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Mental Modeling? Huh? Changing the World for the Better? Are you serious?

Posted on June 14, 2017 at 5:00 PM

Gordon Butte CEO and CTO, Decision Partners: Cognitive Science Systems and inventor of the Mental Modeling Technology Platform was interviewed in June 2017 by Dyna Vink for a series of blog posts.

Dyna: What is a Mental Model?

“The image of the world around us, which we carry in our head, is just a model. Nobody in his/her head imagines all the world, government or country. S/He has only selected concepts, and relationships between them, and uses those to represent the real system” (Forrester, 1971).

“Tacit webs of belief and their underlying rationale that guide how we learn, make decisions and interpret communications from all sources. “(Baruch Fischhoff, 1993)

Dyna: What’s the background of mental modeling? (Make it brief)

“Decades of research and experience make clear that to be effective on decision making and behavior one must build on where people are at today in their thinking (mental models), tailoring communications of all kinds to the critical decisions at hand. But almost nobody does this. “(Granger Morgan, Scientific America, 1994)

Mental modeling has become the generic term for what is more formally called, by us at least, Mental Modeling Technology Platform, or MMTP, a science informed, evidence based approach – enabled by proprietary software –for better understanding and focusing people’s judgment, decision making and behavior.

The term “mental models” was coined in the 1940’s and mental models have been an active area of research since. The foundational studies that led to the development of MMTP were conducted by Baruch Fischhoff and his research colleagues in the mid-1980s at Carnegie Mellon University. A major step forward was Baruch’s development of a framework to characterize mental models in a way that would help co-ordinate behavioral interventions in 1990. The initial focus was on helping people better understand and act on risks of all kinds.

That year, we formed a boutique research and consulting firm called “Decision Partners” to translate the basic research in mental models and decision science into practical methods and tools non-scientists could use. The focus quickly expanded from risk to judgment, decision making and behavior writ large.

Dyna: And how did it go?

It was a great ride! We built on the foundational research in many ways and greatly extended the application from risk management, leveraging the latest advances in decision science along the way as they were developed in the basic research. We conducted hundreds of different applications involving thousands of people internationally. That activity created a large body of new knowledge in applied research in decision science.

Beginning in 2007, at the suggestion of clients and long-time friends of the firm, we developed proprietary software specifically for mental modeling. With that software in hand, we were awarded an international and U.S. patent for Mental Model Method and System in February 2016. In a way, that date marked the official launch of a company we created to develop and deploy Mental Modeling Technology Platform via the Internet, a company now called “Decision Partners: Cognitive Science Systems”.

Dyna: Who else was doing this?

No one. And as Baruch says, no one has our stories, meaning application successes.

Dyna: Where are you at now, a bit more than a year on? Changing the world for the better?

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete”. (Buckminster Fuller)

Funny you should say that. (Laughs)I believe we have a line of sight to doing just that with MMTP. How can I say that with a straight face? Well, look at what’s happened historically with inventions that have ended up changing the world.

First something novel is invented to solve a problem many people have. Done that with the Carnegie Mellon research.

But at the time, the invention is obscure and appreciated by only a very few people. Then there’s a lengthy period where the invention is refined, further developed and proven in different uses or applications, still appreciated by a relatively small number of people. Did that, 1990 to 2015.

Along the way, new tools are developed to support the invention and its refined versions. Did that – still doing it - with our Cognitive Analysis Software Suite, or CASS, circa 2007.

The trigger event for an invention to become capable of changing the world is the formation of a value network, not for the invention by itself, but to leverage and greatly extend the sciences and technologies from which it is derived. An example is the automobile. A novelty at the time of its invention but ended up transforming the world as the value network for automotive technology exploded everywhere at about the same time.

Decision Partners: Cognitive Science System closed on its first stage value network via Internet for MMTP in December 2016.

[ A value network is a business analysis perspective that describes social and technical resources within and between businesses. The nodes in a value network represent people (or roles). The nodes are connected by interactions that represent tangible and intangible deliverables. Wikipedia, 2017]

Dyna: Ok. So how does the “for the better” part happen?

It happens by focusing or constraining the use of the invention. In our case, we do that by only making MMTP available as a “rental”, with the form of rental agreement being a license. You can’t buy it. Second, terms and conditions in the license are very clear on its use. Trite as it may sound, it can be used to “only do good”. Nothing is perfect, but this is our way for now of making sure MMTP and the assets which comprise it, get into the hands of the most good people who will use it to only do good for other people, worldwide.

Over the years, the mental modeling approach has created a lot of value for a lot of people by providing a means to help address problems that are serious to the people involved. We have been fortunate to work with some noteworthy and distinguished clients like the U. S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Health Canada to solve some critical problems among Americans and Canadians. With the Chamber of Mines in South Africa we create a management system incorporating MMTP that has help dramatically improve occupational safety and health performance in mining. We are committed to always being on the solution side of the equation, never the problem side.

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