Friday, 10 May 2013

Peer Conferences -> Conferring -> Learning

This week I held my first internal (in-house/in-shop) peer conference. This is a new concept to many at my shop and I'd been promoting it via short promo talks, e-mail and some gentle prodding.

For those that have never participated in a peer conference the concept is a cross between a roundtable discussion, an in-depth interrogation and an experience report. After a short presentation, statement or question, then an open session of moderated discussion explores the topic. In my experience, the open session is the real examination and distillation of learning ideas and experiences and it's there that many learnings and insights come forward.

The format is run in different formats including non-time boxed, ref [5], and time-boxed variants, refs [6] & [7].

Concept in academia
I recently discovered some academic support for this type of learning, ref [1], which looks at learning and communication by posing questions and answering them. This can involve the talk-aloud protocol (which is a description and discussion about the experience) - this is one way to help the group get to the real cognitive processes behind the experience.

If the questioning is done in real-time (whilst someone is making a decision or performing a task) then this may be termed the think-aloud protocol. In an open season sometimes the questions turn to "how did you chose that", or, "why did you make that decision", then there is a chance that we relive the think-aloud concept. These are powerful because they can help to show up unintended misunderstandings - either in the reporter or the audience - and so enhance learning.

The talk- and think-aloud protocols, ref [3], help all to discover the implicit ideas behind the experience and for all to build a mental model of the key turning points in the experience. This is important for use and understanding.

This is a way of making hidden knowledge explicit, and Ericsson and Simon, ref [1], refer to the work of Lazarsfeld, ref [2]. This talks about the differences (1) in response to the way a question is phrased and also (2) about tacit assumptions.

An example of (1) is given as, "why did you buy this book" - where the response will depend on where the emphasis is - on "buy" the response might contrast to borrowing the book, on "this" the answer might be about the author, on "book" it might be about opportunity cost, contrasting with a restaurant or cinema visit.

Lazarsfeld's example of Tacit Assumption is from Chesterton's "The Invisible Man", ref [4]:
"Have you ever noticed this--that people never answer what you say? They answer what you mean--or what they think you mean. Suppose one lady says to another in a country house, 'Is anybody staying with you?' the lady doesn't answer 'Yes; the butler, the three footmen, the parlourmaid, and so on,' though the parlourmaid may be in the room, or the butler behind her chair. She says 'There is nobody staying with us,' meaning nobody of the sort you mean. But suppose a doctor inquiring into an epidemic asks, 'Who is staying in the house?' then the lady will remember the butler, the parlourmaid, and the rest. All language is used like that; you never get a question answered literally, even when you get it answered truly."
Note, Lazarsfeld also remarks that people consider quality in products differently!

So what?
The lesson from these sources is that many and varied questions get to the root of the experience and reasoning! Responses will be interpreted differently by different members of the audience. Therefore, it becomes part of their interest to ask and clarify from their perspective.

When you look at it this way the experience report and discussion becomes so much richer and fuller than a written report could hope to achieve. The learning becomes tangible and personal.

A key experience of peer conferences, for me, is that skills (or key decisions) are able to be distilled from the experience report. This means that those skills (or decisions), once isolated, can be investigated and used in practice - once something is recognized it becomes observable and possible to use in future experiments (practice).

So how did it go?
We had a small group (7 of us) which was very good as the concept was new to all, excluding myself and ran according to the LEWT format. The theme was testing skills and we dedicated an afternoon to it.

In the discussion part of my experience report (an experience about usage of combinatorial analysis for initial test idea reduction) we were able to diverge and find "new" uses for combinatorial analysis. We discussed a usage to analyze legacy test suites - a white spot analysis - now although this was something we already do, we hadn't recognized it as that. That means we can do it (potentially) differently by tweaking input parameters to produce different levels of analysis.

I was very pleased to be able to demonstrate this learning / insight "live", as it reinforced the power of the peer conference concept -> ie we discovered it "live".

We finished the afternoon happy and energized with the format and committing to be ambassadors for others. Job done!

Next steps
I started this internal conference as a monthly series of short talks and some deeper discussion. In June there will be another occurrence and I'll also try a variant joining a session in two countries with HD video comms - basically I'm spreading it around the world!

In just over a week there will be a peer conference prior to Let's Test, followed by the eagerly-anticipated Let's Test conference. Those will be experience and learning-rich environments. Pretty cool!

[1] Protocol Analysis: Verbal Reports as Data (1993; Ericsson, K.A., and H.A. Simon. ; Revised edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.)
[2] The Art of Asking Why in Marketing Research (1935; Lazarsfeld)
[3] Wikipedia: The Think Aloud Protocol
[4] G. K. Chesterton, The Invisible Man:

Peer Conference References

[5] SWET: Swedish Workshop on Exploratory Testing

[6] DEWT: Dutch Exploratory Workshop on Testing

[7] LEWT: London Exploratory Workshop on Testing

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