Being interoperable

Today has been a day of interoperability talk.


Well, a lot of my more recent life has been circling around interoperability. Cetis, who I have worked with in one way or another for nearly 20 years, started as the Centre for Educational Technology Interoperability Standards. Simply: to try to make sure that learning technology systems (particularly for higher education) stored information in a way that the information (about students as well as other institutional matters) could be extracted and reused in a different system, so avoiding lock-in to the products of particular vendors. I focused on electronic portfolios, but that's another story.

I'm talking with some really interesting people these days. This afternoon it was Dave Darby of Low Impact; this evening, with a whole bunch of people from the newly resurrected “Collaborative Technology Alliance”, which has been picked up by Hylo. (Actually I see there are many groups called “Collaborative Technology Alliance”. This is the one about building a set of tools for collaboration, in a commons-oriented way.)

I'm an oldie here in the interoperability game, and it was great to see both other oldies and youngsters. I'm all for intergenerational collaboration, if we can get it right. If the oldies can be listened to with respect, but not awe; so that the younger (not necessarily in biology, but definitely in spirit) can questions the wisdom of the ages and assess for themselves how it might be relevant, or not, to the current context, which is not the same as the context in which older experience was built up. Those with new ideas can still profitably listen to the constructive critique of the more experienced. There are patterns of success and failure which are subtle, and take some experience to perceive. But let the experienced ones NOT say “I found the one true way forward, you have to follow me.” Sheer delusion.

Here's a little from my experience. It's rare for an interoperability problem to be mainly technical. In all cases I've seen, the sticking points are more to do with the social. Technical and systems people are not always the ones with highest emotional and social awareness, sensitivity and ability. (I include myself.) I've rarely seen a technical person design an event well, so that people can hold the “conversations that matter” (Art of Hosting; Wikipedia) in a way that people interact most richly. And it was great to see a few people among the 20 this evening who are really holding that. (Here I am learning!)

The technical oldies remind us that it's very rare to create global interoperable systems. I say, that has been true; but look at the way that it was attempted. Look at the processes in standards bodies. They do not practice the art for their hosting. I ask, what if we combine the practice of that Art with the philosophy of the Commons? What excites me is the prospect of having a small team of experienced facilitators or hosts, who can come together and design interoperability conversations better.

I'll set out more of my home truths here – please do tell me if you have something to add, or to argue with. (And I can add your wisdom below if you want!) Interoperability at least needs a shared way of understanding the relevant bits of the world (an ontology, if that word works for you.) In a complex world, people develop their own ways of understanding, adapted to their own situations, and differing from those of others. So the first step is for everyone to listen deeply to how others make sense of their world, and why their thought patterns make sense to them. This can be painful – see my entry on questioning assumptions. Then, what I would love to see is a kind of collective presencing process through which genuine ways forward together can emerge. The emergent knowledge needs to be fluid, to be alive, not set in stone. So the processes and practices to keep it alive need to be designed and nurtured.

I hope we can get to try this, seriously!

Topics: Interoperability; Complex psychology

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