An illustrative conversation about productive ambiguity

A story using characters to represent different parts of the continuum of ambiguity.

Imagine the situation: there’s a business meeting. I’ll leave it up to you as to whether this is an in-person meeting or a virtual one, but there are five people present:

  • Vague Vera
  • Generative Gerald
  • Creative Chitundu
  • Productive Parvati
  • Dead Dave

These are all supposed to represent various parts of a continuum that I’ve used a lot on this blog. In fact, I’ve used this image in pretty much every post. However, what it doesn’t include is the area to the left of the continuum — thoughts, ideas, and utterances that are ‘vague’.

Continuum of ambiguity

Back to the meeting, and Dave is speaking in clichés (aka ‘dead metaphors’) again. “What we need to do is synergise our verticals” he says. Parvati rolls her eyes; Dave’s been spending too much time on LinkedIn.

“Dave, I don’t think you understand our strategic business direction” says Vera. “We’re aiming to integrate new technologies to enable growth!” Everyone nods their heads, but no-one really understands what she means by this. “Have you got any ideas, Gerald?”

Looking uneasily around the room, Gerald utters a nervous little cough before saying, “well, I did have one idea, but I’m not sure if it’ll make much sense to you.” He looks out of the window, inhales deeply, and then spends the next few minutes outlining how he believes that web3 is like a cross between the Roman empire and freeform jazz. The rest of the meeting’s participants are utterly lost but try not to show it.

After a few awkward seconds of silence, Chitundu raises a finger and starts talking about a conference he went to recently. “At BizFest last year there was a speaker who was talking about the application of blockchain to verify core business processes,” he says. “What I liked about it was that he was really practical, but I can’t exactly remember what I thought we could use it for.”

Dave and Gerald are no longer concentrating and are instead checking their emails, but Vera chips in. “Yes, this is what I meant about integrating new technologies to enable growth!” Emboldened, Chitundu continues, “well you know how in the last annual report it showed we spend a lot of money on de-duplicating records? Perhaps we could use it for something to do with that?”

Suddenly, Pravati is drawing shapes connected with lines on a whiteboard. “Yes! She says, blockchain is basically a boring, back-office technology. So as long as we don’t store any sensitive data on there, we could use it to streamline our verification processes.” Vera’s eyes have glazed over slightly but she’s nodding.

Chitundu is excited. “I love this, and I think we should perhaps experiment with it a bit. How about a working group to explore some of Pravati’s ideas further?” Vera seems hesitantly accepting of the idea. She looks to Gerald, but he’s knee-deep in his inbox. She looks to Dave, who’s perked up since hearing the word ‘blockchain’. He’s nodding furiously.

“OK, Pravati could you have a look into this and then report back at our next meeting please?” says Vera. “Sure, I’d be happy to,” says Pravati, who’s been burned by Vera’s vague requests before. “I just need to ensure we’re agreed on some scope. I’d like to take a Wednesday afternoon to focus on this for the next three weeks, and pull in Keiko to double-check the technical side of things.”

“Alright, I’ll have to check with Keiko’s line manager, but that sounds fine,” says Vera. “Also, how would you like me to report back? In a report, with a slide deck, or something else?” asks Pravati. “Oh just some slides will be fine” says Vera.

As I argued in a paper I (self-)published with my thesis supervisor 11 years ago, if something is Vague, then according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is “couched in general or indefinite terms” being “not definitely or precisely expressed”. In other words, as with the example of Vera above, the person expressing the idea doesn’t really know what they’re talking about.

When it comes to Generative ambiguity, the part of the continuum represented by Gerald, then an individual gives a name to a nebulous collection of thoughts and ideas. It might make some sense to them, given their own experiences, but it can’t really be conveyed well to others.

Creative ambiguity is where one aspect of a term is fixed, much in the way a plank of wood nailed to a wall would have 360-degrees of movement around a single point. Whilst a level of agreement can exist here, for example in the case of Chitundu talking about blockchain in a business context, it nevertheless remains highly contextual. It is dependent, to a great extent, upon what is left unsaid. A research project just on ‘blockchain’ in general would probably fail.

I would argue that Productive ambiguity is where real innovative work happens. This is the least ambiguous part of the continuum, an area in which more familiar types of ambiguity such as metaphor are used (either consciously or unconsciously) in definitions. The phrase “streamline our verification processes” in the example is productively ambiguous because it defines an area of enquiry without nailing it down too specifically.

Finally, we have Dead metaphors which happen when people want to remove all wiggle room from a term. Terms and the ideas behind them become formulaic and unproductive. They can, however, be resurrected through reformulation and redefinition. So when Dave in the story above talks in buzzwords he’s cribbed from his network without understanding what he means, he’s not really saying anything.

My reason for continually talking about ambiguity is that I believe there is a sweet spot in all areas of life. If an idea or concept being introducing doesn’t make sense to you, or if it makes sense only to you, then it needs more work. At the other end of the spectrum, if what’s being mentioned just feels clichéd and isn’t bringing any enlightenment, that’s no good either.

The interesting work happens when there’s an idea or concept that kind of makes sense to people with a similar backgrounds, experience, and/or interests. If it’s left there, though, it’s not useful enough. The idea or concept needs to be worked on further so that it can be applied more widely, so that others who don’t share that background, experience, or interest can see themselves in it.

I’d argue that this is what successful advertising and branding is. It’s how political slogans work. And, for the purposes of this post, it’s how things get done in a business setting.

A philosophical approach to joining organisations

Consultants like me are sometimes engaged by clients on a very short-term basis, and sometimes embedded inside organisations for much longer periods of time. Yesterday, I started a period of ’embedding’, this time with Moodle.

While I’ll discuss elsewhere the things I’ll be working on over the coming weeks and months, in this post I want to consider what it’s like to start working with a new organisation from a philosophical perspective.

The areas of enquiry represented by what we call ‘Philosophy’ can be sub-divided in many ways and, of course, people differ as to how this should be done. When I think about Philosophy, over and above the (valuable) ‘history of ideas’ courses taught to undergraduates, I tend to use the following buckets:

  • Epistemology – what can we know?
  • Ethics how should we act/behave?
  • Ontology what exists in the world?
  • Metaphysics what else exists?

I’m sure some people reading this may disagree with these simple definitions, and with separating out metaphysics and ontology, but hopefully you’ll see why I tend to do this in a moment.

When a person joins a new organisation, there’s often a mad rush to get them ‘up-to-speed’ as quickly as possible. Not one minute should be wasted to ensure that they can reach full operating efficiency as soon as possible. Taken to its logical conclusion, I’m sure there are plenty of organisations that would like to be be able to send the required knowledge directly into a new employee’s brain, Matrix-style.

Plugged into the Matrix

I was ‘onboarded’ by Moodle HR yesterday and, while they can improve the experience, it was the first time an organisation has actually set out its information landscape. It sounds like such a simple thing, but this ontology of the organisation as it sees itself, is a hugely valuable thing to share. After all, the inverse of this — finding out about things in a piecemeal way — can be rather anxiety-inducing.

In the past, I’ve joined organisations that explicitly don’t share things like org charts and what technologies they use. The reason given for this is often that such documents would be ‘out of date as soon as they’re created’, but in reality it’s usually because there’s a huge disconnect between different parts of the organisation. There is no map or shared reality.

Ontology is an easy one for organisations to focus upon. They can point to things and draw employees’ attention to them, even if it’s just directing people to a URL or a particular app. What’s harder is getting to the other three: the epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics of an organisation.

In an organisational context, the question of ethics isn’t solved simply by having a mission or a values statement. It has to be lived and demonstrated. There are large, organisation-wide ethical issues that can only really be solved by the leadership team. Examples of these might include the type of investment that the organisation takes, diversity issues in hiring, or the way it interacts with the natural environment.

As well as these large, organisation-wide issues, there are also much smaller, everyday ethical issues. In fact, some of these might not even be put under a banner of ‘ethics’ by most people. For example, I’d include in this list of smaller ethical issues things like the amount to which line managers and senior management ‘check up’ on employees.

“If you don’t have your own time, then you have no control of your day. And if you have no control of your day then you end up working longer than you should.” (Jason Fried)

These also include the way in which members of the organisation interact with one another. A lot of this would perhaps traditionally go under ‘culture’ or perhaps ‘etiquette’ but, actually, I think considering this as part of the wider ethics of an organisation is a better way to think about it.

It obviously takes time to figure out the lived reality of ethics within an organisation. The same is even more true of its epistemology and metaphysics. We’re going a stage deeper here.

You can see the ontology of an organisation; you can point to different things that exist. To a great extent you can see the outputs of the ethics of an organisation; you can point to the outputs it creates. When it comes to epistemology and metaphysics, however, we’re in a less tangible realm: what can we know? what else exists?

It takes a while to understand the epistemology of an organisation. A new employee (or contractor) isn’t going to be able to figure out an organisation’s approach to the above questions in the first few days, or even weeks, after joining. Again, a lot of these issues are lumped within the rather unhelpful category of ‘culture’.

Epistemological questions are particularly interesting for organisations that deal primarily in bits and bytes and digital ‘stuff’ that can affect people’s lives in a material way. The frontiers offline are physical, whereas the frontiers online are conceptual.

Consequently, when organisations ask ‘what can we know?’ it’s a collection of individuals with hopes, dreams, and inbuilt-biases making value judgements. More than that, it’s a collection of people responding to a particular set of pressures affecting them individually and corporately, and coming to collective epistemological decisions.

I’d include examples such as Facebook’s algorithmic approach to matching ‘people you may know’ here, as well as edtech companies gathering brainwave data to measure ‘student engagement’. As the Contrafabulists show with their work around predictions, when you say that the world is, or will be, a certain way, you’re revealing your epistemology.

Metaphysics is a harder thing to pin down, and perhaps the most difficult thing for an organisation to access directly. Some schools of philosophy, in fact, believe that metaphysics is meaningless and not worth studying. I disagree.

If we conceptualise metaphysics as asking the question what else exists? then we can see that this is the kind of question that can drive organisations forward and help them to improve. This is particularly important for organisations who create digital products and services, as they can literally invent these from ones and zeroes.

Martin Dougiamas, CEO of Moodle, shared with me a book called Reinventing Organizations that’s inspired him recently. Although I’m yet to read it, even the book’s website gives an example of the kind of thing I mean when talking about organisational metaphysics. There’s a ‘pay-what-feels-right’ option for the book, instead of a single price. If we step back and think about it for a moment, this is an acknowledgement that the full value of something like a book can’t be captured in a financial transaction. It also makes us question what a ‘book’ actually is when it’s digital and the distribution value drops close to zero.

I haven’t finished thinking about this philosophical approach to joining organisations. No doubt, any comments I receive below and on various networks of which I’m part will help inform my thinking. As, of course, will my experiences as I spend more time with Moodle.

The important thing for me is to realise that when you’re joining an organisation, what you’re doing is plugging yourself (a complex mixture of thoughts, emotions, and biases) into something that isn’t necessarily an easy thing to understand. To hurry and try and ‘get-up-to-speed’ quickly, therefore, might actually waste more time than it saves.

Why ontologies are best left implicit (especially for credentials)

Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence or reality as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology often deals with questions concerning what entities exist or may be said to exist and how such entities may be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences. (Wikipedia)

I’d argue that the attempt to define what ‘exists’ within a given system is usually a conservative, essentialist move. It’s often concerned with retro-fitting new things into the current status quo, a kind of Kuhnian attempt to save what might be termed ‘normal science’.

Perhaps my favourite example of this kind of post-hoc ontology is from a reference Jorge Luis Borges makes to a fictional taxonomy in a book he calls Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge:

On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.

This, of course, is meant to be humorous. Nevertheless, we’re in danger when a dominant group sees the current state of play as the ‘natural order of things’. It’s bad enough when this is latent, but even worse when essentialst worldviews are codified into laws — and by ‘law’ I’d include ‘code’.

The thing that disturbs me most is when people accept the artefacts that have been left for them as the given circumstances of nature… It’s this automatic acceptance of how things are that leads to a sense of helplessness about changing any of them. (Douglas Rushkoff)

This week, a survey was sent out to the Open Badges community on behalf of the Credential Transparency Initiative. This initiative is funded by the Lumina Foundation, an organisation that describes itself as an “independent, private foundation committed to increasing the proportion of Americans with degrees, certificates and other high-quality credentials to 60 percent by 2025.” The Lumina Foundation therefore has a vested interest in deciding what counts as a ‘high-quality credential’.

The problem is, of course, that what one well-funded, high-profile group decides after ‘consulting the community’ is likely to be adopted more widely. This is how de facto standards emerge. They may decide to play the numbers game and equate certain types of badges with degrees. Or, they may choose to go to the other end of the spectrum and ensure that badges do not equate with ‘high-quality’ credentials. Either way, it’s not really up to them to decide.

The survey featured this highly problematic question:

CTI survey

There are all kinds of assumptions baked into this question that need to be unpacked. For example, perhaps the biggest is that all of these have an ‘essence’ independent of one another, rather than in relation to each other. I see this as an attempt, either consciously or unconsciously, to turn the notion of a ‘badge’ into what Richard Rorty termed a ‘dead metaphor’:

Old metaphors are constantly dying off into literalness, and then serving as a platform and a foil for new metaphors. (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 16)

In my doctoral thesis (better consumed as this ebook), I used Rorty’s work along with that of William Empson to come up with a ‘continuum of ambiguity’:

Continuum of ambiguity

The idea behind this continuum is that almost every term we use to describe ‘reality’ is metaphorical in some way. Terms we use to refer to things (e.g. ‘badge’) contain both denotative and connotative aspects meaning that the person using the term cannot be absolutely certain that the person they are communicating with will understand what they mean in the same way.

Articulation of an idea

Image CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers

The more we try and create a one-to-one relationship between the utterance and the understanding of it, the more we are in danger of terms ‘falling off’ the continuum of ambiguity and becoming dead metaphors. They “lose vitality” and are “treated as counters within a social practice, employed correctly or incorrectly.” (Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, 171). Such terms have the status of cliché.

The attempt to create a one-to-one relationship between a term as written or spoken, and the term as it is understood by an interlocutor or reader, is an understandable one. It would do away with the real, everyday problems we’re faced with when trying to understand the world from someone else’s point of view. As Rorty puts it, “the world does not provide us with any criterion to choose between alternative metaphors” (The Contingency of Language, 6). The problem is that if we have a single ontology, then we have a single worldview.

Returning to Open Badges, it would be difficult to do any interesting and useful work with the term if it becomes a dead metaphor. For example, I’m quite sure that there’s nothing many of those in Higher Education would like better than to demarcate what a badge ‘counts for’ and the situations in which it can be used. After all, organisations that have histories going back hundreds of years, and which are in the game of having a monopoly on ‘high-quality’ credentials need to protect their back. If they can create a dead metaphor-based ontology in which badges count as something much lower ‘quality’ (whatever that means) than the degrees they offer, then they can carry on as normal.

The fading conviction originating with Plato that language can adequately represent what there is in words opens the way for a pragmatic utilization of language as a means to address current needs through practical deliberations among thoughtful people. (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

At this point, I’m tempted to dive into differential ontology and the work of Derrida and Deleuze. Instead I’ll simply point out that the reductive attempt to define an essentialist ontology of credentials is doomed from the outset. What we need instead is to ensure that our use of terms such as ‘Open Badges’ are what I would call ‘productively ambiguous’ — that is to say, in the Pragmatist tradition, ‘good in the way of belief’.

Or, if you like your takeaways more pithy: Keep Badges Weird!