Consensus process and conceptual models

I was in Umeå last week — at the NORDLET conference — but also there were lots of ISO SC36 people coming for their meeting. Now SC36 is trying to put forward a “PDTR” — draft technical report — “ITLET – Conceptual reference model for competencies and related objects” which I have been interested in for a while, as it would be nice to use this opportunity to broaden consensus about competence and related terms. There is a diagram representing a current proposal, and this is part of a set of documents tracing the development of this work, which up to now I was not aware of.

You know the basic idea about the standardization process — there is meant to be established practice in the area which would benefit from standardization. But, as I am just discovering, there is another kind of ISO document, the Technical Report. This one is of “type 3, when the joint technical committee has collected data of a different kind from that which is normally published as an International Standard (“state of the art”, for example).” And so we could at least think over, what is the appropriate time to try to agree a conceptual model? What is the appropriate process?

My experience and intuition both tell me that it takes a lot of work to agree on a shared conceptual model. People almost always build up their own private conceptual models of any area they are involved with. Concepts are used in discussion among groups, and these concepts become important to the group members, as they are part of their language, and their means of communication. Put two groups together, attempting to merge their conceptual models, and you are likely to find people defending their corners. That’s not consensus process, and it could easily result in a botch of a conceptual model that satisfies no one at all.

But put two individuals together, free from the constraints of being answerable to a group, and a wholly different process can take place. Instead of communication being a prompt to defend known terms, it is naturally a motive to explore the other person’s terms and meanings. And the prize at the end of a deep exploratory dialogue of this kind could be a shared conceptual model — not necessarily where the facts in the model are agreed, but at least where the language is agreed in which it is possible to disagree comprehensibly. And it is just during these dialogues — again, in my experience — that each person’s conceptual model is able to grow.

It seems like a good idea, therefore, in any case of trying to agree a conceptual model, to base the consensus process around dialogues between pairs of people. The time needed can seem long. My (good) experience of talking with Simone Laughton — an SC36 member from Canada — suggests that it takes at least several hours to get a good enough understanding of someone else’s conceptual model, at least of the type that SC36 are trying to agree on, if one wants to create a shared conceptual model.

So, contrast two alternatives. Firstly, the existing committee-based processes, which seem to run up again and again into the difficulties of disagreement, perhaps because of the mechanisms suggested above. Secondly, deep pairwise dialogue between all the participants who feel they have a position on a conceptual model. The second option is front-loaded — that is, it seems to need more work up front — but my guess is that once that work had been done — once people have had the experience of the development of their own model through dialogue — the committee process would probably be very quick and painless. And, maybe, the process might even take less time overall, as well as being more likely to result in a genuinely shared model.

Worth a try?

Worth a try also, perhaps, in areas that might be of similar complexity, such as the attempt to agree a management or governance structure between people in the same organisation, or with a common interest?

3 thoughts on “Consensus process and conceptual models

  1. Pingback: Development of a conceptual model | Simon Grant of CETIS

  2. Pingback: A partially reconstructed competence maze | Simon Grant of CETIS

  3. Pingback: Developing Semantic-Web-friendly specifications | Simon Grant of CETIS

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