if I took an explicitly critical frame and asked how these products vary on their representation of domestication vs. liberation. Most images promise a dream of endless open knowledge, and most images represent scenes of social control (students being disciplined by lessons in formal learning settings or people being domesticated by new technological forms). I recognize my initial sample had scant examples of mobile learning in the context of non-formal learning settings beyond the cliched coffee shop or non-spaces of everyday life (e.g commuting).

Next Steps

The workshop has prompted me to start reading more in the domain of semiotic marketing analysis and qualitative marketing analysis. I have been diving into the work of Laura Oswald, The Handbook of Qualitative Marketing Research, and Tim Stock‘s culture mapping.

If you are interesting in applying semiotics to analyze a learning setting, I would love to hear from you.

An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization

Reading time: 2 – 3 minutes

IMG_5009
3 Deliberately Developmental Organizations

Robert Kegan has always been one of my favourite authorities on adult learning and development. In Over our Heads was deeply inspiring when I was studying Higher Education at UBC. Kegan’s later collaborations with Lisa Lahey in How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work and Immunity to Change influenced my early thinking on organizational development and change work.

Kegan and Lahey’s new work with several coauthors , An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, offers in depth cases studies of Next Jump, Decurion, and Bridgewater,  three organizations that incorporate professional development and learning as an essential part of their organizational culture and approach to business.

What I valued most about the book is the organizational model and metaphors that Kegan et al. use to explore the dimensions of development: edge, groove, and home. We individually and collectively have a professional edge that is always developing and changing, we get into the groove when we have individual and shared practices that sustain and support the advancement of our personal learning and shared organizational culture.

I am not as persuaded by Kegan et. al’s arguments about adult development and personal psychology as I once was. But I appreciated that the authors acknowledge the psychological bias that informs their work,  and they use an integral framework from Ken Wilber to explore the individual, social, psychological, organizational dynamics of culture and change at work. More compelling were the chapters on the  many distinct social practices that the three organizations enact to as they use a developmental approach to work and organizational change.

For example, what might be different if everyone at work were assigned to a job that would stretch them personally and professionally? What if organizations embrace personal social learning practices so people don’t have to hide their weaknesses, can address continuous constructive feedback from colleagues, and continuously challenge themselves with increasingly complex tasks? Next Jump, Bridgewater, and Decurion demonstrate that learning and development can be a key competitive advantage.

Organizational development consultants, coaches, and other people leading change processes in organizations will find Kegan et al. a useful summer read.

 

 

Designing with my iPhone

Reading time: 2 – 2 minutes

For fun, I am participating in Design1o1 Redux, a MOOC that introduces basics of contemporary design. I’ve never been that successful as a student in MOOCs before because of the implicit time commitment they demand and, to be blunt, the poor quality of instructional design.

What I like about Design 1o1 is that the MOOC is playful, creative, and almost entirely based on the open Internet and through social media, mostly on Instagram but also on Twitter.  One of the challenges we have in British Columbia is that the Freedom of Information and Privacy laws are particularly strict about sharing personal information across borders, so I it would be challenging for a BC university to pursue such an open approach without wrestling with informed consent and forms.

What I am learning in Design1o1 Redux so far is how to use my iPhone as an instrument for creative expression and design research. I can see how this will be useful not only as I continue to take countless pictures of Megan and Claire but also as I dive more deeply into design research. One of the assignments I had last week prompted me to start thinking how I might use my phone and a few APPS to document service walkthrough and user journeys easily.

I will have more to say about my learning experience as time goes by. You can follow my progress on Instagram.

[instagram-feed]

What is your take on MOOCs? What have you learned by participating in them? How have you learned to persist?

On “The Mushroom at the End of the World”

Reading time: 3 – 5 minutes

“Tricholoma matsutake” by casper s

After reading Reassembling the Social, I decided that I should read a contemporary example of an actor-network theory study. I chose Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. 

The protagonists of Tsing’s study are matsutake mushrooms and the human and non-human assemblages that arise with them in forests and rural hinterlands across the Northern hemisphere.

“The thrill of private ownership is the fruit of an underground common.” (p.274)

What I appreciated most about Tsing’s book was its exploration of the cultural practices that arise with matsutake. These communities include the complex camps of pickers who descend upon the Eastern Cascades in Oregon each fall, Satoyama restoration groups in Japan, and emerging Matsutake entrepreneurs in Yunnan, China.

The thread of the book I found most challenging was Tsing’s tracing of matsutake from relational, biological object, to representation of individual freedom, to object of economic exchange, to alienated commodity, to highly-valued gift. Much of story Tsing tells explores how humans, fungi, pine trees thrive and live in times of ruin or precarity. But her narrative about supply chains, salvage accumulation and economic livelihoods — without resorting to stories of progress or development — offers an interesting perspective on capitalism. It helped  me to appreciate why the Academy of Management and scholars I know are interested in management “after capitalism”, the circle economy, and systemic approaches to corporate social responsibility.

Transition and service design scholars, particularly those interested in participatory design and design for social innovation can seek inspiration in Tsing’s examples of assemblages of scientists, communities, and scholars working together to learn and relearn ways of intervening and tending forests for the benefit on human and non-human inhabitants. Tsing’s vocabulary of “patches”, spores might offer those  interested in the challenges of scalability and diffusion new analogies and tools for thinking through next steps.

“Precarity means not being able to plan. But it also stimulates noticing as one works with what is available. To live well with others, we need to use all our senses, even if it means feeling around in the duff.” (p.278)

This book will appeal to adult educators and social innovation change agents because it offers many examples of coalitions of workers, retirees, scientists and  students working together to relearn how to tend to forests and unlearn the alienated anomie of urbanized life.

“Rather than redemption matsutake-forest revitalization picks through the heap of alienation. In the process, volunteers acquire the patience to mix with multi species others without knowing where the world-in-process is going. (p.264)

Speaking of transition design, Cameron Tonkinwise’s tweet and link to a New York Times article on a new segment of organizations that redirect returned gifts from landfills strikes me as a retail sector example of salvage capitalism that profits from the byproducts of consumerism.

Tsing challenges readers to question taken for granted concepts like species, immigrant, and forest. She demonstrates the heterogeneity of scientific communities and the patchy sometime incommensurable nature of the knowledge they create. Her focus is on the variation in forest science and the question of whether human intervention adds or diminishes the forest. The answer it seems depends on the pine.

The text is interdisciplinary and multimedia in the best sense. Each chapter begins with an evocative photograph, and I was delighted by the traditional Japanese poems about Matsutake. Tsing blended ethnographic accounts, first person narratives, academic analyses and Michael Pollan-style histories of forests told from the perspective of the forests themselves. She even gives science fiction writer Ursula Leguin the last word.

All in all, The Mushroom at the End of the World was a great book to follow reading Bruno Latour and it reminded me of the value of scavaging for ideas outside of the fields of design, learning and service.

What have you been reading over the holidays that has you inspired?

On “Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory”

Reading time: 4 – 6 minutes

When I was floundering about in graduate school, I read “Aramis or the love of technology” cover to cover. At the time, I was obsessed by the then state-of-the-art ASRS automated materials storage system that had just been installed at the heart of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at UBC. Now, of course you can find automated, miniature sorting and retrieval systems at public libraries, and Amazon’s warehousing and delivery systems are Things of public legend:

My first steps into ANT were to ponder mediation, affordances, and the classic Engstrom activity theory model with Mary Bryson.

That led me to think  about the assemblage of scholars, librarians, research knowledge artefacts, research libraries, giant climate-controlled storage environments, retrieval robots, computer networks, and the software that connects them. I even delved into the military-industrial history of the development of automated storage by the RAND corporation in the glorious, Modern 50s.

Which brings me to “Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory“. The book presents Latour’s explanation of the basic premises and implications of Actor-Network Theory. Its object is social science in general, and sociology in particular. Latour presents a methodology of activity-network theory.  It is a history of ANT and a history of the Science Wars from the 1990s. Strangely, reading Latour brought be back to sitting at my parents’ kitchen table in 1996 as an English undergraduate, listening to an “As it Happens” interview about the Sokal Affair and those long-ago attacks on postmodernism.

I am struck by the sorts questions that Latour offers as a heuristic for courageous analysts to follow:

  1. What controversies? What actants? Where do they lead?
  2. “Where are the structural effects actually being produced” (p.174)
  3. “in which movie theatre, in which exhibit gallery is […The Big Picture…] shown? Through which optics is it projected? To which audience is it addressed? (p.187)
  4. “In which room? In which panorama? Through which medium? With which stage manager? How much?” (p.189)
  5. “How is the local itself being generated?” (p.192)
  6. “Where are the other vehicles that transport individuality, subjectivity, personhood, and interiority?” (p.206)
  7. What form “allows something else to be transported from on site to another?” (p.222)
  8. What happens upstream and downstream of the situation where subject and object arise? (p.237)

I doubt many people outside of academia will want to read this book but it offers a masterclass in how to question the most basic assumptions that most people take for granted, particularly society, culture, nature, science and politics.

Students of higher education will enjoy how Latour uses the example of a university professor lecturing in a lecture hall to explore how cognitive abilities assemble and are shaped by the scripts, forms, capabilities, and materials.

Despondent graduate students wrestling with theses can take solace from Latour’s perspective on academic writing. In a nutshell, write the 40,000 words and move on to the next challenge. One text does not a career make. Academics can also learn a lot from Latour about writing. Even though his text is complex, Latour is also entertaining, self-aware and humorous.

Thoughtful designers may want to consider Latour’s analysis of the relation between local, global and context in connection with the recent practical scholarship on context for post-thing design. For example, part of me wants to reconsider Andrew Hinton’s “Understanding Context“, Resmini and Rosati’s “Pervasive Information Architecture” and Thomas Wendt’s “Design for Dasein” with Latour in mind. If the aim of service and strategic design is to co-create pervasive information architectures and meaningful assemblages of digital and embodied experiences, then should one deploy, stabilize, and compose the social in the context of design before designing solutions or platforms. Furthermore, reading Latour made me wonder what ANT might offer design for social innovation. social innovation should embrace concepts like cosmopolitan-localism and rely on “sociologists of the social”, as Ezio Manzini suggests.

If the aim of service and strategic design is to co-create pervasive information architectures and meaningful assemblages of digital and embodied experiences, then should one deploy, stabilize, and compose the social present the context of design before designing solutions or platforms?

On The Experience Economy

Reading time: 3 – 5 minutes

What does street theatre look like in your workplace? (Photo: July Pasterello)
What does street theatre look like in your workplace? (Photo: July Pasterello)

I decided to read Pine and Gilmore’s The Experience Economy (1999/2011) because it was frequently cited in Peter Benz’s recent collection on Experience Design.

Here,  Joseph  Pine introducing the concept of economic progression, which is at the heart of the The Experience Economy:

This theory makes for an entertaining business anecdote — the other famous one in the book is the fact that people are very happy to pay €17 for an expresso to sit amidst  St. Mark’s Square in Venice —  but I question the underlying model of economic development. (Thank you, Mary Bryson and Erica McWilliam for helping me to learning to question taken for granted concepts like development.) Only towards the end of the text do Pine and Gilmore point to business models that are social- or value-driven rather than simply capitalist in focus.

Pine and Gilmore’s text has lots to offer service and experience designers who are developing service- and experience-based business models. In fact, in the later parts of the book, the authors present the idea of transformation-focused business. Orginally written at the turn of the 21st century, this book resonates with transformative learning theory, which was at the peak of its popularity around the same time.

Pine and Gilmore have a penchant for models built around 2×2 matrices,  and they devote an early chapter to aspects of effective experience. Personally, I prefer Grimaldi’s adaptation of Desmet and Hekkert’s experience design framework because it is more flexible . Overall this book now seems a bit dated, having been surpassed by social innovation and the Internet of Things. What is lacking for me is serious critique. I found myself pining  for Ian Bogost’s amazing essay “Welcome to Dataland” as I read Pine and Gilmore’s retelling of the history of Disney experience design.

The chapter I like the most is entitled “Performing to Form”, which makes the argument that workers can draw on four classic forms of theatre to craft and hone authentic workplace performances:

  1. Improv Theatre
  2. Platform Theatre
  3. Matching Theatre
  4. Street Theatre

Pine and Gilmore spend a lot of time looking at improv and street theatre. There is no question that improv remains a popular method for business to respond to dynamic and emergent conditions. I’ve toyed with reading some of the more recent popular titles like Yes, And.. or Do Improvise, but would rather play with it as an experimental method to prototype service experiences. The most fascinating sections  of the chapter were Pine and Gilmore’s analysis of street theatre, drawing extensively on Sallly Harrison-Pepper’s study of street performers in Washington Square,  Drawing a Circle in the Square. The point they make is that regardless of where you work and what you do, we can all strive to  cultivate performances adaptable yet thoroughly rehearsed.

What do street theatre or improv look like in you workplace?

The Design Journal Special Issue on Service Design

Reading time: 3 – 4 minutes

Daniela Sangorgi and Sabine Junginger have edited a special issue of The Design Journal on Emerging Issues in Service Design.

Taken as a whole, this special issue contributes valuable and critical perspectives to the service design community.

Through conceptual and empirical studies of particular service design initiatives, the authors explore a range of important questions that service designers worldwide are facing:

  • How can an anthropological view of service practices usefully inform conceptions of co-design and co-production? (Blomberg and Darrah, 2015)
  • How do “organizational design legacies” frame and impact the kinds of change outcomes that service design can and cannot produce? (Junginger, 2015)
  • How might service design unpack place-making to understand community? (Predville, 2015)
  • What conditions and relations impact the success of experience-based co-design in the public sector? (Donetto et. al, 2015)
  • How do “fragile relations” amongst partners in cross-organization and cross-sectoral service network impact service design initiatives? (Hyvärinen, Lee, and Mattelmäki, 2015)
  • How can local service design initiatives scale across large geographical areas (Morelli 2015)

What stood out for me as I was reading these papers was the need for service designers to address power relation amongst partners and stakeholders at the outset of any service design initiatives. I was reminded of Wenger-Trayner et. al‘s call for system convenors to carefully design early interactions amongst  networks of collaborators and to openly address power differentials. The papers that stood out most to me were Blomberg and Darrah’s exploration of what anthropology can offer service design, Junginger’s analysis of how existing organizational design practices (however tacit) shape and in some cases thwart service design initiatives, and Moretti’s case studies on how service design initiatives can scale.

Hyvärinen, Lee, and Mattelmäki’s exploration of “fragile relations” offers useful ideas for public sector partnerships with private sector organizations. What sticks with me is the idea that the bureaucracy of the public sector inhibits progress in complex service design initiatives and colours other participants perceptions of whether an initiative might succeed.

Morelli (2015) makes the point that the measure of a service design network at scale is not the number of users who engage with a platform but rather  the number of “circles” or communities it spawns. This insight is relevant in social learning circles as a way to figure out how best to measure an initiative’s impact at scale.

What this special issue reveals for me is the complexity of service design. Lauren Currie, Wim Rampen, Fabien Segelstrom and others on Twitter are absolute correct when they playfully commented recently that there is more to Service Design than workshops, touchpoints,  or digital or even design. Indeed, I am left pondering how service design is also a field at the front end of systems and organizational change that extends learning and development beyond the scope of the individual or an organization, to systems concepts like communities and regions.

If buildings can learn (cf. Stuart Brand) and organizations can learn, then how can service networks and other assemblages learn as well?

Enough philosophizing. Get you hands on the special issue and share your observations and insights.

On Gray’s The Connected Company

Reading time: 2 – 2 minutes

Dave Gray‘s The Connected Company (2012) is an easy read for anyone who wants to explore networked, social business models and work.

What I appreciated most was Gray’s ability to make important, complex, academic concepts like service-dominant logic, platforms, and networks accessible for a broad business audience. For anyone wrestling with the challenge of explaining to clients what it means to put service and social learning at the heart of a business venture or coaching others to design service-based business models, Grey offers valuable examples and explanations.

The Connected Company cites and interprets examples from many leading service-based enterprises like Nordstrom, Zappos, Amazon, and GE. It draws on popular business thinkers and concepts from the Harvard Business Review and leading design ideas like Stuart Brand’s theory of shearing layers.

The idea that seems to be sticking with me is the notion that connected companies finds ways to “absorb variety”, to enable customers, users and internal teams to pursue multiple aims, goals and intentions simultaneously. I am oversimplifying, and probably misrepresenting the idea, but designing to “absorb variety” and learn from variety is at the heart of the educational challenge that universities like the one I work at face and at the heart of what it means to learn, too (cf. Ference Marton).

Those of you who work on learning and development within organizations will enjoy Gray’s ideas on individual and organizational learning. There was plenty of resonance between Gray’s ideas and Wenger-Traynor et. al’s concept of navigating boundaries in a landscape of practice and addressing boundaries between a multiplicity of practice communities.

If you are looking for models of self-governing, user- and customer-centric business, then you will like Grey’s work.

On Learning in Landscapes of Practice

Reading time: 2 – 3 minutes

I just finished my first read through Etienne Wenger-Trayner, Mark Fenton-O’Creevy, Steven Hutchinson, Chris Kubiak, and Beverley Wenger-Trayner’s new edited collection, Learning in Landscapes of Practice: Boundaries, identities, and practice-based learning (2014).

I’ve long been a fan of Etienne Wenger-Trayner’s theoretical and anthropological work on learning. I owe my colleague Barbara Berry a debt of gratitude for telling me about this book and for pointing me to Wenger-Trayner’s recent lecture on the content of this book.

This book is essential reading for anyone who espouses “social learning” in the industry learning and development community. Unlike many current popular approaches, Wenger-Trayner et al. offer ideas that are practical and, at the same time, based thoughtful, seminal scholarship on learning.

Wenger-Trayner et al. offer those of us who work with organizations comprised of diverse groups a whole new vocabulary and approach for facilitating change and enabling people to work at, across, and through boundaries in the organizational and societal contexts.

Professional coaches will find value the ideas on identity in social landscape

People in the higher education sector should pay attention to this text because in several places it at addresses classic challenges that universities face like students’ transition into and through higher education, and, more importantly, the tricky relationship between academic learning and work. This book would be useful for student services specialists, academic developers,  and university administrators alike.

The chapters in this book on systems convening will interest experience designers and design researchers who practice strategic design or systems design with large groups  and use methods like design charettes or other community engagement approaches. I wonder whether the framework of ideas that Wenger-Trayner et al. present around identity, multimembership and boundaries might also extend current perspectives on product and service experience design by adding a sociocultural dimension to the list of factors to consider when designing an experience or interaction. Also the landscape framework may offer systems and service designers new ways of thinking about ecosystem mapping as considering multimembership and circulating regimes of competence might reveal new value flows and relationships.