Simplified visual representations of organisations : from 2D models to 3D models ?

Posted on January 31, 2007. Filed under: English |

I recently successively discovered 2 cool sites : first CogMap, an Ajax-based wiki to share org charts (eg Goggle’s), then Geni, an Ajax-based website to share family trees (source Techcrunch). Why am am writing about this here ? Have you noticed how some people have difficulties to get a clear picture of “new” matrix organisations or recomposed families ? It is because we still think 2D, using simplified models (also called diagrams) built centuries ago such as the organigram to describe the organisation of companies and family trees to describe the organisation of families. Such models are so engraved in our culture that we have difficulties straying away from them.

Org chart example

Those 2D models are not doing a good job anymore (think about trying to describe a matrix, changing organisation to somebody, or even how your half-brothers and sisters are the children of the second or third wife of your father …), and we haven’t find the replacement in 3D to reflect the new organisations. The main problem is as always to find a balance between simplicity and reality. People have come to use peripheral ways to add other layers of information in those 2D models (think about the dotted lines that reflect project or functional hierarchy in a company), and resist their use because of their innacuracy (in France we have another issue with org charts : people tend to think of them as highly confidential and therefore do not distribute them within the company) to describe even a static organisation on a limited timeframe, and the complexity to maintain them (which has somewhat changed with the use of company directories such as LDAP and a smart use of java).

Looking at the evolution of organisations we would need new simplified tools to help people adapt to new environments very quickly, as agility is what is now required to survive in a globalized economy / society. The understanding of dimensions is very uneven amongst people : most generally 2 dimensions are easy, and the 3rd normally doesn’t cause problems … except when it comes to a 2D rendering of a 3D model … which gets tricky (both drawing – technically challenging and cumbersome – and reading it – look at Escher’s drawings). And I am not speaking about the 4th (time) and even 5th dimensions … Have you ever tried to solve a n dimensions matrix in maths ? You can not picture it in your mind, nor work it out on paper … But how can we describe all relations between individuals without using multiple dimensions ? Informatics and cognitive science provided some answers that were translated into practical tools : think about new file systems that would use “smart folders” to allow you to have multiple filing rules (already available in Plone, just developed by Google and about to come to Apple, more info here), about mind maps that can be reorganized easily to adapt to one’s perspective, or about social networks. Their approach rely on 2 main hypothesis : use the power of software to able easy reconfiguration, and center the representation on an individual’s perspective at a given time.

As a summary, let me try to describe their attributes :

2D models (in this case diagrams) are :

  • content-centric (pyramidal)
  • static
  • linear
  • historic
  • and present a unique vision / perspective

3D models would be :

  • user-centric (with “degrees of separation“)
  • dynamic
  • “quantic” (you jump from page to page through links)
  • contextual
  • and present multiple themes / perspectives (tags)

To help companies change, we need their employees to embrace new ways to organize themselves, to adhere to a vision. This vision is best presented in a graphical way to allow for easy and quick understanding, individual projection and strong adhesion.

This is the one of core attributes of Knowledge Design (Design des Connaissances in French) … and we will will write more about it 😉


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[…] Last, regarding the motivations for those 1% of contributors, see my previous January blog post for more details. […]

How to “navigate” a user-centric org chart ? The new model uses a tagging approach. See this post for more info :

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