Theory and Practice in Social System Mapping: Part 3 of an Interview with Glenda Eoyang

Part 3 of a series of 3 posts:

So - In part 1 of this interview series, we talked about HSD Theory. In part 2, we discussed the relationship of HSD Theory to the kind of network mapping I’ve begun to call ‘Social System Mapping’. Now we’ll address practice - what is Glenda learning from her social system map?

Theory in Practice - the HSD Network Map

I asked Glenda what she’d hoped for when we started mapping - why did we go ahead?

Well, we started the Institute in 2003. We've been talking about our network for 15 years, but it only existed in imagination. To be able to see it on the screen was just thrilling—is thrilling…continues to be thrilling. Every time I open it up I just get a tingle. And the reason for that, I think, is that we've talked about the HSD Associate network; we've described it, we've brought people into it, we've made decisions based on it, but it has always been a miasma; an imagination. It existed primarily in my mind and sometimes in other people's minds [chuckles]. And, so, to make it manifest; seeing it in a concrete way, was just thrilling.

 

The practical reason that we decided to do it was that we've gotten large enough that the Institute can no longer sustain the central hub. (Think about tensions accumulating and requiring a structural shift!) Up until now, a few of us formed a central hub. We had connections to everybody; hub and spoke. And then we added a couple of other hubs; hub and spoke. We put those new hubs inside the institute, so, the institute became the hub. A bigger hub and more spokes increased the capacity of our network, but it still wasn't enough, and we've even moved beyond that. Now we need some way to allow people to connect to multiple nodes and for multiple hubs to emerge. So, what we've seen has not been a scale-free network. It's still hub and spoke, basically, but we hope the model sets the conditions for us to think about the network’s dynamics and to begin to work on setting conditions for a scale-free network to emerge--which is, ultimately, the most sustainable.

Me: “Can you define what you mean by scale-free network here?”

Sure, in a scale-free network, there are many hubs, and each hub has nodes connected to it. If you zoom in on any node it can look like a hub and if you zoom out there are many nodes. No matter how close or far away you are, the structure looks the same, so that the structure is fractal and coherent. The scale-free network is more resilient than a hub and spoke, because the stress is distributed across multiple hubs. It is also more efficient than all-to-all network because when there are so many connections, the nodes are locked in and the system has reduced freedom to self-organize and adapt.

 

Consciousness & Choices Generated by HSD Network Map

The first thing I wanted to know was: Who have connected in the constellation but really far away, so that we don't even know they’re there?

 

Out of eight-hundred (800) HSD Practitioners, we have about ten percent (10%) who are close enough in to send their data for the mapping. When we sent out the request to come and join the network, the first people who came and signed on were ones we hadn't heard from in years. They had gotten certified, got the skills they wanted, and then they disappeared. From what we knew, they haven't hooked back into the network, and we can’t tell if they have stayed connected and silent or totally disconnected. In responding to the survey, they let us know they were there! That happened for several people. It gave them a concrete way to engage with the network that they didn't have before and for us to know that they were connecting. So, that's one thing that has been really useful.

 

The second thing we wanted to know was: Which of our messages are most relevant to which people?

 

In response to this question, we have been using the map very explicitly for communications. We host open program Adaptive Action Labs, and we want to promote them to members of our network, but we don’t want to send people messages they’re not interested in. With the map up and running, we go into the network [map], extract the names of people who are interested in a particular topic, send emails to them saying, “we know you're interested in this, we know you know people who are interested in this. Please join us and pass the word along to your friends.” We just started this as a formal way in January, so, we haven't had a lot of time ,but it has significantly increased our marketing and sales reach.” So, that's the second thing. We're using it really explicitly to target our marketing.

 

The third question is: Who will make the best network leaders for geographical or interest groups?

 

The scale-free network idea is that we will have distributed hubs that are somewhat formal. We have a hub here in the Twin Cities, one in the UK, and one in Amsterdam. We would like to establish others, and we're using the network to see who and where they should be. We have used databases and anecdotes to do this same thing in the past, but the network map is going to make it much easier to identify potential groups and potential hubs.

 

So the network map is helping us by, (1) making us conscious of the edges of the network in a way that we weren't before. (2) letting us know that there are clusters of people who are interested in the same things or living close together; and (3) being conscious of the people who are natural hubs so they can work with us to strengthen the network.

 

***The Tensions (oh, those perpetual tensions. . . )

I may be delusionally aspirational, but I consider my core work to be developing the data-gathering & visualization tools needed to help with this ‘system seeing itself’ problem. I’m content to let others who are wiser develop the activities and the stories and the frameworks and the processes that help with the ‘seeing’ - I just want to make sure they have valid and meaningful information to look at in support of that process. But in order to do that, I need to be conscious of what those others are doing with the existing tools and what more they’re looking for. I have to live in the midst of that particular tension, or gap between what is & what’s needed.

Glenda gave me some great ideas about how to inform the sense-making system-seeing process, which I’ll put into another post soon. She also helped me become more conscious of the tensions accumulating for her in the present moment - relative to our current data-toolset.

I don't know that there's anything I've done in the last ten (10) years that has been as exciting to me as getting our network map. And, still, the map at any moment captures only one set of relationships. It privileges a set of relationships that we've defined at a specific time. We think that is a good representation of reality, but it is not reality. It may be good enough for now, but how can it be better?

 

We're thinking about the real network we are trying to model. We want to make our network map as close to reality as possible, so we are looking for how the lived network is different from the modeled network.. What we've noticed is every node has a few named connections and lots of potential connections at any given moment. For example, Toine is an HSD Associate who lives in the Netherlands. He is a consultant for public infrastructure construction projects. Toine belongs to one learning group and serves as Praxis Partner for others. He works with a team of Associates to expand his theory and practice. He has connected with other Associates in the Netherlands and across Europe. All those connections show on the map, but there is much more. He can have coffee with Kevin, call me up, write an article with Judy in New Zealand, sponsor a consulting job with a client, hold a public event, go to a conference in his field and talk to people about HSD. None of these shows up on the map right now, but they could. They are potential connections.

 

At any given moment he's not going to be doing all that stuff, but he has the potential for it. And that's just one person, we've got 800 of them.

 

So, how can we think of a model in which each node has an infinite number of possibilities and is at a moment manifesting some of them; actualizing some of them. Depending on who they are and where they are and what they’re doing, each Associate is going to choose one connection or another. They will continually make new connections and let others fade away. The result is a stable network that emerges in a place and time for a certain purpose and then it dissolves again. Then it emerges in another configuration and dissolves again. We talk about this as a “cloud network.” I have no idea how we might model it, but it is how I now think and talk about our network of Associates. I don’t think I could have conceptualized this more realistic and complex picture before I saw our current network map. It has helped me become more conscious of what is, so I can understand what is happening, and make better decisions to inform the future..

The tension accumulating for me is the need to translate what exists in other’s imaginations, is infinite, abstract, and non-linear down into processes and code that are easy to use, expressed in bits & bytes, fanatically linear, very finite, and as un-imaginative as hell, so that we can then model or represent all of that in visualizations that capture the imagination, point toward, and at least minimally ‘feel’ like those open, high-dimension, non-linear models Glenda and others are asking for. That may seem easy (I get that a lot ‘why can’t you just. . . . .’) to you, but to me - it feels intractable. But I take heart from Glenda’s approach to the so-called intractable:

It's never intractable because there's always the next wise action. There's always something you can do..

Interviewing Glenda was one of those next wise actions on my part - I learned a lot! Thank you Glenda - on so many levels!

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