Making Representations Matter: Al Selvin PhD

In an earlier post on Knowledge Art, a term coined by friend and colleague Al Selvin, I opened with this question:

What does it mean to be literate in crafting representations that help a group make sense of the world?

Arguably, this is a literacy of first order importance as we confront novel challenges of overwhelming complexity, which will always (and increasingly) require external representations as extensions and augmentations of personal and collective cognition. However smart our  technologies are, people must then engage in sensemaking activity around them to decide how to act. If a group is building a model of the world in some medium (paper +/or digital) what is the skillset to orchestrate effective interaction around and via that representation?

Compendium has provided us with a long term vehicle to explore these questions specifically around fluency with participatory hypermedia and knowledge cartography for sensemaking, but our interest has stretched beyond any one software tool or practice.

I’m delighted to say that Al has now completed his doctoral research, which has been unpacking this question very elegantly (see his Knowledge Art blog), and his dissertation is online today as a KMi Technical Report:

Selvin, A.M. (2011). Making Representations Matter: Understanding Practitioner Experience in Participatory Sensemaking. Doctoral Dissertation, Knowledge Media Institute, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK. Available as Eprint:

Abstract: Appropriating new technologies in order to foster collaboration and participatory engagement is a focus for many fields, but there is relatively little research on the experience of practitioners who do so. The role of technology-use mediators is to help make such technologies amenable and of value to the people who interact with them and each other. When the nature of the technology is to provide textual and visual representations of ideas and discussions, issues of form and shaping arise, along with questions of professional ethics. This thesis examines such participatory representational practice, specifically how practitioners make participatory visual representations (pictures, diagrams, knowledge maps) coherent, engaging and useful for groups tackling complex societal and organizational challenges. This thesis develops and applies a method to analyze, characterize, and compare instances of participatory representational practice in such a way as to highlight experiential aspects such as aesthetics, narrative, improvisation, sensemaking, and ethics. It extends taxonomies of such practices found in related research, and contributes to a critique of functionalist or techno-rationalist approaches to studying professional practice. It studies how fourteen practitioners using a visual hypermedia tool engaged participants with the hypermedia representations, and the ways they made the representations matter to the participants. It focuses on the sensemaking challenges that the practitioners encountered in their sessions, and on the ways that the form they gave the visual representations (aesthetics) related to the service they were trying to provide to their participants. Qualitative research methods such as grounded theory are employed to analyze video recordings of the participatory representational sessions. Analytical tools were developed to provide a multi-perspective view on each session. Conceptual and normative frameworks for understanding the practitioner experience in participatory representational practice in context, especially in terms of aesthetics, ethics, narrative, sensemaking, and improvisation, are proposed. The thesis places these concerns in context of other kinds of facilitative and mediation practices as well as research on reflective practice, aesthetic experience, critical HCI, and participatory design.

Many congratulations to him on completing this step of the journey, and I can’t wait to see what the next step holds in store.

A recent journal paper provides a partial account of this work:

Selvin, A., Buckingham Shum,S.J. & Aakhus, M. (2010). The Practice Level in Participatory Design Rationale: Studying Practitioner Moves and Choices. Human Technology (Special Issue on Creativity and Rationale, Ed. John Carroll), 6, (1), pp. 71–105. []. Preprint:

The webcast and slides from a KMi seminar he gave are below:

Al Selvin, KMi Webinar [click to replay in new tab]

Al Selvin, KMi Seminar, 8 June, 2011 [click to replay in new tab]

3 Responses to “Making Representations Matter: Al Selvin PhD”

  1. For more on Al Selvin’s work, browse

  2. […] on a book to distill the key messages from his long term research programme, culminating in his PhD 18 mnths ago. So, we’re thinking aloud as we try out different ideas… reactions […]

  3. […] to make good use of visualizations in real time, to augment the deliberation. Spearheaded by Al Selvin’s doctoral research, this led to a book that set out the concept of Knowledge […]

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