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D as Diagramming: iART Diagram Notation

This post is part of the D as Diagramming project which aims to explore the power of diagrams and diagramming. What I really want to know is about the value of diagrams for turning tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge.

Today I shall introduce a new concept called Diagram Notation.

What’s Diagram Notation? It means the process of adding notes on a diagram and turning a basic model into an expanded model. It also means the product of the final expanded model.

I will use the iART Framework as an example of Diagram Notation. If you want to know more about the iART Framework, you can check out the following links:

The name iART stands for i + Activity + Relationship + Themes. The iART Framework is also inspired by Robert Rosen’s Anticipatory System theory. One sub-model of the iART Framework is also named as Transactional Anticipatory System.

1. An example of Diagram Notation

The term “Diagram Notation” is inspired by Daisy Mwanza’s Activity Notation which is one of four methodological tools of Activity-Oriented Design Method (AODM).

The Activity Notation is based on Yrjö Engeström’s Activity System Model. See the diagram below. You can find more details about it from a previous article: Activity U (IV): The Engeström’s Triangle and the Power of Diagram.

Yrjö Engeström: The structure of human activity (1987, p.94)

In 2001, Daisy Mwanza published a paper and introduced an activity theory based methodology for guiding computer system design. She argued that “ Activity Theory (AT) has emerged as a suitable framework for analysing social and cultural issues because it provides a language to describe what people do in context. However, many computer system developers have failed to benefit from this insight mainly due to lack of established methods to operationalise ideas from this framework for the purpose of guiding the design process.”

Noticing the lack of a standard and specified method for applying Activity Theory within HCI, Mwanza developed an Activity-Oriented Design Method (AODM) with four methodological tools. One of the tools is called Activity Notation which breaks down the situation’s whole activity system into smaller manageable sub-activity triangles (see the diagram below).

Source: Where theory meets practice: a case for an activity theory based methodology to guide computer system design (Daisy Mwanza, 2001)

She also developed a set of general research questions which are specific to a particular combination within the activity notation. Mwanza said, “These questions are used as pointers to what to look for during observational studies, also in questionnaires and interviews as triggers to help decide on what questions to ask.” Finally, researchers and designers can analyse and interpret data they gathered with a key concept of activity theory: contradictions.

The Activity Notation can be considered as an expanded model of the Activity System. Now we can use the term Diagram Notation to describe the process of adding notes to a diagram d and turning a basic model into an expanded model.

2. The Basic Model of the iART Framework

The diagram below is the basic model of the iART Framework. The name iART stands for i +Activity + Relationship + Themes.

The iART framework offers an ecological perspective on personal adult development. The term “ecological perspective” means the following three contexts of personal development:

You can find more details from a previous article: D as Diagramming: The iART Framework.

The diagram is very simple. However, the framework presents the complexity of life growth. As a framework, it can be used for various situations such as different types of relationships of “Self — Other”.

Thus, the simple should be expanded to a diagram notation in order to unpack many relevant topics.

3. The Expanded Model of the iART Framework

I have introduced the following three pairs of concepts in a previous article for the basic model.

The article was published on August 12, 2021. A week later, I expanded the basic model to the following diagram with other relevant concepts.

These four pairs of concepts are located on the circle which represent the “Activity” and they can be grouped from another view:

We can consider these concepts as a new framework about the “Activity”.

Some concepts of this new framework are inspired by Activity Theory. For example, the pair concepts of “objective — object” and the pair concepts of “Motive — Result”.

However, it’s not an application of Activity Theory because Activity Theory doesn’t have concepts “Complexity”, “Competence”, and “Reward”.

4. Objective and Object

The concept of “Object” is the foundational concept of Activity Theory. According to the founder of Activity Theory A. N. Leontiev, “Separate concrete types of activity may differ among themselves according to various characteristics: according to their form, according to the methods of carrying them out, according to their emotional intensity, according to their time and space requirements, according to their physiological mechanisms, etc. The main thing that distinguishes one activity from another, however, is the difference of their objects. It is exactly the object of an activity that gives it a determined direction.” (1978, p.98)

So, what’s the object of activity?

The answer from Leontiev is the motive of activity. Leontiev claimed, “According to the terminology I have proposed, the object of an activity is its true motive. It is understood that the motive may be either material or ideal, either present in perception or exclusively in the imagination or in thought. The main thing is that behind activity there should always be a need, that it should always answer one need or another.” He also added a note about the term motive, “Such restricted understanding of motive as that object (material or ideal) that evokes and directs activity toward itself differs from the generally accepted understanding”.(1978, p.98)

The Object-orientedness principle is similar to other theories’ terms such as “needs”, “intentionality” or “intention”. According to Kaptelinin and Nardi (2012), “…all human activities are directed toward their objects and differentiated from one another by their respective objects. Objects motivate and direct activities, around them activities are coordinated, and in them activities are crystallized when the activities are complete.” (p.29)

However, the concept of Object has a different meaning in the Activity System Model which was developed by Yrjö Engeström with the above triangle diagram. According to Kaptelinin and Nardi (2006), “For Leontiev, the object (predmet) of activity is an object of activities carried out by individuals, either collectively or individually, and is related to motivation. For Engeström, the object, introduced through the ‘subject — object’ distinction — that is, as objekt — is the object of collective activities. The object is defined as ‘the raw material’ or ‘problem space’ at which the activity is directed and which is molded and transformed into outcome…’ ” (2006, p.142–143)

Here we face two issues. The first one is the language issue. According to Kaptelinin and Nardi (2012), “In Russian there are two words with similar but distinct meanings: objekt and predmet. Both refer to objectively existing entities, but the notion of predmet typically also implies a relevance of the entity in question to certain human purposes or interests…Leontiev deliberately referred to the object of activity as predmet rather than object. However, this distinction is usually lost in English translation since both words are translated as ‘object.’ ” (p.29) The second one is the theoretical issue. Leontive and Engeström offer two theoretical accounts about human activities. One is about psychology while the other is about organizational change.

Source: Acting with Technology (2006, p.143)

As organizational scholar Frank Blacker (2009) claimed, “For newcomers to activity theory, the notion of the object of activity is unfamiliar and may not be easy to understand. Indeed, the term is complex; objects of activity need to be understood as simultaneously given, socially constructed, contested, and emergent.” He also pointed out, “The complexity of the term should not be thought of as a shortcoming of activity theory, however. Rather, it both reflects and reveals the complexity of human activity. ”

Some North American scholars use a special format to use the concept of objective: object(ive). For example, David Russell use the following sentences to describe Activity Theory in a paper titled Activity Theory and Its Implications for Writing Instruction, “I use the term object(ive) because it refers not only to persons or objects in a passive state (what is acted on) but also to the goal of an intentional activity, an objective, although the objective may be envisioned differently by different participants in the activity system.”

From the perspective of the iART framework,it’s clear that we have to use two terms because Objective (what is motive about) is about Future while Object (what is acted on) is about Present. See the diagram below.

For the iART Framework, Objective is related to Anticipation while Object is related to Performance.

5. Complexity and Competence

Activity Theory doesn’t talk about Complexity and Competence. According to Wikipedia, “Competence is the set of demonstrable characteristics and skills that enable and improve the efficiency or performance of a job. The term ‘competence’ first appeared in an article authored by R.W. White in 1959 as a concept for performance motivation. In 1970, Craig C. Lundberg defined the concept in ‘Planning the Executive Development Program’. The term gained traction when in 1973, David McClelland wrote a seminal paper entitled, ‘Testing for Competence Rather Than for Intelligence’. It has since been popularized by Richard Boyatzis and many others, such as T.F. Gilbert (1978) who used the concept in relationship to performance improvement. Its use varies widely, which leads to considerable misunderstanding.”

I think we don’t have to go too deep at this stage. We can use the definition from the dictionary:

For the iART Framework, the concept of Complexity refers to the difficulty of the activity. How hard is it for the actor to perform the activity? The concept of Competence refers to the possibility of the activity. Can the actor actually do it?

These two concepts are useful for both the Self side and the Other side. In order to make a good visual look, I just play them on the Other side. I also want to highlight the perspective from the Other side too. Let’s use the relationship of “Founder — Investor” as an example for the iART Framework. When a founder pitch an investor with a business plan to an investor, there are two common questions in the conversation:

Moreover, the iART Framework pays attention to the dynamics of the activity. It means the complexity is unfolding toward the future. Once the founder performs an action, the investor could perceive a new complexity which is related to the action. The Competence is related to present performance. The founder can learn new skill and knowledge and improve her competence. The investor could perceive the new competence form her new performance.

6. Result and Reward

The concept of Result is inspired by the concept of Outcome from Activity Theory. The Reward is about human motivation.

I prefer to use the diagram below to understand the concept of Outcome in general and the concept of Result for the iART Framework. The key is the idea of By-product which is adopted from Howard Gruber. You can find more details from a previous article: Life as Activity (version 0.3).

Life as Activity: The Achievement Chain (version 0.3, Oliver Ding, 2020)

For the concept of Reward, I’d like to adopt an established theory about human motivation: Self-Determination Theory (SDT) which pays attention to the Self and the Environment. It perfectly matches the iART framework because the Other is just an environment of the Self.

SDT claimed that there are three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. According to Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci who are the founders of SDT, “Our conceptualization of the effects of social contexts is pertinent to both motivation and behavior in immediate situations and to development and wellness over time. In other words, supports for autonomy, competence, and relatedness not only are theorized to facilitate more self-determined and high-quality functioning in the immediate situation, but they are also understood to promote the development of more effective self-functioning, resilience, and enduring psychological health for the long term.” (p.12) In other words, it is about both Present and Future.

One of six sub-theories of SDT is the Organismic Integration Theory (OIT) which offers a taxonomy of regulatory styles.

Source: Self-Determination Theory (2017, p.193)

Why do I adopt the OSI for our discussion? Because it is a model of internalization and integration. According to Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci who are the founders of SDT, “We defined internalization as the process of taking in values, beliefs, or behavioral regulations from external sources and transforming them into one’s own. Transformation involves actively making the internalized material one’s own, which, more precisely, means assimilating the regulation or value and integrating it with the other values, behaviors, attitudes, and emotions that are themselves inherent and/or have been deeply internalized by the individual. Thus, when a regulation that was originally socially transmitted has been fully internalized, it will largely be in harmony or congruence with other aspects of one’s values and personality, and enacting it will be experienced as autonomous.”(2017, p.182)

For the iART Framework, the relationship of “Self — Other” involves the internalization and integration through reward.

7. Motive and Moment

The above discussion has talked about objective, motivation, and reward. The section focuses on the relationship of “Motive (Objective) — Moment (Daily Actions)”.

This topic refers to a common issue, why can’t good wishes lead to good results?

In a 1974 book titled Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness, Chris Argyris and Donald A. Schön argued that there are two types of theories of actions, “When someone is asked how he would behave under certain circumstances, the answer he usually gives is his espoused theory of action for that situation. This is the theory of action to which he gives allegiance, and which upon request, he communicates to others. However, the theory that actually governs his actions is his theory-in-use, which may or may not be compatible with his espoused theory; furthermore, the individual may or may not be aware of the incompatibility of the two theories.” (1974, p.7)

Inspired by espoused theory/theory-in-use, I think we can consider two type of motives:

The Motive-in-communication is similar to the espoused theory of action because it is about claiming a motive. The Motive-in-moment is similar to the theory-in-use because it is about the actual motivation behind real actions.

Why do we need this distinction? Because the relationship of “Self — Other” and the related interactions are complex.

8. Diagram Focus

Now let’s put concepts from the basic model and the expanded model together and regroup them as four diagram focuses.

The first focus is “Anticipation — Objective — Motive” which is about “Self — Future”.

The second focus is “Performance — Object — Result” and it is about “Self — Present”.

The third focus is “Reflection — Competence — Moment” and it is about “Present — Other”.

The fourth focus is “Evaluation — Reward — Complexity” and it is about “Other — Future”.

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Oliver Ding

Founder of CALL(Creative Action Learning Lab), information architect, knowledge curator.