The Architecture of Conversation Theory
Copyright 1989, 2002 Paul Pangaro. All Rights Reserved.
modeling technique described here is derived from Pask's Conversation Theory
(CT), especially as presented in "An Approach to Machine Intelligence"
(reprinted in Soft Architecture Machines, edited by Negroponte, MIT Press, 1975). There, Pask presents a
formalism for describing the architecture of interactions or conversations, no
matter where they may arise or among what types of entities. Because that
formalism emerged from Conversation Theory, and indeed is one of its
foundations, I refer to it in this paper as the CT formalism, and to the
modeling that emerges from it, as detailed below, as CT modeling. (This can be
misleading, because the models described here are only half the story of CT;
the other half, so to speak, is that of entailment meshes, described elsewhere
(Pask’s Conversation Theory, Applications in Education and Epistemology, Amsterdam and New York:
Elsevier Publishing Co., 1976., that capture the meaning that is conveyed in the
conversations whose architectural structure is expressed in the models
explanation that follows is couched in the example of modeling an organization
or company because it was first written during a consulting project with Du
Pont. One of the goals of that project, undertaken at the behest of Dr Michael
C. Geoghegan, a research fellow at Du Pont at the time, was to understand the
evolution of the social, political, bureaucratic, and technical conversations
that were the
Du Pont company. We began a modeling process, based on the formalism described
below, and produced a series of snapshots of Du Pont, each at a different point
in the structure of conversations. This gave us insight as to how the company
had become what it had become, and also how interventions in the conversations
current in the late 1980s might bring about desired change.
the modeling technique is here described with specific examples from that
project, the power and beauty of Pask's work is that it can be applied to any observable interaction
between participants in a conversation. This can apply in two ways:
- to the domain being
modeled, whether organizational machinations alluded to above, to dialogs
about learning, or interpersonal relationships in or out of crisis, or
indeed any dance of relationship among language-based beings;
- to where the conversation
is embodied, viz, to conversations among individual humans, or among
groups of social systems (Republicans and Democrats, zealots and
agnostics), or even within a single human, as when our "inner
dialog" across multiple and often conflicting perspectives leads to
new insights and evolution in our belief systems.
In addition to that broad scope of potential application,
this modeling technique is useful because it expresses the interactions among
participants in any dialog in a manner that allows deep scrutiny. Because it
arises from a cybernetic sensibility, the models produced will encompass the
goals, actions, information flows, feedback, and adjustments that any
cybernetic model will display. The stunning power of the technique, however,
lies in the insights that emerge about the "architecture" of the
conversation. The diagrams capture the hierarchy of goals and actions (the
objective interactions) as well as peer-to-peer language exchanges (the
subjective interactions) in the same frame. As a result, complex and otherwise
vague concepts, including intelligence, agreement, and misunderstanding, become
specific and indeed measurable.
goal of this text is to make Pask's formalism more accessible by drawing out
the components via examples and expressing the dynamics in different terms than
Pask's original pieces. Scope is restricted to walking through the elements of
the technique and how it might be used to examine the degree of consistency in
systems, and what might constitute their being "intelligent." However
it must be acknowledged that this text makes only a small step in explaining
the workings and power of CT modeling.
the remainder of the text, examples will be given for the case of modeling
organizations, but the reader is invited to always realize that, as per the
above, any conversation can be modeled using CT. Hence wherever the word
"organization" appears below, the reader may substitute
"system", "family", "conversation", or
modeling is useful because it:
- provides a simple and
informative diagram of the observed levels and relations within an
- distinguishes between
interactions under the control of the organization (i.e., internal ones,
performed by management fiat) and those not under direct control (i.e.,
external ones, negotiated with the
- produces an image of the
implied as well as the expressed goals of an organization
- gives a strict definition
of "intelligent behavior", and hence allows the evaluation of
any given organization against that definition
- exposes specific
organizational pathologies, such as
- mismatch between the
"managerial structure" and the working dynamic that actually
controls the organization;
- lack of action or lack
of feedback, whether within levels of an organization, or between the
organization and its environment
- allows for close
examination of the form of that flow of control and feedback of results
- points to where changes
must be made to maintain intelligent behavior and viability due to the
- predicts the potentially
unsuccessful communication with other systems/ individuals/ bodies corporate
- shows how the message may
be internally inconsistent and hence misunderstood, or intentionally
- shows how the message may
be in conflict with the receiver's purposes.
components of this general modeling technique are explained in the next
3. Model Diagramming
a general overview of the two classes of interaction is given, and then details
of each are diagrammed and described.
are modeled in two classes, each detailed in subsections following:
that involve control of one process by another. Some examples are:
the organization of a corporation, in its "upper management",
controls the procedures carried out by manufacturing
the corporation's control of a marketplace attempts to directly determine price
management controls the workers by hiring and firing at will.
interactions are drawn vertically, and thereby represent the strict hierarchy
of these relationships. In the diagrams, specific flows of control and feedback
up and down the hierarchy are shown. Quite often these interactions represent
what occurs only internal to a system (a and c above) though actions that
attempt control of the environment are also demonstrable (b above).
second class of interactions are those in which an individual or system engages
another in dialog, and where each has a say in the outcome. Some examples
when a corporation negotiates
with another to arrange a contract
the corporation's advertising campaign is engaging in dialog with customers at
one level, and the sales process and product itself do so at others
the manager discusses a worker's future and lays out options.
interactions are drawn horizontally to show that one side cannot control the
other but must influence by conversation. In the diagrams, specific flows of
information between participants are shown at various levels. Quite often these
interactions represent what occurs across a boundary between two systems (a, b,
and c just above), but further divisions within a given system (say, between
divisions in a large corporation) can also be shown.
next two subsections show each of these classes of interaction, vertical and
horizontal, in greater detail.
3.2. Vertical or "it-referenced" Interactions
1 is the basic diagram of control and feedback within two given levels of an
organization, showing "it-referenced" interaction that are drawn in a
vertical dimension. This interaction is called "it-referenced"
because the controlling process treats the controlled process like an object
without choice; like an "it.” This is an “it-referenced interaction
whether the “it” is animate or inanimate.
"Controlling Processes (alias goal)" are, for example, management
policies that are defined at this level but carried out at another. The
distinction of levels is made in the course of the modeling process. The
precise levels are chosen to display the flows of control and feedback that are
"Controlled Processes (alias method)" are, for example, the
activities by manufacturing that carry out the goals as indicated (and
dictated) by the level above.
"Injunction to execute" is the actual line of control that causes the
lower level to respond, for example, the memorandum indicating start of a
project or a budget authorization.
"Return of results of execution" is the actual feedback of
information to the higher level, as for example a report indicating results of
specific manufacturing procedures, or an internal survey.
"Comparator" is the specific mechanism whereby the feedback
information is used by comparing the actual result to the desired result, or
"Iterative execution" of the entire loop takes into account the
result from the comparator above, to make changes in the various processes,
flows of control and feedback, etc., to make the entire loop more effective.
occurs when comparator confirms execution of controlled processes is coherent
with controlling processes (as when a goal is achieved by executing a
successful method). If all of the above aspects are present (including
modifications based on feedback and iterative execution, F), the system of
interactions is deemed "intelligent."
must be emphasized that the two levels shown are only two of possibly many
vertical levels; applying CT modeling to a system of any complexity leads to
multiple vertical layers in the conversation. Hence a box which appears at a
"lower level" in one interaction, may itself be at the "higher
level" relative to a further box that appears below it.
3.3. Horizontal or "I/you referenced" Interactions
2 shows a skeleton diagram used to express the horizontal, "I/you
referenced" interactions between two given systems. This interaction is
called "I/you" because there is no controlling or controlled process;
each side is a participant.
(It is important to note that only one direction of a completely symmetric interaction is shown.)
lines are explicit communications, though they require interpretation by the
recipient and are not perfect or unambiguous or objective. Dashed lines of the
Figure indicate implied or inferred information.
elements of the interaction are now presented, though in an arbitrary order as
required by exposition:
"Communication about goal" is, for example, the communication to a
customer that the company's stated "value proposition" is to provide
the products with the best cost/benefit ratio, or durability, for a given
application; or, to an employee, that the company considers the employee to be
an essential asset for its future.
The actual result of the communication is different than what came from the
"sender." ("Sender" and "receiver" are held in
quotations always, to emphasize that the terms are very different from those
used in information theory. However, the terms are universal and evocative and
useful, and are used here with a less restricted and more powerful meaning than
in information theory.) Hence "Reproduction of other's concept of
goal" is a separate thing. Initially this may be taken by the receiver at
face value as true and relatively well understood, though later operations may
modify the situation.
"Inference of higher goal" is the production of a higher goal for
which the previous communication is consistent and affirming. This is as if the
"sender" had actually exchanged something at this level (shown as the
upper, dashed arrow) but in fact nothing has actually been
"transferred" at this level, up to this point. Quite often, the
context or the common experience of the two conversants provides enough for a
higher-level goal to be inferred. However, sometimes the "sender"
creates a false context to encourage an incorrect inference to the
"sender's" advantage, as for example when advertisers imply a food
product is healthy simply because it uses the word "natural", or when
a seller simply states "I have your interests at heart" while not
having demonstrated this to be the case.
"Communication about method" is, for example, the communication to a
customer about the details of a product's capabilities (which should affirm its
stated goals, G); or, an exchange with an employee about the details of working
conditions and health benefits from the corporation (which should show the
method by which that employee is to be considered an asset to the corporation,
relative to the goal as communicated in G).
"Reproduction of other's concept of method", as in H above, is
subject to interpretation and later modification.
"Check of consistency" is a reproduction in the "receiver"
of the entire loop (as per the previously described vertical interactions, see
Section 3.2). This may show the consistency across the upper and lower levels,
and thereby affirm understanding of the "sender's message." Of
course, this can only be (at best) very close and (at worst) may only be a
small fraction of the intended message. Or, the consistency check can expose
the inconsistency between communicated goal and method. The
"receiver" can either make queries back to the "sender"
about intended meanings (not shown in the diagram); or maintain a model of the
perceived inconsistency in the "sender."
ever important to be reminded that references to "goal" or
"method" are relative to any pair of vertical boxes; changing level
by moving up or down the hierarchy changes the attribution of "goal"
or "method" for a given box. These attributions are always relative
to a specific neighbor.
shown for simplicity in the Figure are potential responses, from right to left,
to any given communication. Such iterative exchanges over time constitute
4. Checking a Model
may require discipline, but the following questions should be asked at all
points in the model (same labeling from Figure 2 as before):
to a given box interpreted as a "goal") Is the level of organization
well described by the name of the processes in the box at this level?
to a lower level "method") Is the level of organization well
described by the name of the processes in the box at this level?
the upper level really determine (i.e., control, require, cause to occur) the
execution of the processes in the lower level to which it connects? What is the
mechanism that imposes that control (e.g., memorandum, budget approval)?
there really a return of information from the lower level to the upper? What is
the mechanism that returns a description to the upper level (e.g., internal
report or survey)?
the execution of the "lower" level really achieve the stated goal of
the "upper" level? What is the mechanism for taking the description
returned to the upper level and comparing the result to the stated goal?
the entire loop get repeated and are adjustments made for improvement over
time? What is the mechanism for those adjustments being made?
there a communication between participants at this level? What form does it
take (memo, verbal statement, legal contract, TV advertisement ... )?
a (sufficiently) correct message received?
the inferred higher goal consistent with the "sender's"?
there a communication at this level? What form does it take?
a (sufficiently) correct message received?
there consistency (closure) between the communicated levels?
any of the above questions A through F are answered in the negative or a
mechanism is missing, the system is not intelligent and is subject to
pathologies. If any of the questions G through K are answered in the negative,
miscommunication has or is likely to take place. If there is no closure in L,
either accidental misunderstanding or intentional miscommunication has
occurred. (Of course it is possible, but less likely, that a closure in item L
is inferred by the "receiver" which is not the communication of the
intended message from the "sender." This can too be modeled, but only
by providing an additional dimension: the content of the messages themselves.)