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  • The Secret Powers (and Politics) of Documentation

    The Secret Powers (and Politics) of Documentation

    Friends and colleagues will attest that I am often the first to write on the white board during a meeting or sketch out ideas on scrap paper during a chat. Apparently, all this time I have been pulling a power move! 

    Last week, in the course I'm taking on social research methods, we explored the secret powers and politics of documentation... including, how the act of writing can be an act of claiming power. 

    Taking a close look at documents has been surprisingly interesting! The process of creating influential documents turns out to be super political and the act of authoring can be a sensemaking tool. Below, I dig into these and other reflections.

    The write up is rough but my aim is to keep writing and reflecting as part of my learning process with this course. Cheers :)




    1. A document is powerful in and of itself.

    The mere existence of a document can be powerful. In government, a policy doesn’t exist until a file exists. 

    Documents can stand in as shorthand for the set of ideas, perspectives, orders, or recommendations that make up its contents. For example, white papers and policy documents simultaneously weave a set of ideas into a cohesive narrative while (hyper)linking out to other pieces of writing. And by mentioning such a document, you invoke the set of ideas that are contained within its pages. 

    Khizr Khanfather of a fallen Muslim US soldier—provides a great example of the power of a document at the US Democratic National Convention last month. In his speech, Khan condemned Trump by invoking the United States Constitution. Because we already know that the US Constitution is the foundational text about citizens' rights and freedoms, and the values by which the US runs, Khan's message is powerful. We don't need to go out to read the Constitution at that moment, its mere mention is enough to be incredibly moving.

    And that’s the funny thing about documents. They can be filed away and never read. By exisitng, it has power.

    2. Documenting equals sensemaking.

    Writing is a way to discover what one thinks, rather than simply a way to record previously conceived meanings or decisions.  This analogy from the literature says it well: 

    Why policy makers produce documents may be something like why architects draw.

    When creating plans for a new building, an Architect must consolidate a ton of different view points, ideas, agendas—the city inspector's, the police officer's, teacher's, young family's, retiree's, and whoever else has a stake in the building. Only by putting pencil to paper (or now digitally via AutoCAD) is the Architect able to work through these interests in order to arrive at a working draft. Similarly for influential documents, like policy documents, it is by beginning to write that the author works through how to select and order the elements that will make up the text.

    Thus, it is the act of writing, editing, and re-writing that enables us to organize thoughts and form our stance. This certainly rings true for me; it's why I started writing this blog.

    But this notion becomes interesting when we consider that most researchers and policy makers are positivists: meaning that they believe there is one "truth". As opposed to the constructivist view I describe above that believes we are carving out the "truth" that is fit for purpose out of the many truths out there. Still chewing on this and it's implications - other than that positivists miss out on a lot of good goss and nuance around group dynamics and power relationships!

    3. Documents build communities and spread ideas.

    Communities come together around documents and spread its messages via documents. The obvious example is: religious communities who are joined by the bible or Torah or Quran or Kojiki or other religious text. 

    But the same holds for communities of practice. For example, the social innovation community has it’s own set of influential texts: Recipes of Systemic Change, Public & Collaborative, I-teams, Grounded Change ... and there are many more. Members of the community are familiar with the content of the docs, speak the jargon of the docs, and actively discuss, critique, and spread the ideas held within the docs. There are conferences and meet-ups and workshops and webinars and gatherings. We write responses to each others discussion papers and blog about ideas in reports. The collection of texts act as a sort of boundary for the community.

    And, the release of a new document is often accompanied with a launch party, serving not only to bring it's community together but also in hopes that the community will read and spread its messages - for with greater readership, the document has greater power.

    4. Authors hold power and can be the focus of research.

    While the reader “follows” the text, the autonomy is with the writer. - Freeman & Maybin

    The Author selects and prioritizes information to include in the document, weighing what is pertinent, strategic, and appropriate - depending on the intent of the document. He or she (or they) has the power to promote, exaggerate, downplay, or leave out information. This power is amplified in the case of influential documents. 

    For example, in the early days of Kudoz, we learned that IQ has a major influence on whether a person receives government disability funding or not. This definition of disability that the sector uses comes from the American Psychiatric Association’s "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”. Thus, the way this definition is framed here has profound implications on people’s lives. Yet, someone wrote this manual. In fact, there was likely a committee, via lengthy and numerous meetings, and many drafts. For such an influential text, not just anyone gets to be the author - the decisions around what is included or excluded has it’s own politics. 

    And so, researchers also study the process of creating influential documents, not only the content of said documents. The study of the process and politics behind document creation falls under the practices of institutional ethnography or organizational sociology.

    And focussing research on documentation is not so unlike other social research. Its still about the dynamics, interactions, practices at play, only the focus on the research (the phenomena under the microscope) is the artifact: the document. 

    This to me was the ultimate sign of power and influence; that a document could be important enough to be the subject of study!

    more reflections coming soon!

    NOTE: this post is part of a series of reflections from a course in Qualitative Research Methods at London School of Economics / click for more



    "Documents, practices and policy" by Richard Freeman and Jo Maybin, in Evidence & Policy, vol 7, no 2, 2011, p. 155-170

    Header image: Receipts Liz Plahn

    Second image: Filing Cabinets twheat

  • Opinions Are Fluid

    Opinions Are Fluid

    Who goes to school during their holiday? Nerds. Says the girl typing this blog post from her dorm room while supposedly being on holiday. It's been just a week and a half since my official last day as a Partner & Director at InWithForward. I stepped down from my day-to-day role there and am continuing to stay connected to the IWF work and superstar team, now as Senior Advisor. After a whirlwind 2 years with IWF, I am taking this month for myself... and taking a course in social research methods at the London School of Economics to kick it off. This is the beginning of processing my whole incredible experience with IWF and of figuring out what will be next for me - I have some ideas ;)

    The LSE program has been awesome so far.

    At InWithForward, the lab approach blends social science rigour with strategic design methods. Some of my favourite parts of this approach have been the social sciency bits, especially ethnographic research and all that goes with it. So when I found this program, I knew I had to apply. 

    So here I am, nerding out on qualitative research methods with 40 other practitioners and scholars from around the world - including a doctor from Ireland, lawyers from Spain and from Kenya, business university directors from India, an energy advisor from Saudi Arabia, researchers from Croatia and UK and Norway and Germany and Indonesia, an educator from Belgium (from Antwerp to be exact!), development workers from UK and Kyrgyzstan... and it goes on. Needless to say I'm the least interesting person in the room and I'm totally loving it.

    One thing I learned from being part of developing Kudoz at InWithForward, is that: humans learn from reflecting on an experience, not from the experience on it's own. That means: for me to get the most from this course, I need to spend time reflecting on what I'm learning.

    Below are some of my reflections... they're still rough but they're there - done is better than perfect.



    From the book "Qualitative research for development: A Guide for Practitioners" by Morten Skoval & Flora Cornish, which was highly recommended by the prof.

    TAKEAWAYS thus far 

    1. Opinions are being formed and reformed all the time.

    constructivist point of view starts from the premise that our opinions are fluid rather than fixed. That our opinions are being formed and reformed all the time based on what we come in contact with in the world, who we're speaking with, what we're reflecting on - basically that humans are messy complex creatures. That we don’t have a set opinion, that things can change. Makes sense to me.

    What's interesting for social research methods is that it means different kinds of information (data) will be unearthed in interviews versus in focus groups. That's because group conversations are a place where opinions and stances are formed, shifted, clustered, negotiated and debated. Where as in interviews, it's a two way exchange and the interview subject may present a particular side of themselves to you.

    And, the Opinions Are Fluid perspective becomes interesting when thinking about the most common criticism of focus groups: that people's opinions will be swayed or silenced by whoever is the more dominant voice in the group.

    BUT A) if we accept that opinions are constantly shifting, then this is just part of what group discussion is about, so what we want to watch for are the dynamics and social norms about the topics are. At what point are people being silenced, how and why might that be happening, what can that tell us about attitutes? AND B) group composition plays a role - not having obvious power clashes or situations where some members of the group are intimidated to speak up.

    2. Focus groups give us a window into what people really think - the noble, the shameful, the gossip.

    Focus groups are good at gathering opinions or understanding how opinions shift or are negotiated or debated in groups. They can tell us about what are the complexities of issues - which likely won't come out in an interview, for ex. because you may not want to press on about a sensitive topic but a peer may be able to.

    It seems counter-intuitive, but people may be more likely to say more taboo things in a group, if the group composition is right and if the group feels safe. For ex. in an article about attitudes about HIV/AIDS, a focus group members revealed racist opinions about where aids comes from. In a one-on-one interview, the same person may not feel the support of the group in order to be able to say waht they really think, for fear of judgement.

    Focus groups are also a great way to learn about a group's shared reference points, slang or jargon, the latest gossip. For ex. if you were studuing 16 year old girls attitudes towards social media, they are going to have a very different conversation with you, an adult, than with their gal pals. Because teenagers relate differently among their peers than they do with adults.

    So focus groups can be a particularly powerful tool in getting useful and interesting data.

    However, focus groups are not great at eliciting people's personal stories. Because telling your own story in a group setting isn’t so helpful for conversation flow. People sit there politely waiting for you to finish. They can’t debate it bcause it's your story. But if it’s an opinion, they can jump on it and make jokes about it or refute it or whatever else. 

    3. Grounded Theory 

    InWithForward uses grounded theory as a research design approach, and I've heard a lot about Grounded Theory from Sarah and Daniela. So I was particularly interested in how they explained this topic. Grounded Theory emerged in response to the prevailing rigid research methods of the time - researchers felt they needed to get back to the data and be led by the data. The main point about Grounded Theory is its heavy focus on being inductive and working from the data without preconceptions. That means you don't start with a fixed research questions, rather your question gets more and more refined as you go along, and you keep circling back to get more indepth data based on what you're hearing.

    This is consistent with how Kudoz emerged: first from a study about social isolation, then as more was learned, the research focus was refined to studying poverty of experiences among adults living with a disability. It's really neat to be learning, through this course, about the methodological decisions that Sarah has been making in her research design / it is making the course material come alive. 

     summary slide about Grounded from the course

    4. Reading about a study's Research Methods turns out to be super interesting!

    Qualitative Researchers spell out, in great detail, exactly what they did in their study.

    This is because rigour is determined by transparency and soundness of the methodology rather than by replicability. It would be impossible to have the exact same interview twice - people won't say the same thing, things will have changed in their lives, and anyway that's not the point with qualitative research. By spelling it out, the reader can decide for themselves whether the research design and execution is sound.

    And, we also have to keep in mind that methodological decisions are made around constraints and practicalities. So one must read the research methods with practical considerations in mind. For ex. in a report about infertility among women in Milawi, the researchers recruited their research sample by asking nurses to recommend women who had infertility problems in the past. The researchers would then approach the women, let them know that the nurse recommended them, then ask them if they indeed had fertility problems. If the woman agreed, they could be part of the research sample. This recruitment approach is problematic because a) there is pressure to say yes, since the nurse said so, and b) they may not actually think of themselves as infertile but then are asked to confirm this label - and there is tremendous stigma related to infertility among this community, so it could be distressing to be labelled as such if you did not think fo yourself as such.   However, if we consider the context and constraints, going through the nurses may have been the only practical way to recruit research participants.

    Moral of the story: qualitative research is murky and complex. As the Researcher, the best you can do is be as ethical as possible (including prior approval by an ethics board), lay out all the details of what you did, and let the reader decide whether it is sound. 

    5. There are power imbalances between researcher and research subject - act responsibly.

    With design, the user is king. The user has the opportunity to reject the thing that was designed. If the user thinks it doesn’t work, doesn't like it, doesn’t choose it, then who cares. It is worthless. 

    However, for many researchers, the intent is not to create a product or a service that will be used by the people being studied. Rather, the intent is usually to further knowledge around a certain phenomenon.

    So what happens in practice is that: the researcher goes into the field, extracts data from the field, analyses the data, writes it up, and uses it for their own purposes - be it teaching, presentations, in journals, to share with the social science community. So the researcher has power over what happens with the data and the purpose is not necessarily to create value for the people they interviewed - and the language is about "not doing harm" rather than "doing good for". Pretty different stances.

    This difference is really intersting to me, as it creeped into assumptions about methodological considerations. Still stewing on this one.

    6. Some questions that remain about interviewing...

    To what extent is the researcher guiding the interview and facilitating, and to what extent do you let it go naturally in the direction it wants to go - like a conversation. Obviously you have goals of the types of things you want to know about. But you are there to listen.

    How direct can you be with your questoins, especially difficult questions - what can be learned from the field of journalism about probing into sensitive or controversial topics? And what ethical considerations are needed so that you don't cause harm to the interviewee by being too intense. 

    .... more reflections coming soon!

  • Unpicking Impact at LabWorks

    Unpicking Impact at LabWorks

    [reposted from IWF blog, viewable here]

    InWithForward was invited to speak on the Impact Panel at LabWorks 2015, hosted by Nesta in London UK. Labworks, now in it's fourth year, is a roving international gathering for practitioners working in innovation units in and alongside governments & non-profits (side note: I had the pleasure of co-hosting last year's gathering, Labs for Systems Change, in Toronto with Joeri of Solutions Lab!). The gathering is a place to learn from peers, make new connections, and share what is working and not working in the world of Labs, in order to further the practice of social innovation.

    The timing of the gathering was a challenge. Our team was in the final two weeks of the Burnaby prototype, which meant anticipation was high and there was a tonne to do on the ground. For example, it meant I would miss the Kudoz Badging Ceremony, our phase one wrap celebration where hosts, Ku-doers, family members, and agency staff were recognized for their achievements and we shared where we got to with the prototype. It also meant my return flight would touch down in Vancouver just-in-time for the Fifth Space demo day, meaning I could help out with set up and production on the day-of but would be less helpful in the lead up event management. Thus, I was torn about joining the gathering. But we decided it was worth it. So I hopped on a plane to meet up with the International lab community to share our work on "The Impact Imperative" Panel.

    The gathering itself was well organized and executed; however, I found myself anxious that the public conversation seemed to have not progressed much since this time last year. With so many inspiring practitioners from around the world in attendance, I was looking forward to moving beyond the standard meet & greet, in order to share and swap the actual work we’re all hard at work doing… the nitty gritty granular stuff. 

    Grateful for the insightful side chats, I was left wondering, how can we make the sides the main event at future gatherings? How can we use current work - like Kudoz and Fifth Space - as live case studies? And how can we have many more live case studies to sink our teeth into and spark critical debate? Given that this work is still so unproven, the more we ground it in tangible examples, the more we can understand where our philosophies diverge and converge and whether we are chasing the same outcomes. For, getting a handle on the wicked challenges we face requires a coordinated full court press.

    Below is the video and storybook up from my presentation, with thanks to Sarah, Jonas, and Yani for help in pulling everything together in record time! For the write up of my talk, check out the IWF post.

    - Satsuko

    We couldn't have slides so to accompany the talk we created this story book, which we handed out to the audience.

    Here is the video of the talk!

  • Scheduling Change

    Scheduling Change

    [my first blog on the IWF site / one month into joining the team. See original post on the IWF website here; also posted on the SiG website here]

    8:12am    Ashley: ok, I just got a text that Kelly is sick.

                     Don: what time does she start?

                     Ashley: 10:30

                     Don stares at his computer screen, toggling between tabs on the google spreadsheet: has Saul worked with Randy?

                     Ashley: I think Clay has.

                     Don: Clay? Before we do that let’s call Saul

                    Ashley: we’ve pulled almost all the *casuals, oh Mick is extra today

                    Don: Melody has worked with Randy

                    Ashley: ya we can do that

                    Don: ok I’ll change it in the schedule if you call

                    Ashley starts dialling: right!

                    Don: better put it on the chat before Francine steals her.

    8:15am   Ashley: yup

    This was exactly the kind of conversation I was hoping to catch. From 7:50am to 10am, perched on a chair beside Don, I scribbled in my notepad as quickly as I legibly could. I was attempting to capture Don’s moves on a pretty micro level: his mouse clicks, the number of times he toggled between web browser tabs, text message sent and received, facial expressions (concentration face, calm, joking around, adrenalin), timings, interruptions, conversations between colleagues. We’re trying to learn everything we can about staff scheduling at our Burnaby project partner agencies, because the success of Kudoz depends on it.

    Learning about scheduling at one of our partner agencies

    I was hanging out with Don because he is responsible for managing the schedule of two disability day programs, comprised of about 35 staff. He is part of a 4 person scheduling team. If any of his 4 colleagues receives a sick call, even if the shifts in Don’s programs are balanced and none of his staff cancel shifts, he may need to move around his staff to figure out a new configuration. There are tons of variables and rigid union regulations that schedulers juggle in their head. A simpler staff switch may take a couple minutes to sort out. A tougher one can take a couple hours and up to 9 shift swaps, not to mention the accompanying calls to each of staff and families affected (this was the case with a sick call on Monday, Don tells me, where he couldn’t find anyone to cover the shift and ended up going on the floor himself). I record tons of clicking between google docs, one-handed text messages sent, scrunchy foreheads, jokes between the team, and greetings to individuals. By 9:35am, I already had 9 pages of notes.

    The typical chain of events when Don receives a sick call

    We were observing Don with a very specific aim: to spot opportunity areas, which are often disguised as bottlenecks and barriers. Specifically, we are seeking to understand: what is the most annoying, time-consuming or anxiety-producing part of the scheduling process, what is the most rewarding moments that make it worthwhile, what is considered a good scheduling outcome, what skills help you excel at this type of work, what motivates schedulers and how do incentive structures support that. Don used the above diagram to talk me through his answers.

    Scheduling? So what?

    I joined InWithForward about a month ago, bringing a business lens. My main focus has been on the business model for Kudoz. And related to that, how this new service will fit into the existing organizational structure and systems of our three partner agencies and the developmental disabilities sector as a whole. Staff scheduling quickly rose to the top as a potential barrier for Kudoz. That’s because Kudoz uses paid staff time in 1-3 hour increments during regular program hours. For Don, this means that if any of his staff become a Kudoz host, the schedules he manages would be affected. In order for Kudoz to take hold and spread, we are working hard to figure out how to integrate Kudoz into existing structures and to make it easier and more convenient than the existing system. Because Kudoz will be squashed if it creates extra work or a headache for schedulers like Don.

    [Some early thoughts on different ways Don’s staff could work around the schedule in order to become a Kudoz host]

    (Early) insights & hunches

    Based on our ethnographic observations thus far, we have a couple hunches.

    One hunch is that Kudoz will be able to collect, accumulate, and leverage idle work hours in order to enable staff to share their passion with persons-served, all during work time.

    For salaried staff with flexible hours, this hunch means using slower office times during the day, week, month, or year towards hosting Kudoz experiences (we are currently testing this). For hourly support staff with defined shifts, this hunch means shaving off and banking idle work hours from a shift, in order for the hours to be re-purposed towards hosting a one-on-one experience to share their passion with an individual-served.

    For example, some possible idle time that disability day program staff could potentially bank include:

    • (±40 minutes) when program staff are on the clock at the agency but their person served hasn’t arrived yet for their day program
    • (±20 minutes) allotted to program staff for writing and reading log notes; casuals usually aren’t required to do so
    • (3-4 hours) when casual staff are on shift but an individual served ends up not coming in; due to union regulations, the shift cannot be cancelled
    • (1-2 hours) when a casual staff is called to cover a 2 hour staff meeting; but a casual cannot be booked for a shift that is less than 3-4 hours (minimum shift hours are different per agency).

    These examples alone free up 6-7 hours for meaningful experiences that equate to individuals-served learning and growing their sense of self. And, staff get to share their personal passions on work time, leading to higher productivity and morale and lower absenteeism/presenteeism.

    Another hunch is that much of the scheduling process could be automated to create efficiency gains and eliminate many of schedulers’ pain points.

    One of the partner agencies has recently switched over to a bespoke software program for scheduling, that has been rolled out over the last year. Another agency uses google docs. Another uses paper. No matter the system, there are tons of variables that schedulers hold in their head. Some of this information is written somewhere, often the result of a scheduler going on a holiday and needing to share the info with their colleagues. But most of the tacit knowledge is not. And most of it is not reflected in the software they use. We think it could be!

    We are making a list of specs that a Kudoz enabled scheduling system would need to include, and we are learning more everyday. Some of these specs include:

    • automated text/call/email notifications of shifts when there are changes, based on the staff preferred method of communication, how soon the shift is, etc.
    • the option of a daily automated text that let’s them know who will be working with their son/daughter that day, based on family’s communication preferences
    • drop down menu per specific shift, with all the staff that are trained and available to work on given shift (even if they are scheduled for another shift), and the number of swaps that would be required if that staff was chosen
    • recommendations of the most desirable swap, based on relationships between staff and the individual's, an individual’s preferences (would like a different staff every three days), past interactions with family, etc./ all of which would be inputted by schedulers
    • include “long shot” swap options; ie. staff who are likely unable to cover a shift (based on the availability they provided) but might be able to

    These specifications aim to minimize/eliminate the need for staff to negotiate swapping staff across programs (one of the major pain points identified by schedulers) and lessen the burden of communicating changes (calling people and waiting to hear back and adjusting the various systems to reflect changes, is often the most time consuming part of shifting the schedule).

    For now, we are pulling inspiration from restaurant scheduling apps and flight comparison aggregators sites to think creatively about what is possible. Any suggestions of ideas are super welcome~ please include them in the comments section!

    We’re left wondering…

    There are many things to test and work through over the next 5 months. Some of the questions we’re trying to figure out and are working through at the moment include:

    • How do we get parents on board with Kudoz? How do we help parents see Kudoz as an opportunity for growth for their children?
    • How do we work with managers whose staff are signing up to be Kudoz hosts?
    • What is the economic activity surrounding an individual served? Can we put a dollar amount on this? How can we bring out the stories behind the numbers, ie. what is the cost to quality of life and the ability to flourish? What are the positive deviant stories of individuals-served?

    There is nothing like a deadline to keep one moving and motivated.

    - Satsuko

    Jargon alert!

    Some of the sector specific language used in this post:

    *Casuals: a type of Support Worker that is on-call and employed when and if needed for disability day programs and for group homes (where 3-4 people with learning disabilities may live).

    *Support Staff/Workers: assist adults with a learning disability on a day-to-day basis, either one-on-one or as part of a small group (usually no more than 4).

    *Disability day program: a place where adults with learning disabilities go during the day. Day programs are staffed by support workers that help individuals work towards their personal development plans.