Shaping information

A lot of the 'work' done in workshops is knowledge work. That is the manipulation of information.

The idea that information is a malleable material came from Peter Drucker in the late 1950s. His work allowed us to think of ‘information’ as a carpenter thinks of ‘timber’.

Where information differs from other materials is that it’s possible to separate the information's content from its form. A corporate strategy is an idea that can be represented an infinite number of ways. You could describe it in prose. You could draw a diagram in a PowerPoint presentation. You could create an interactive AR experience.

Every workshop has 'inputs', i.e. information brought into the workshop to be used in some way. In planning a workshop, it's important to consider the form those inputs will take.

Three common forms are:

  • The Narrative Form
  • The Exploratory Form
  • The Collaborative Form

The Narrative Form

The Narrative Form is the most straightforward way of representing information and is often the default.

In this form, Information is presented as a story. That means it's either prose or a presentation, arranged as a sequence of smaller ideas. Like this:

Information presented this way is for consumption only. It's not there to be manipulated or changed. It is information going one way from a sender to one or more receivers.

The Narrative Form is appropriate when you don't want in-depth interrogation and challenge of the information. This form suits things like context, background, case studies, and (of course) stories.

If you've read the above and thought 'Isn't this a standard presentation?' you are spot on. The standard presentation, with some quick 'Question & Answer' time at the end is the canonical example of this form.

The Exploratory Form

An alternative to the Narrative Form is the Exploratory Form. The big difference between these forms is the Exploratory Form changes the physical representation of the information.

In the Narrative Form, the audience gets one idea at a time. In the Exploratory Form, the content arrangement is non-linear. More like this:

Although the delivery of this content may still be a narrative, the different physical arrangement changes the way the audience reacts. Audiences will ask more questions and make more and deeper connections between ideas.

The Exploratory Form suits smaller audiences and information where you want the group to gain a deeper understanding of the topic. It suits more complicated and complex topics than the Narrative Form because the audience can link to multiple ideas.

The challenge with the Exploratory Form is you need the space and scale to arrange the content in a way that the audience can engage with it.

The Collaborative Form

Building on the Exploratory Form's physical arrangement, the Collaborative Form encourages greater interaction with the material. The two key attributes of this form are that space and materials are deliberately provided to encourage interaction (e.g. whiteboard markers, or Sharpies and Post-it notes), and the presenter role is smaller, or not present at all.

With the Collaborative Form, information is both arranged spatially but is also arranged to encourage interaction. This means you include whitespace around the content may also include instructions to the audience on how to manipulate the content.

Along with the space, materials will be present so that the audience can interact with the content.

An example of the Collaborative form might be a draft Business Model Canvas, like this:

Closing thoughts

I often think of these three forms as points on a spectrum of possibility. Where your content will sit on that spectrum depends on how you answer the question:

What should people do with this content?

If your answer is 'They only need to understand it', then consider the Narrative, or Exploratory, forms.

If your answer is 'They will work with it. They will change it in some way'. Then adapt your content into a Collaborative Form. Provide a physical environment that makes it easy for people to interact with and modify the information.

I encourage you to ask this question with every input you plan to use in your workshop. Doing so is the first step in making sure your participants realise the underlying value in the information.

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