Re: [unrev-II] Robert's Rules, Decision Models, Education and DKRs, IBIS

From: Henry van Eyken (
Date: Fri Feb 18 2000 - 03:49:06 PST

From: Henry van Eyken <>


While still in the "catching-up" phase and therefore still well away from seeing
Sesion 7 with Jon Borsak's presentation, I did read (hastely) your post on this

A fine feat of clarity, wow! Your lucid writing permitted me to drop into the
topic and have a sense of what's going on. I also sensed a potential for
improving and widening the democratic process. Definitely want to later attend
to this part of the discussions.

I feel stimulated and prize myself lucky to be in the company of good people!
Just hope I can sufficiently thin the molasses that lubricates my mental gears.


P.S. Just a very subjective remark. I noticed in your essay a reference to
accomodating "cultural differences." Reminded me of a critique I just read in
The Economist of the latest work by philosopher John Rawls. In a previous work,
"A Theory of Justice," he took a stance on principle. His latest, "The Law of
Peoples," received less than stellar acclaim for a backpeddalling that allows
for democratic countries to accomodate less-than-democratic regimes. (Issue
Feb. 12, p. 88: "The social contract: Less original positions.") It seems that
principle and pragmatism make poor bedfellows.


Eric Armstrong wrote:

> From: Eric Armstrong <>
> This post combines a report of Jon's highly intriguing
> proposal with a some additional questions and ideas.
> [Another long one, folks. Blame Jon Bosak for lighting
> the fuse...]
> ------------------------------------
> We just finished the 7th session in the bootstrap
> colloquium, which contained Jon Bosak's proposal
> that we automate Robert's Rules of Orders (first
> speaker in the 2nd half).
> To be of real value, Jon noted that it requires a
> DKR -- otherwise there is no way to record the
> arguments, decisions, and documents that result from
> the proceedings. So it may be that his proposal is
> a "2nd order" effort, built on top of an initial
> DKR. But the idea has enough interesting angles that
> might make sense to attempt to co-evolve the systems.
> He gave two references:
> * Proposal
> * Preliminary Plan of Action
> Everybody Does It
> -----------------
> As one interesting angle: Jon noted the large number
> of organizations that that already use some form
> of Robert's Rules for their decision-making process:
> governments, standards bodies, clubs, board meetings,
> shareholder meetings, and on and on. Given the
> near-ubiquity of the process, an automated system
> that included a DKR would certainly "get the camel's
> nose under the tent", as Marcello pointed out
> afterwards.
> Who Can Do It If We Automate It?
> --------------------------------
> Jon's proposal was what he called a "Parliamentary
> Assistant" that shows you all of your options at
> any point in the process, and explains them to you.
> The underlying server keeps track of the parliament's
> state -- are we voting on a motion?, carrying on a
> debate?, etc. [Quibble: I would think of the help
> system as the "Parliamentary Assistant" and the
> underlying server-operations as the "Parliamentary
> Floor".]
> Automating the process in that way then allows
> people to take part across time and space. People
> in physically remote locations can take part in the
> process without having to be physically present.
> The debate on an issue could also take place over
> an extended period of time, with all of the arguments
> recorded. The vote on the issue could then take place
> over a 48-hour period, giving people time to review
> the discussions. (Hence the need for a DKR.) That
> way, we don't all have to be free at the same time to
> participate in the process.
> In response to the question, "won't that preclude
> people who don't have access to the technology",
> Jon pointed out that the technology grows ever
> cheaper and more accessible. At the same time, the
> cost of transportation, the time it requires, and
> schedule conflicts all conspire to make it more and
> more difficult to attend meetings. At some point,
> he notes, the two trends cross. On the other side
> of that intersection, it is more limiting to force
> people to attend a given location at a given time
> than it is to hold such meetings online.
> [Then, too, given such a system our legislators could
> "work from home", which might have the highly beneficial
> impact of keeping them in touch with their constituency,
> rather than becoming part of isolated "power elite"
> in Washington.]
> People We *Know* Do It
> ----------------------
> One of the organizations that uses that method, Jon
> pointed out, is OASIS -- the Organization for the
> Advancement of Structured Information Standards.
> That's the body that started out doing document-
> definition standards using SGML, and which now
> plays a major role in defining and archiving XML
> "vocabulary" standards -- the definition of XML
> structures you can use for specific purposes.
> (Examples of vocabularies include MathML -- the
> XML standard for encoding math equations, a
> standard for specifying vector graphics in XML,
> or one for business-to-business (B2B) ordering
> of office supplies.
> What makes OASIS especially pertinent to us is that
> the most significant result of our efforts might
> not be a product at all, but rather an *XML-standard*
> for a knowledge repository.
> As Doug has pointed out, we won't get very far without
> standardized knowledge containers and mechanisms for
> using them. Otherwise, our systems can't interact with
> each other! Since XML is the odds-on candidate for
> archiving, accessing, and transmitting information
> to each other in an Open HyperDocument System or DKR,
> it stands to reason that a standard XML-based
> vocabulary is precisely what we need.
> Since OASIS uses the Robert's Rules procedures,
> augmenting their process means improving the process
> that defines the very standards we need! It's a
> deliciously recursive process that "bootstraps" quite
> nicely, thank you.
> The whole process may look something like this:
> * We define a working draft of a vocabulary
> * We build a prototype system to work with it
> * Based on the experience we gain from the
> prototype, we revise the vocabulary
> * We put the vocabulary into the hands of OASIS
> to move towards making it a standard.
> * We revise the prototype to use the new
> structures and "do a Mozilla" -- releasing to
> the world at large as free DKR browser/authoring
> tool.
> * The existence of the standard and a usable
> reference implementation leads to large scale
> emulation -- clients and servers are built, and
> the compete for user's favor -- all of which
> "educates the market", which creates the market,
> in reality.
> Would It Help?
> --------------
> Although not all of the chair's duties go away, Jon
> mentioned that such a system would eliminate the
> need for some the more onerous (monotonously
> incessant) activities.
> As the meeting goes on, the system he envisions would
> give you a form at each stage that presents you with
> *all* the available options, and *only* the available
> options. As a result, there would never be a "point
> of order" because you would never be presented with
> an invalid option. [Actually, due to latency, you might
> might be looking at a screen that has not yet been
> updated in response to someone else's move, so you
> might attempt an invalid action. But the system would
> reject it -- and also update your screen.]
> Another wonderful result (at least for the chair) is
> that there would be no more "yielding the floor" or
> things like that, because there is no floor to yield.
> (On the other hand, might you wind up with multiple
> things going on simultaneously, and would that be
> better or worse than the more "serialized" form that
> occurs in a meeting, where one thing happens at a time?)
> Other alternatives?
> -------------------
> During the questions at the end of the 2nd part of the
> session, one ex-lawyer in the session (sorry, I didn't
> catch your name) pointed out that while Parliamentary
> Procedure was one form of decision-making, there were
> others, including the Judicial model (adjudicative)
> where a body of judicial knowledge is built up over
> time, rather than going for a "decision" all at once.
> ["Body of judicial knowledge" -- does that cry out for
> a DKR or what?]
> At the same time, Dave Crocker mentioned that while
> Robert's Rules would work in many societies, there are
> many cultures in which it would be ineffective. He
> wanted us to be alert for cultural bias in our
> implementation, but the combination of his question
> and the lawyerly query put IBIS right on top of my
> mind.
> Switching into IBIS mode (God, I love that paper), I
> realized that the question Jon was answering was the
> one he alluded to at the beginning of his presentation,
> namely "How do we go about making a decision in tough
> cases, where people are going to disagree even if they
> have all the facts at their disposal?" (He gave
> abortion as a well-known example.)
> Robert's Rules has the advantage of 400 years'
> experience behind it, with good minds wrestling down
> the "corner cases" all the way. It is also a codified,
> documented procedure, which makes automation a
> straightforward task (unlike an ad hoc procedure). But
> it is not necessarily the *only* way. (A point with
> which Jon agrees.)
> To "open the design space" then, here is a fundamental
> question:
> "What decision-making models exist that we might be
> able to implement with technology?"
> The alternative suggested by Jon is Parliamentary Procedure.
> Another suggested alternative was judicial procedures.
> Are there others? What are they? Why do you think they
> would be good?
> -----
> It is tempting to consider IBIS as an alternative
> decision-making model. There are two cases in which
> it is:
> 1) In an autocratic situation, where everyone has
> their say and endorses their favorite proposal,
> and then the "supreme ruler" makes a decision.
> In this case, an automated model has still played
> a major role. It has recorded the alternatives
> and the arguments for them, so they can be
> re-examined later. It will have "kept the
> alternatives alive" so they are not forgotten.
> That means that every alternative which was raised
> will have it's moment of time, and be inspected
> by the group, which is a good thing.
> But that system only works where there is a "head
> dog" to make the decision. It is still possible
> to reach agreement in a meeting of equals, though,
> in one case:
> 2) When a decision is reached by "acclamation".
> Let's say that we have two alternatives. Three
> people endorse #1, and 2 people endorse #2.
> After reflection, perhaps one person changes
> their endorsement to #1. Then the last person
> decides to "go along with the group", and
> endorses #1, as well. The voting is now unanimous,
> and a decision has been reached.
> [Note: The implication for an IBIS implementation
> is that it must be possible to "change" an
> endorsement. The original endorsement should
> probably remain on record, but link to the new
> one. Making the change should either require an
> explicit "change endorsement" action or, if a
> accomplished by the simple act of endorsing a
> different alternative, the system should verify
> that you want to change your endorsement. (You
> may have forgotten that you endorsed a different
> proposal earlier and may need to review your
> original reasons. When the system looks for
> endorsements, it should ignore any with a non-null
> link.]
> For the kind of system-design work that goes in an
> open-source development environment, the "acclamation
> model" might well be sufficient. However, it only works
> so long as an impasse never occurs.
> Handling an Impasse
> -------------------
> But what happens when you reach an impasse?
> Ideally, all the questions would result in a decision by
> acclamation. But when they don't one possible solution is
> to move the decision process to a Parliamentary Session.
> Another possible solution is one that Java-inventor
> James Gosling made into a mantra: Do Nothing!! James made
> the astute point that when bright minds cannot agree on
> the right thing to do, maybe the problem is too murky to
> make a decision! Rather than making the *wrong* choice,
> and saddling people with an unattractive design, it was
> better to leave that feature out of the design until the
> waters clarified (if ever).
> An interesting example of that theory might be the
> developing W3C standard for XML schemas. Apparently many
> people feel that it has become rather huge and complex
> (much like SGML). It would be interesting to investigate
> the organizational and social reasons for that result,
> but it is reasonable to speculate that it resulted from
> the politics of "satisfying everyone" -- of not disagreeing
> with anyone else's proposal so that your own would be
> accepted.
> In contrast, one of the original members of that standards
> effort (from Japan) apparently left and produced a very
> small, compact schema standard named RELAX. Like XML, that
> one appears to be a drastically reduced, easier to understand
> standard that still manages to achieve the most important
> goals of it's larger cousin. (The jury is still out on that,
> but it may well be the case. Bill Smith pointed out that
> when they presented XML, they heard complaints from individual
> after individual over a 3 hour period that "they left out
> feature X" -- but no two people ever named the same feature!
> It seemed that all the features they left out were really
> idiosyncratic ones -- not core features that everyone
> needed. He said he knew then that they were on the right track!
> That experience, along with the general "design by committee"
> scenario, seems to imply that IBIS-style procedures might well
> be sufficient for automating open source design efforts. In
> those cases where consensus cannot be reached, perhaps no
> decision at all is the wisest course!
> It must be pointed out, though, that "no decision" is hardly
> effective in all cases. In governmental regulations, for
> example, either you make a change or you live with the status
> quo. Doing nothing is effectively a "decision". For those
> cases, if you are going on the basis of majority rule, you
> need (or at least can use) parliamentary procedures.
> To augment many of the decision-making processes that are
> currently going on in the world, then, it may make sense to
> automate parliamentary processes. Then, too, as Jon pointed
> out after the session, you can always adjust the system to
> set the standard you want. You can define a "majority" as
> 50%, 75%, all-but-one, X% in favor and no more than Y%
> against.
> [Summary: It may be possible to coevolve a parliamentary
> augmenter with a DKR. If not, it would seem that the
> a DKR / OHS / IBIS system for Open Source Development
> would have higher precedence.]
> An Individual's DKR
> -------------------
> It may be that the "judicial"-style DKR is appropriate
> for an individual engaged in doing a design. That DKR
> might contain all the information you digested as a
> student, and all the design experience you acquired since
> then on the job. As you think about how the system should
> be implemented, you may well consult your DKR for ideas,
> alternatives, and suggestions.
> You might then publish the results of that investigation
> in the "project DKR" for the system you are building. Your
> stored knowledge, in addition to thoughts you generated,
> would then be part of the project's knowledge repository.
> Others interacting with the repository might save that
> information as part of their personal DKR. Some parts they
> might choose to ignore, as outside their area of expertise,
> superflouous, or redundant with previously stored material.
> But the useful parts would become part of the compact DKR
> they carry forward in life.
> In this system, the goal of education might well to add
> material to a student's DKR -- material they understand and
> can access when needed. As ideas and knowledge migrate from
> repository to repository, human knowledge spreads. That
> may be the fundamental idea of "idea as virus" in books
> like (or based on) Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene".
> IBIS Front End?
> ---------------
> When Jon mentioned the "forms" that would guide you
> through a Parliamentary Process, it brought to mind a
> related issue with IBIS. I'm not a big fan of forms,
> but perhaps a system that "limits your options" for a
> response according to context would help in an IBIS-style
> discussion, as well.
> For example, in IBIS you never make a proposal without
> first asking a question -- that identifies the problem
> you are trying to solve and keeps the design space open
> by providing a place to hang other alternatives.
> An implementation that did not let you identify a message
> as being of type "alternative" unless you were responding
> to a message of type "question" would ensure a
> "well-formed" IBIS discussion. [It still might not be totally
> "Valid" since as Jeff Conklin points out it is possible
> to ask overly-limited question like "Is X a good idea?" or
> "Should we do X or Y?" Still, forcing the discussion to be
> well-formed would be a step in the right direction. Later,
> it might be possible to look for occurrences of a alternatives
> in the question, which would lead the system to question the
> validity of the question.]
> On the other hand, after the session Marcello related his
> experience with a system called TheCoordinator that Terry
> Winograd was involved in creating 10 years ago or so
> (1989?). Apparently that was an email-based system that made
> you tag your messages as "hypothesis" or "argument" and such.
> It turned out that some people loved it, but others hated
> it. Marcello was in the later camp. Apparently it prevented
> free-wheeling brainstorming, forcing you to label your
> messages prematurely, before you even knew what they were.
> That experience should be taken into account, along with
> the paper that described the difficulties that people had
> in dealing with IBIS. It may be that the right way to
> approach IBIS is as a hierarchy that build *on top* of
> a free-wheeling email discussion, by creating tagged nodes
> that point to elements from that discussion. Keeping the
> labels separate from the messages might provide the best
> of both worlds, and make it possible to make new versions
> of the IBIS summary without affecting the underlying
> discussion at all.
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