Maps and territories

The term versatilist was coined by an article in Gartner when writing about the IT industry…

..but could the article be touching a deeper phenomenon?

There is a phrase that goes along the lines of ‘ … the map is not the territory…’: your model (or anyone else’s) of the world is just a map of reality, of what-is.  The what-is-ness, ‘reality’, is the territory that can never be completely described, or mapped.

The Gartner article describes four different working domains: technology, information, process and relationships and claims fluency between them will be required for success: The Versatilist. If these domains are just different maps of the same (IT) territory, then the versatilist is someone who can skilfully work with different maps of the same territory.

So is versatilism merely a natural ability to work with different maps of the same territory?  In the same way that Google Maps has different maps of the same territory, the skill of a versatilist is to know which map to use when?

So, if versatilism as an ability, a skill, it can be learned: by identifying maps and territories and knowing the difference between them.

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2 Comments on “Maps and territories”

  1. Mike Broomhead says:

    Insomuch as improving teaming and cross-discipline understanding for increasingly complex systems, versatilism will be more useful and demanded.

    But I think we all know it’s not as simple as just having multiple domain experiences.

    The constraints of ‘head-full’ and staleness need to be considered.

    Both these in that anyone can only accurately retain — let alone maintain currency — a limited scope of understanding. So versatilism does not replace specialists, but helps people relate to others’ views and rationales.

    Moreover true versatilism is about relating different disciplines with each other. Many of us will directly compare this with architectural thinking, 4+1 views and so on. Simplistically using the analogy of maps, how roads & rail compare (specialised intersections called crossings or bridges; different constraints such as hills; different levels of service such as speed; …).

    • Dave Evans says:

      Mike – thank you for your comments. They have got me thinking a lot about the map/territory metaphor that I used in this post and how useful it is. I’ll say a little more below, knowing that this is probably the beginning of a longer discussion and will certainly be the topic of future posts on this blog as ideas and thoughts unfold and are explored further.

      I feel we have to be careful not to get caught-up in the metaphor. The intention for the use of the ‘map and territory’ metaphor in this post is to illustrate the difference between our perception of reality and reality itself.

      All too often we (humans) get caught-up in our perception, our ‘map’, and believe it is fixed, i.e. the ‘map’ can’t be changed, re-written, or we don’t even notice the ‘map’ we are using.

      We can waste a lot of time and energy try to solve a problem with our current ‘map’ – when indeed the solution to the problem is to change the ‘map’, our perception, instead of adding more detail to our current ‘map’.

      Rick Robinson demonstrates this beautifully with his physics problem example: initially using a lot of time trying to solve a problem using a ‘momentum map’, and then switching to an ‘energy map’ the solution emerged in 30 seconds. It was the ‘map’ that was causing the difficulty, not the problem.

      However, the challenge is to know when to deepen our ‘map’ and specialise more, and when to change ‘maps’ that is to generalise more.

      And this is what I believe to be at the heart of Versatilism: the skill of knowing when to specialise more and when to generalise more.

      Now as we are faced with more ‘wicked’ problems, another type of specialism is emerging, one that is about choosing the ‘best-fit map’ (i.e. ‘momentum’ or ‘energy’ in Rick’s example above) to solve a problem and that is another skill which I think we are calling Versatilism.


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