The Purpose of Social System Mapping

The Purpose of Social System Mapping

Social system mapping (SSM) is a new mapping practice that can present on the surface a sloppy mash-up of better-established and more-well-groomed methodologies. 

It was not pre-conceived, pre-defined, pre-justified & pre-proven. Rather, it is emerging from the interaction between what Tim & I were interested in working on - the problems we wanted to solve for - and a growing number of mappers' and network leader's intuitions, imaginations, and need to understand the contexts in which they act and lead more clearly.

Because it's new, because it's un-anticipated and emergent, it has taken awhile to articulate what 'it' is and why we, and others, are doing it. But now it has come along far enough that we can clarify that 'this' is NOT 'that'. We can define what 'this' is and why. And explain why it needs a name of it's own.

Step back into the story of geographical maps 

In order to frame and add clarity to what social system mapping is, we need to be clear that we're at the very beginning of a story. It doesn't help us to sense our way forward through the possible if we expect to have already arrived.

So let's take a step back in time and contemplate the story of geographical maps, because geo-maps are a powerful corollary.

Once upon a time, most people didn't use visual diagrams showing the relative placement of one place to another place, or a path between them. At best, someone drew some lines in the sand if they needed to communicate where they went, where something was, or how to get somewhere. Then, I'm guessing, some travelers started making crude drawings on papyrus or something. To share it, they had to explain what the lines meant, because w/o the explanation, the map was useless. Over time, the maps got more accurate - they took more things into account, they adopted symbolic norms making them easier to read, they were more than lines with starting and ending points. They grew infinitely more sophisticated and packed with data.

In the early years, it was mostly the guys in power who could read & make use of these maps. The captain of the ship, the general of the army, the merchant leading their servants and camels packed with wares to the next marketplace, the advisors to the throne.

If you put a map in front of the general population, they'd shrug & say 'so what?' - they wouldn't recognize the knowledge and power a map could give them. But over time, even the general population began to see their value and learn to read them. In other words, geographical maps have evolved. They're a tool that both reflects the current knowledge about geographical reality, informs more learning about that reality, and then reflects the new knowledge back.

But none of that just happened.  Wide-spread use of geo-maps didn't occur just because someone made a map - they began as the purview of an elite few. And the sophisticated and information-rich geo-maps we have today started out as crude and simple efforts to communicate what could be not communicated by any other means. There was a necessary feedback loop of increasing understanding that required humans to apply their intelligence and then to engage with what was reflected back to them - and over time, a rich and powerful visual language emerged.

That new visual language is different from written & spoken language, because it's not linear. Different because it summarizes a ton of data as well as many types of data (infrastructural, political, topological, atmospheric, agricultural, etc.) into quickly-understandable symbolic elements. Different because humans are visual, so what we see stays with us longer and speaks to us more deeply. A good geographical map shows us things about our world that we literally can't see in any other way. 

 Language shapes thinking 

And as any second-language-learner can attest - language shapes our thinking. We understand and engage reality differently, depending on which language we're speaking. And we wouldn't be the global citizens we are today (for better and for worse) without the historical evolution of geographical maps. 

The geo-map language gave us understanding and it gave us norms. And as a feedback loop, it inforces and asserts the version of reality that it has taught us to see. If all we needed to navigate and thrive was a well-developed knowledge of physical location, we'd be all set. But the world view we've inherited has proven inadequate to the litany of challenges we currently face. We need new ways of understanding and communicating about and navigating through new aspects of reality that we're only beginning to understand. 

Systems Thinking  Instigates A New World View 

Systems thinking has taught us about complexity, interconnectedness, dynamical change - all things we need to understand and see if we want to help make the world a better place. But we can't represent any of those things in a geographical map. Systems thinking has shown us that what controls our reality is mostly hidden under the surface, invisible (tho not absolutely unknowable). We've learned that the world view (our mental models, beliefs, values and emotions) we bring to our actions has powerful impact, and that the world view we've inherited (through no fault of our own) is extremely problematic. Systems thinking pioneer Donella Meadows said the greatest leverage point in shifting a system is in shifting the paradigm that informs the system. 

Systems thinking has taught us: our old Cartesian understanding of reality has helped us create the litany of problems we face; applying systems thinking is crucial to solving those problems; and a network approach is how we need to structure the work. 

But changing how we think and how we work together is hard. Even if we WANT to apply a systems mindset, it mostly seems abstract and 'out there' somewhere. And even if we love the idea of working in networks, we struggle to make them work. We who are committed to this paradigm shift still have a lot of learning ahead of us.

Without relevent representations of how all that abstract invisible stuff connects to OURSELVES, it's a mystery. So long as its 'out there' or about 'someone else', we can't sense our way into it. Sarah Shanahan of the RE-AMP Network says it takes their new members roughly two years to understand what the network is. And RE-AMP is a mature, sophisticated network with established on-boarding practices & a lot of excellent training. 

We need a new world-view-impacting, visual language for representing this new reality related to systems and networks that is similar to, and as powerful as, the visual language of geographical mapping. A visual language for enabling, facilitating and processing our learning. 

This language has been developing for some time now. System mapping, network mapping, value mapping, process mapping, stakeholder mapping, influence mapping and more - all are genres in the developing language of the network graph. All emphasize relationships and surface aspects of the hidden realities. All are valuable tools for advancing our learning. 

Moreover, visualizations are among the best ways to help people with different perspectives share understanding. So when those mapping genres are implemented as a collaborative process, they're even more valuable. 

But those mapping genres I just mentioned are still fragmented. You use one kind for THIS purpose and another for THAT purpose. But reality is overlapping & interconnected. That's the whole point these maps are trying to impart. 

So social system mapping has become the medium through which we've been exploring these questions with our mapping clients and sumApp customers: how do we create a paradigm-shaping, reinforcing feedback-looping visual language similar to what we have with geographical maps - but in this new context? How do we create a new visual language that increases our awareness of, sensitizes us to, and increases our actionable wisdom around the invisible and interconnected forces in systems and the hidden dynamics of social interdependence? A representation of reality that both expands our understanding and reflects what we're learning about it. A representation that enables us to see our complex situations more clearly and have greater insight into how to navigate what is normally hidden?

And it's not just about the outcome, it's about the process as well. Who defines what matters? Whose language? How is power reflected, how is it used? What's working and what needs to change? The project itself has to become a focal point of collective learning and decision-making and evolving together. The process itself is the experiment - the map is a reflection of what we've learned so far.

It's also about reflecting the truth - which is messy. It's about acknowledging and accepting inherent complexity and different understandings so that we can find ways of navigating that, instead of splitting it up into arbitrary and neatly-separated boxes. It's supposed to be messy, it's supposed to be confusing. It's supposed to wake us up to the truth. We've been spoon-fed bite-sized, fragmented bits of near-useless knowledge so long we don't know how to step back and look for patterns, or to discern coherence or its lack. We don't have the mental habits and skills that enable us to make sense of a non-compartmentalized reality. So we desperately need tools and processes that help us figure out how to do that. 

So that's the purpose of a social system map. It is a collective learning experiment that facilitates a deeper understanding of systems thinking and the power of networks, using a visual language that is APPLIED, to what is RELEVANT to US, in a CO-LEARNING environment, WITH others who have SHARED INTENTIONS, in an ONGOING way. 

Just like a geographical map sensitizes us to information-in-relation-to-place, a social system map and the process of making it sensitizes us to the hidden relationships and dynamics that make up our human systems.

So - having finally come to the WHY of a social system map, understanding its reason for being, we can recognize that it's NOT just a random & aimless mash-up of a range of mapping genres - it has explicit and purposeful constraints that enable that WHY:

  1. It centers human beings and self-reporting. All elements in a map are there only because they either are people or because they are connected in some way to the specific people represented. It relies on actual people's input, feedback, and sense-making. Network members provide the bulk of the data represented, they keep it up to date, they use the map to inform their change efforts, and they define what data and visualizations are relevant to them.
  1. Unlike with a Social Network Analysis, it doesn't isolate the relationship patterns from the systemic forces that go along with them. It doesn't just show us who is a connector or a bridger for example, it also shows us the systemic forces they are connecting or bridging. It allows us to highlight additional systemic dynamics embedded within the patterns an SNA reveals.
  1. Unlike in a classic system map, it doesn't depersonalize systems. A system map of abstract forces helps us step back from our personal perspective so we can see the whole system more clearly (which is great). But it also leaves the impression that systems are these monolithic autonomic machines 'out there' that mere humans cannot impact. When in fact - human systems are generated and held in place by individual persons abiding by collective and generally unconscious agreements. There are material constraints and real-world limits, but how we engage these limits is purely driven by human beliefs. Omitting the persons that are invested in, impacted by or seeking to impact those beliefs from the systemic picture obscures our very human collective power. System maps leave human agency hidden beneath the surface, at a time when we need to highlight it.
  1. It's online - available at any time and pretty much anywhere - equally available to everyone who helps inform and update the map.
  1. It's interactive - anyone accessing the map can filter, pattern-seek, slice, dice, and zoom the scale of detail in and out to their own heart's content. No-one has to rely on a specialist to find and show them what they want to see. The interactivity can both satisfy and stimulate curiosity - which then can lead to greater insight.
  1. It changes over time - everything from survey questions to who is included and questions about how they're connected is meant to evolve. The content and design of the map are not defined once and for all in a perfect up-front process that everyone is then stuck with forever, but is meant to change and become both more meaningful and more context-specific as the network engages with it and learns from it over time. It emerges out of the ongoing interactions of the network members with the map. In that way, it's a transparent and obvious example of a feedback loop.
  1. It is a collaborative effort requiring different thinking modalities. It's only as useful as the collaboration and the collective effort make it. It won't take hold from a single-perspective, top-down approach. Its success requires us to practise what we preach.
  1. It requires co-learning. The more the network is able to sense-make with the map around their own needs, the more useful the map will become to the whole. Without that training, much of the potential is left un-realized. 

So what?

So in theory, I'm implying . . . that. . . if we can design effective methods of helping people learn to generate, navigate, make sense of and derive actionable wisdom from their social system maps, we'd be simultaneously building their collaboration muscles and capacity to navigate complexity - within the context that is most meaningful to them - their own networks and systems-change efforts.  

With good training methods, a social system map could become a tool that catalyzes transformation through a network. The project itself - the training, the map, the sense-making and the iterating can become a network-wide focal point - an organizing principle for the network's ongoing learning.

And that's the point - to facilitate more, faster, better system-shifting, healing, generative, restorative wisdom.

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