Monday, 17 December 2012

Mapping social settings

I like maps.  As an outdoor type, I've a real respect for the art of the cartographer. The maps produced by the Ordnance Survey of the UK are practical and very clear; great for planning, route finding and problem solving.  They serve very well the purpose for which they have been designed.   

But maps, depending on how they are drawn, can be much more than aids to spatial awareness.  A recently published book - 'History of the World in Twelve Maps' by Professor Jerry Brotton describes how maps, through history, have shown us different things about the political, social and economic interests of a point in time.  The Mappa Mundi, for example, is not suitable for route-finding but it gives something of use and interest about the Christian world, based on the topography of the Bible. 


Mapping social settings


If you follow this blog you will know that I see it as important to be able to learn from practice through processes like learning by doing, learning from experience, learning from peers, noticing what's happening in the day-day always occuring action of the workplace. 
In terms of learning practice, this is not a discussion about blending content and media  - this helps  - but a disruptive challenge to the status quo.  Our practices in management learning are too reliant on theories and models; too abstracted from the workplace. 
An alternative is to place practice centre-stage and to make it available as a source of learning.  And this is where maps come into this, especially if we were able to produce maps of social settings.
Topographical maps have been designed to be practical: to help people understand something about a place, to make choices before taking action, to problem solve once in action.  The same must also be true for the mapping of social settings and for the design of practice-based learning.  In writing this blog I took a look at how online maps, like Google Maps, were created and discovered a number of parallels to my interests.  

Insights into real-world usage to better serve the needs of users

Good maps demand an understanding of users' needs.  The designers of Google Maps have used ethnography and usability research to create and refine a product that has become the benchmark.

Mapping as a local exercise—with cultural, ethnic, and region-specific quirks and nuances

If your interest is to understand how things work, in practice rather than in theory, then it follows that the better the detail, the better able you are to account for the practices that are important in that setting. 

For example, the designers at Google Maps found that, generally speaking, people navigate primarily by street names in Western countries and by landmarks and points of interest in the East. This is due to a combination of factors including a lack of road names, e.g. in India where locals rely on landmarks, or just a more complex street addressing system , e.g. in Japan where street numbers are assigned by date of construction, not sequentially. 

A feeling of friendliness, clarity, and simple focus

What if an intangible benefit of practice-based learning, based on social maps, was that it helped learners because it could be trusted to provide data-driven practical information that was easy to use? 

A collection of zoom levels, imagery, angles, and on-the-ground panoramas

What's taken for granted about maps?  That the birds-eye view of the ground is the only view?  Maps have always offered a range of scales (zoom levels if you like) but what the likes of Google Maps has done is to put us into the territory with satellite imagery and street view perspectives.  What else could be added?  - for example, sounds, temparatures, real-time data, user reviews, wikis?

Getting the data


Quite clearly, the investment required to gather the data on which Google Maps has been based has taken a great deal of time and money.  But what it has done is show us what can be achieved by getting into the detail as opposed to sticking with the status quo.

If we are going to be able to get the data from social settings, which has the level of detail to be able to construct something like a map of, say, human dynamics, then we need technology to help us.  It's why I have been following the work of Sociometric Solutions with interest.  It's an organisation that evolved from the MIT Media Lab and they have developed an electronic badge, similar to a security pass, which collects voice, body language and other proximity and location related data. 

Some of their work was featured in the April 2012 edition of HBR 'The New Science of Building Great Teams' pages 59-70.  If you follow this you will see examples of maps of intra and inter team interactions that are very interesting for the detail and the data that they produce.  To my mind, it is not difficult to see how this type of analysis could be extended to produce a range of social maps that, just like their counterparts from the world of topographical maps, might provide the base for overlays, search results and personal customisation.

Of course, even a Google Map is not a real-time representation of the territory and judgement and expertise is still required.  The emerging technology from Sociometric Solutions is giving a glimpse of how the gap to the social world of the workplace might be bridged. 

Image via Photobucket
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