Archive for November, 2005

Evangelists tell stories

Last week I was asked to present at the World Usability Day events in Christchurch. The topic was Usability: Evangelising for Change. Usability isn’t my field, so I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to say. I have in my career however, been driven to evangelise many new approaches and methods. This includes web design (in the mid 90s), Intranets, Knowledge Management, Change Management, dataset federation, Grid computing, the list goes on. As I put together the presentation, I realised that almost every means for evangelising that I had used over the years included a strong narrative component.

In the presentation used Steve Denning’s World Bank story as an example (using a story to promote the use of story…). In thinking about whether diagrams (e.g. consultant’s 2×2 matrices) had ever worked for me, as they hadn’t for Steve so he relied on story, I realised that where these had been successful they had used narrative elements. Effectively we had found metaphors that resonated with the client, (e.g. an ecological metaphor for knowledge flow at an environmental research institute) and used these in diagrams to represent a KM strategy.

Another method that works well is centred around the “you can’t be a prophet in your own land” truism. This involves getting your customers to tell their success stories. If we look back to many successful prophets and evangelists, they conveyed their new and often controversial ideas through parables and fables.

Stories, stories, everywhere. Here are the presentation slides.

Feral Robot Dogs

It was a sunny day at the Mission Bay Landfill site in San Diego. Over the normally tranquil, sun baked ground came rolling an army of dogs, sniffing here, sniffing there. Following the dogs came an unusual collection of students, local politicians, Environmental Health specialists and journalists. They watched the dogs as they sniffed out environmental toxin emissions, following scent vectors across the site containing over fifty years of industrial waste dumping.

But these weren’t just any dogs. They were feral robot dogs. They started their lives as inane children’s toys, but through mutations caused by inspired hardware and software hacking conducted by students they have been transformed into tools for mediagenic activist sense making.

Putting aside a passing interest in the emerging hardware hacking movement, I find this fascinating. Fascinating in terms of participative sense making, rather than any techno wizardry. These dogs have cameras mounted in their rears, rather than their fronts (where their toxic sensing ‘noses’ are). The cameras are in their rears so they can film the people following them. These aren’t so much scientific devices as a way of enabling lay people to make sense of the invisible threats in their local environment. People follow the dogs, observe their behaviour, talk to each other, have conversations about the significance of what the dogs do, interact with people they normally wouldn’t have, and make collective sense of the problem facing them. The conversations and people’s actions are filmed for further discussion and sense making later. This might not be as ‘precise’ as a scientist taking an industrial strength ‘sniffer’, analysing the data, writing a paper, and presenting at a conference, but it’s a damn sight more real to those who participate. As such, is seems just possible that it might spur more action, make more of a difference.

If we let people create tools that enable them to make collective sense of their surroundings (whether in a landfill or a corporate organisation), are they more likely to take effective action than if they receive advice from an outside expert?

A pod cast on the project is available at IT Conversations. More info on the project at

Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in a world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.
Muhammad Ali