Sunday, March 21, 2021

Mapping the "structure of cooperation": Adding the time dimension and thinking about further analyses


In October 2020 I wrote the first blog of the same name, based on some experiences with analysing the results of a ParEvo exercise. (ParEvo is a web assisted participatory scenario planning process).

The focus of that blog posting was a scatter plot of the kind shown below. 

Figure 1: Blue nodes = ParEvo exercise participants. Indegree and Outdegree explained below. Green lines = average indegree and average outdegree

The two axes describe two very basic aspects of network strictures, including human social networks. Indegree, in the above example, is the number of other participants who built on that participant's contributions. Outdegree is the number of other participant's contributions that participant built on.  Combining these two measures we can generate (in classic consultants' 2 x 2 matrix style!) four broad categories of behavior, as labelled above. Behaviors , not types of people, because in the above instance we have no idea how generalisable the participants' behaviors are across different contexts. 

There is another way of labelling two of the quarters of the scatter plot, using a distinction widely used in evolutionary theory and the study of organisational behavior (March, 1991Wilden et al, 2019). Bridging behavior can be seen as a form of "exploitation" behavior, i.e., it involves making use of others prior contributions, and in turn having one's contributions built on by others.  Isolating behavior can be seen as a form of "exploration" behavior, i.e., building storylines with minimal help from other participants.  There is no ideal balance of these two approaches, rather it is thought to be context dependent. But, generally speaking, in stable environments exploitation is thought to be more relevant whereas in unstable environments, exploration is seen as more relevant.

What does interest me is the possibility of applying this updated analytical framework to other contexts. In particular to: (a) citation networks, (b) systems mapping exercises. I will explore citation networks first. Here is an example of a citation network extracted from a public online bibliographic database covering the field of computer science. Any research funding programme will be able to generate such data, both from funding applications and subsequent research generated publications.

Figure 2: A network of published papers, linked by cited references

Looking at the indegree and outdegree attributes of all the documents within this network the average indegree, and outdegree, was 3.9. When this was used as a cutoff value for identifying the four types of cooperation behavior, their distribution was as follows: 

  • Isolating / exploration = 59% of publications
  • Leading = 17%
  • Following = 15%
  • Bridging / exploitation = 8%
Their location within the Figure 2 network diagram is shown below in this set of filtered views.

Figure 3: Top view = all four types, Yellow view = Bridging/Exploitation, Blue = Following, Red = Leading, Green = Isolating/Exploration

It makes some sense to find the bridging/exploitation type papers in the center of the network, and the isolating/exploration type papers more scattered and especially out in the disconnected peripheries. 

It would be interesting to see whether the apparently high emphasis on exploration found in this data set would be found in other research areas. 

The examination of citation networks suggests a third possible dimension to the cooperation structure scatter plot. This is time, as represented in the above example as year of publication. Not surprisingly, the oldest papers have the higher indegree and the newest papers have the lower. Older papers (by definition, within an age bounded set of papers) have lower outdegree compared to newer papers).  But what is interesting here is the potential occurrence of outliers, of two types: "rising stars" and "laggards". That is, new papers with higher than expected indegree ("rising stars") and old papers with lower than expected indegree ("laggards", or a better name??), as seen in the imagined examples (a) and (b) below.

Another implication of considering the time dimension is the possibility of tracking the pathways of individual authors over time, across the scatter plot space. Their strategies may change over time. "If we take the scientist .. it is reasonable to assume that his/her optimal strategy as a graduate student should differ considerably from his/her optimal strategy once he/she received tenure" ( Berger-Tal, et al, 2014) They might start by exploring, then following, then bridging, then leading.

Figure 4: Red line = Imagined career path of one publication author. A and B = "Rising Star" and "Laggard" authors

There seem to be two types of opportunities present here for further analyses:
  1. Macro-level analysis of differences, in the structure of cooperation across different fields of research. Once identified, to what extent are these differences a causal factor affecting variations in achievements across those fields?
  2. Micro-level analysis of differences, in the behavior of individual researchers within a given field. Do individuals tend to stick to one type of cooperation behavior (as categorised above) and thus in aggregate determine the overall scatter plot distribution for a research field? Or is their behavior more variable over time? If so  so, is there still some element of predictability that could be useful to know e.g. by career maturity ?

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Connecting Scenario Planning and Theories of Change

This blog posting was prompted by Tom Aston’s recent comment at the end of an article about theories of change and their difficulties.  There he said “I do think that there are opportunities to combine Theories Of Change with scenario planning. In particular, context monitoring and assumption monitoring are intimately connected. So, there’s an area for further exploration”

Scenario planning, in its various forms, typically generates multiple narratives about what might happen in the future. A Theory Of Change does something similar but in a different way.  It is usually in a more diagrammatic rather than narrative form. Often it is simply about one particular view of how change might happen i.e., particular causal pathway or package thereof.  But in more complex network representations Theories Of Change do implicitly present multiple views of the future, in as much as there are multiple causal pathways that can work through these networks.

ParEvo is a participatory approach to scenario planning which I have developed and which has some relevance to discussion of the relationship between scenario planning and Theories Of Change.  ParEvo is different from many scenario planning methods in that it typically generates a larger number of alternative narratives about the future, and these narratives proceed rather than follow a more abstract analysis of causal processes that might be at work generating those narratives. My notion is that this narrative–first approach involves less cognitive demands on the participants, and is an easier activity to get participants engaged in from the beginning. Another point worth noting about the narratives is that they are collectively constructed, by different self-identified combinations of (anonymised) participants.

At the end of a ParEvo exercise participants are asked to rate all the surviving storylines in terms of their likelihood of happening in real life and their desirability.  These ratings can then be displayed in a scatterplot, of the kind shown in the two examples below.  The numbered points in the scatterplot are IDs for specific storylines generated in the same ParEvo exercise. Each of the two scatterplot represents a different ParEvo exercise.


The location of particular storylines in a scatterplot has consequences. I would argue that storylines which are in the likely but undesirable quadrant of the scatterplot deserve the most immediate attention.  They constitute risks which, if at all possible, need to be forfended, or at least responded to appropriately when they do take place. The storylines in the unlikely but desirable quadrant problem justify the next lot of attention.  This is the territory of opportunity. The focus here would be on identifying ways of enabling aspects of those developments to take place.  

Then attention could move to the likely and desirable quadrant.  Here attention could be given to the relationship between what is anticipated in the storylines and any pre-existing Theory Of Change.  The narratives in this quadrant may suggest necessary revisions to the Theory Of Change.  Or, the Theory of Change may highlight what is missing or misconceived in the narratives. The early reflections on the risk and opportunity quadrants might also have implications for revisions to the Theory Of Change.

The fourth quadrant contains those storylines which are seen as unlikely and undesirable.  Perhaps the appropriate response here is simply to periodically to check and update the judgements about likelihood and undesirability.

These four views can be likened to the different views seen from within a car.  There is the front view, which is concerned about likely and desirable events, our expected an intended direction of change.  Then there are two peripheral views, to the right and left, which are concerned with risks and opportunities, present in the desirable but unlikely, and undesirable but likely quadrants. Then there is the rear view, out the back, looking at undesirable and unlikely events.

In this explanation I have talked about storylines in different quadrants, but in the actual scatterplots develop so far the picture is a bit more complex.  Some storylines are way out in the corners of the scatterplot and clearly need attention, but others are more muted and mixed in the position characteristics, so prioritising which of these to give attention to first versus later could be a challenge.

There is also a less visible third dimension to this scatterplot. Some of the participants judgements about likelihood and desirability were not unanimous. These are the red dots in the scatterplot above. In these instances some resolution of differences of opinion about the storylines would need to be the first priority. However it is likely that some of these differences will not be resolvable, so these particular storylines will fall into the category of "Knightian uncertainties", where probabilities are simply unknown. These types of developments can't be planned for in the same way as the others where some judgements about likelihood could be made. This is the territory where bet hedging strategies are appropriate, a strategy seen both in evolutionary biology and in human affairs.  Bet hedging is a response which will be functional in most situations but optimal in none. For example the accumulation of capital reserves in a company, which provides insurance against unexpected shocks, but which is at the cost of efficient use of capital..

There are some other opportunities for connecting thinking about Theories Of Change and the multiple alternative futures that can be identified through a ParEvo process.  These relate to systems type modelling that can be done by extracting keywords from the narratives and mapping their cooccurrence in the paragraphs that make up these narratives, using social network analysis visualisation software.  I will describe these in more detail in the near future, hopefully.