Friday, June 12, 2015

Reading :: The Strategic Game of ? and ?

The Strategic Game of ? and ?
By John Boyd

This is the third review in a series going over briefings by John Boyd.

The Strategic Game of ? and ?
Boyd gets playful in this slide deck, teasing us. What could the question marks represent? I can only imagine how much this stratagem lightened what have been described as "grueling" briefing sessions presented on an overhead projector.

But I digress. After teasing the question marks (Slide 1), Boyd opens with the question: what is strategy (Slide 2). He describes the approach as
  • Make a general survey
  • Condense to essential elements
  • Place in strategic perspective
  • Implementation (Slide 4)
Why this approach? He uses a illustration that has since become famous. First, he asks us to imagine we are in different situations: skiing on a slope; riding on a motorboat; riding a bicycle; looking at a child's toy tank (Slide 6). Now, he says, imagine that we retain only pieces from each situation: the skis, the outboard motor, the bicycle handles, the tank treads (Slide 7). Put these together and what do you get? "Snowmobile" (Slide 9).

Boyd wants us to apply this kind of analytic-synthetic thinking to strategy:
We will use this scheme of pulling things apart (analysis) and putting them back together (synthesis) in new combinations to find how apparently unrelated ideas and actions can be related to one another. (Slide 10). 

So he begins with a general survey of disciplines that address complexity. He begins by arguing that human nature leads us to "Survive, survive on own terms, or improve our capacity for independent action," and since that often means competing for limited resources, it requires that we "Diminish adversary’s capacity for independent action, or deny him the opportunity to survive on his terms, or make it impossible for him to survive at all" (Slide 14).

To think through this issue, he first surveys, drawing snippets from contemporary newspaper articles and books on complexity as well as fables and classics on military strategy.

Next, he condenses, concluding that these all point to our need to interact with our environment: "Interaction permits vitality and growth while isolation leads to decay and disintegration" (Slide 29, my emphasis).

And now we can place these in strategic perspective, for the bold terms are what lay under the question marks:
The strategic game is one of interaction and isolation
A game in which we must be able to diminish adversary’s ability to communicate or interact with his environment while sustaining or improving ours. (Slide 33)
He discusses three aspects: Moral, Mental, and Physical (Slide 34). In terms of isolation:
• Physical isolation
occurs when we fail to gain support in the form of matter-energy information from others outside ourselves.
• Mental isolation
occurs when we fail to discern, perceive, or make sense out of what’s going on around ourselves.
• Moral isolation
occurs when we fail to abide by codes of conduct or standards of behavior in a manner deemed acceptable or essential by others outside ourselves. (Slide 36)
Whereas interaction entails the opposite (Slide 37). How do we exploit these ideas?  Synthesizing Gödel, Heisenberg, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, he argues that
One cannot determine the character or nature of a system within itself. Moreover, attempts to do so lead to confusion and disorder. (Slide 41)
And he adds the lesson from his previous studies of aerial attack:
The ability to shift or transition from one maneuver to another more rapidly than an adversary enables one to win in air-to-air combat. (Slide 42)
His proposed synthesis is that
The ability to operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than an adversary enables one to fold adversary back inside himself so that he can neither appreciate nor keep-up with what’s going on. He will become disoriented or confused
... leading to disorientation, disruption, overloading, and collapse (in that order) (Slide 44).

He argues that to do this effectively, we (recall that he's speaking to military officers) must gather from other disciplines and activities in order to surface new repertoires that can fold our adversaries inside themselves while avoiding the same fate for ourselves (Slide 45). That is, by interacting more broadly, and by developing broader repertoires, we can avoid becoming isolated and we can induce isolation in adversaries.

Next, he applies this insight back to the physical, mental, and moral aspects discussed earlier.

  • Physically, he argues, we should isolate adversaries by cutting off external and internal communications. Externally, we can do this through diplomatic and psychological means; internally, we can penetrate systems unpredictably.
  • Mentally, he says, we can "isolate our adversaries by presenting them with ambiguous, deceptive, or novel situations" and by getting inside their OODA loops in terms of rhythm and tempo.
  • Morally, he says, we can induce adversaries to violate their own codes of conduct or those of their allies. Notice that this is the same key advice Saul Alinsky gives in Rules for Radicals. (Slide 47)
The expected results of isolation: "Disintegration and collapse, unless adversaries change their behavior patterns to conform to what is deemed acceptable by others outside themselves" (Slide 48).

He also applies the scheme to interaction, essentially getting the flip side of the above (Slides 49-50). 

Interestingly, in terms of application, he focuses on the moral argument. And again, he sounds like Alinsky, arguing that we must "Preserve or build-up our moral authority while compromising that of our adversaries’" (Slide 54; he adds details in Slides 55-57). Let's be more accurate: On attack, he sounds like Alinsky. If I recall correctly, Alinsky did not expend effort in defense. Whereas Alinsky dedicated his book to the first radical—Lucifer—Boyd ends his slide deck with definitions of evil and corruption and the clear dictum to avoid them (Slide 59).

So there's the summary. Now some thoughts.

First, I wondered in my review of Patterns of Conflict to what degree we could see Boyd's viewpoint as dialectical. That question continues here, although Boyd is certainly not describing dialectical materialism. Interaction is still central, and one induces contradictions (in activity theory's terminology) by cutting off the adversary's interaction. 

Second, one issue I had with the OODA loop is that it leaves too much underdefined. Specifically: Yes, one must Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. But to do any of these at any sort of tempo, one must restrict the flow of information. As I tell my students in my field methods class, we can potentially Observe far more than we can track or analyze, and we can similarly spend a lot of time Orienting toward any observation if we haven't selected a method that restricts our choices. To march through the process, we inevitably have to (a) restrict information at each step in order to process it, (b) store that information in a "lossy"/encoded format; and (c) rely on theoretical and methodological assumptions to make up the difference. 

For example, suppose that I'm walking through my neighborhood. 
  • I can potentially Observe many things: temperature, brightness, the state of clouds in the sky, the animals on the street, the length of the grass, the number of pebbles in the asphalt... but I can't actually Observe them all, even if I took a year to walk a block. 
  • Similarly, if I were to Orient to one observation, I would likely do it through some cultural tool—for instance, counting the number of potholes (which requires criteria: what counts as a pothole?). 
  • Based on the above, I must Decide what to do. Again, this will be hard to do unless I have some ready-made decision possibilities at hand (such as calling 311 to report the pothole or drawing figures around it).
  • Finally, I must Act, which involves additional skills and decisions.
Boyd glancingly refers to this problem in this slide deck, mentioning that we must draw "repertoires" from other fields (Slide 45). But where in the loop do we make decisions about how we select, encode, analyze, and so forth? A metaloop is needed, preferably one that (a) adjusts periodically, even without warning signs, and (b) integrates new repertoires with the existing ones. This problem is either ignored or largely left to the readers. 

Perhaps that issue stems from the fact that in a fighter jet's cockpit, OODA's inspiration, the fighter has access to a comparatively restricted set of information and a comparatively limited number of decisions. The strategic level seems more complex to me.

One way to chip away at this issue would be to put it in dialogue with Boisot, who examines information in terms of codification, abstraction, and diffusion—and how, if you make these three dimensions the axes of a cube, a social learning cycle tends to result in an S-curve. One might similarly detect a periodic inflation and deflation of information throughout a specific OODA loop. 

In any case, this is what I like about reading these briefings: Boyd's ideas are eclectic, but smart enough that they pose problems that I end up addressing by reaching across other readings. I hope you are enjoying reading these reviews as much as I enjoy writing them, dear reader.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Reading :: Patterns of Conflict

Patterns of Conflict
By John Boyd

This is the second review in a series, going over briefings by John Boyd.

Patterns of Conflict
(For my own eyesight, I'll use the PDF of the PPT rather than the scans of the original briefings here.)

Boyd sets a modest set of goals for this presentation:
• To make manifest the nature of moral-mental-physical
• To discern a pattern for successful operations
• To help generalize tactics and strategy
• To find a basis for grand strategy
• To unveil the character of conflict, survival, and conquest (Slide 2)
Boyd begins by recalling his key insight in air-to-air combat: that the aircraft with faster transient qualities (able to gain and lose energy more quickly) will have an advantage (Slide 4). He generalizes from this point: the
Idea of fast transients suggests that, in order to win, we should operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries—or, better yet, get inside adversary’s observation-orientation-decision-action time cycle or loop.
Why? Such activity will make us appear ambiguous (unpredictable) thereby generate confusion and disorder among our adversaries—since our adversaries will be unable to generate mental images or pictures that agree with the menacing as well as faster transient rhythm or patterns they are competing against.  (Slide 5, his emphasis)
Let's link this idea with the previous presentation. If an adversary indeed learns and innovates by observing and reacting to mismatches between our expectations and what actually happens, then operating at a faster tempo allows us to get ahead of that conceptual spiral, providing inconsistent feedback that causes the adversary to make wrong or inconclusive hypotheses. More colloquially, Boyd proposes jamming the conceptual spiral. If the conceptual spiral works by systematically addressing contradictions, Boyd argues, we can introduce spurious contradictions that lead the adversary away from systemic learning. We should "Simultaneously compress own time and stretch-out adversary time to generate a favorable mismatch in time/ability to shape and adapt to change" (Slide 7, his emphasis) and we can do that, he says, by (a) generating a rapidly changing environment and (b) inhibiting the adversary's ability to adapt to that environment (Slide 7).

Boyd draws an analogy to evolution (Slides 10-12), arguing that "variety/rapidity/harmony/initiative (and their interaction) seem to be key qualities that permit one to shape and adapt to an everchanging environment"—and that, similarly, cooperative groups must harmonize their efforts (Slide 12, his emphasis).  He reinterprets classic strategic advice and cases from Sun Tzu, Alexander, Hannibal, and others within this thesis (Slides 13-40). He emphasizes the asymmetries and strategems of these paragons in contrast to the top-down approaches of Napoleon, Clausewitz, and Jomani, who "did not appreciate importance of loose, irregular tactical arrangements and activities to mask or distort own presence and intentions as well as confuse and disorder adversary operations" (Slide 46). Clausewitz in particular "did not see that many non-cooperative, or conflicting, centers of gravity paralyze adversary by denying him the opportunity to operate in a directed fashion, hence they impede vigorous activity and magnify friction" (Slide 42, his emphasis).

Boyd argues that 19th-century technology and infrastructure reinforced this trend: "Huge armies, and massed firepower and other vast needs supported through a narrow fixed logistics network, together with tactical assaults by large stereotyped formations, suppressed ambiguitydeception, and mobility hence surprise of any operation" (Slide 48, his emphasis).

Interestingly, Boyd then turns to social conflict, citing Marx:
Without going into explicit detail we find (according to many investigators, including Karl Marx): that the interaction of competition, technology, specialization (division of labor), concentration of production in large scale enterprises, and the taking and plowing back of profits into this interaction produce opposing tendencies and periodic crises that leave in their wake more and more workers competing for jobs in fewer and fewer, but larger, firms that increasingly emphasize (percentage-wise) the use of more machines and less labor. (Slide 50)
He characterizes the Marxian message:
According to Marx/Engels and their followers, the only way out is via revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat (workers) to smash the capitalistic system and replace it with one that does not exploit and oppress masses for the benefit of a ruling elite or class. (Slide 51)
The necessary conditions of success here are (a) a crisis, since "Crises represent height of confusion/disorder due to many opposing tendencies (centers of gravity) that magnify friction, hence paralyze efforts by authorities to dominate such surges of turmoil"; and (b) a vanguard, since "Vanguards represent disciplined moral/mental/physical bodies focused to shape and guide masses as well as participate in action to exploit and expand confusion/disorder of crises that shake adversary’s will to respond in a directed way." These are "the golden keys that permit us to penetrate to the core of insurrection/revolution and, as we shall see later, modern guerrilla warfare" (Slide 51).

Such efforts represent ways "to destroy a society from within" (Slide 52). But he also is interested in how to exploit conditions to destroy a society from without (Slide 52), and for that purpose, he examines the case of infiltration in World War I, comparing and contrasting with Lawrence's guerilla tactics in the same war. "Both stress clouded/distorted signatures, mobility and cohesion of small units as basis to insert an amorphous yet focused effort into or thru adversary weaknesses" (Slide 65).

Between WWI and WWII, some major advances happened. Critically, and most interesting to me at this point, "Lenin, and after him Stalin, exploited the idea of crises and vanguards—that arise out of Marxian contradictions within capitalism—to lay-out Soviet revolutionary strategy," resulting in "A scheme that emphasizes moral/psychological factors as basis to destroy a regime from within" (Slide 66). At the same time, the Nazis developed Blitzkrieg and Mao developed guerilla warfare.

The next two slides are on Soviet revolutionary strategy. He names the major tasks as

  • "Employ agitation and propaganda in order to exploit opposing tendencies, internal tensions, etc. Object is to bring about a crises, to make revolution ripe as well as convince masses that there is a way-out."
  • "Concentrate “the main forces of the revolution at the enemy’s most vulnerable spot at the decisive moment, when the revolution has already become ripe, when the offensive is going full steam ahead, when insurrection is knocking at the door, and when bringing the reserves up to the vanguard is the decisive condition of success.”" (Slide 67)
  • "Select “the moment for the decisive blow, the moment for starting the insurrection, so timed as to coincide with the moment when the crisis has reached its climax, when the vanguard is prepared to fight to the end, the reserves are prepared to support the vanguard, and maximum consternation reigns in the ranks of the enemy.”"
  • "Pursue “the course adopted, no matter what difficulties and complications are encountered on the road towards the goal. This is necessary in order that the vanguard not lose sight of the main goal of the struggle and the masses not stray from the road while marching towards that goal and striving to rally around the vanguard.”"
  • "Maneuver “the reserves with a view to effecting a proper retreat when the enemy is strong … when, with the given relation of forces, retreat becomes the only way to escape a blow against the vanguard and retain the vanguard’s reserves. The object of this strategy is to gain time, to disrupt the enemy, and to accumulate forces in order later to assume the offensive.”" (Slide 68)

That is, the Soviets based their revolutionary strategy on the exacerbation of contradictions in the targeted society. The strategy was based on the determinist view that societies would eventually be ripe for communist revolution, but it also relied on dialectic and thus provided some basis for Boyd's work.

Similarly, Boyd examines Blitzkrieg, concluding that it "generates many non-cooperative centers of gravity, as well as undermines or seizes those that adversary depends upon, in order to impede vigorous activity and magnify friction, thereby paralyze adversary by denying him the opportunity to operate in a directed way" (Slide 71). An army operating under Blitzkrieg keeps up the pace by interlocking OODA loops at different levels, ensuring that low-level commanders had latitude to act within their own OODA loops as long as they synchronized with OODA loops higher up the chain. "Each level from simple to complex (platoon to theater) has their own observation-orientation-decision-action time cycle that increases as we try to control more levels and details of command at the higher levels. Put simply, as the number of events we must consider increase, the longer it takes to observe-orient-decide-act" (Slide 72). This scheme only works if officers have a common outlook (Slide 74) in which the what is agreed upon, but the how is left to the officer's discretion (Slide 76). In this scheme, the Schwerpunkt (center of gravity; focus of main effort) was realized via implicit communication, diminishing friction and reducing time (Slide 79).

Boyd reviews the essentials of guerilla warfare next, then argues that modern guerilla warfare is a synthesis of more traditional guerilla warfare, Soviet strategy, and Blitzkrieg.
Insurrection/revolution becomes ripe when many perceive an illegitimate inequality—that is, when the people see themselves as being exploited and oppressed for the undeserved enrichment and betterment of an elite few. This means that the guerrillas not only need an illegitimate inequality but they also need support of the people; otherwise, insurrection/revolution is impossible. (Slide 94)
Common themes of this type of guerilla warfare are familiar to those who have read 4GW literature:
  • Avoid battles—instead penetrate adversary to subvert, disrupt, or seize those connections, centers, and activities that provide cohesion (e.g., psychological/moral bonds, communications, lines of communication, command and supply centers …)
  • Exploit ambiguity, deception, superior mobility, and sudden violence to generate initial surprise and shock followed by surprise and shock again, again, again …
  • Roll-up/wipe-out the isolated units or remnants created by the subversion, surprise, shock, disruption, and seizure. 
And the intent:
  • Exploit subversion, surprise, shock, disruption, and seizure to generate confusion, disorder, panic, etc., thereby shatter cohesion, paralyze effort, and bring about adversary collapse.  (Slide 98)
 Boyd briefly discusses how to disrupt this sort of conflict by noting that it is "Difficult to sustain fast-tempo and maintain cohesion of blitz effort when forced to repeatedly and rapidly shift concentration of strength against weakness" (Slide 104), then discusses specific cases of counter-Blitz and counter-guerilla campaigns.

Boyd then discusses different sorts of conflicts, including moral conflict, with some discussion of how to counteract it by increasing harmony, adaptability, and initiative (Slide 124). Based on a synthesis, Boyd then argues that the goal of conflict must be to
Diminish adversary’s freedom-of-action while improving our freedom-of-action, so that our adversary cannot cope—while we can cope—with events/efforts as they unfold. 
That goal can be reached with this action:
Observe-orient-decide-act more inconspicuously, more quickly, and with more irregularity as basis to keep or gain initiative as well as shape and shift main effort: to repeatedly and unexpectedly penetrate vulnerabilities and weaknesses exposed by that effort or other effort(s) that tie-up, divert, or drain-away adversary attention (and strength) elsewhere. (Slide 128)
Grand tactics then become:
  • Operate inside adversary’s observation-orientation-decision-action loops, or get inside his mind-time-space, to create a tangle of threatening and/or non-threatening events/efforts as well as repeatedly generate mismatches between those events/efforts adversary observes, or anticipates, and those he must react to, to survive;
  • Enmesh adversary in an amorphous, menacing, and unpredictable world of uncertainty, doubt, mistrust, confusion, disorder, fear, panic, chaos … and/or fold adversary back inside himself;
  • Maneuver adversary beyond his moral-mental-physical capacity to adapt or endure so that he can neither divine our intentions nor focus his efforts to cope with the unfolding strategic design or related decisive strokes as they penetrate, splinter, isolate or envelop, and overwhelm him.  (Slide 131)
And strategy becomes:
Penetrate adversary’s moral-mental-physical being to dissolve his moral fiber, disorient his mental images, disrupt his operations, and overload his system—as well as subvert, shatter, seize, or otherwise subdue those moral-mental-physical bastions, connections, or activities that he depends upon—in order to destroy internal harmony, produce paralysis, and collapse adversary’s will to resist. (Slide 133)
At the same time, a nation must essentially apply the same principles constructively, strengthening unity, harmony, and moral fiber as well as attracting potential adversaries as allies (Slide 140).

The rest is historical cases and wrap-up. Later in the series, we'll see how Boyd elaborates the OODA loop as well as his ideas about winning and losing.

Reading :: Conceptual Spiral

Conceptual Spiral
By John Boyd

This review is the first in a series of reviews of John Boyd's briefings on strategic theory, collectively known as A Discourse on Winning and Losing. For background on Boyd, see my review of Osinga's Science, Strategy, and War — but also see this recent article for more on how Boyd has been received in strategic studies (skeptically).

Long story short, critics seem to have two critiques of Boyd.

First, he had a critical limitation: he was an autodidact who read broadly. Autodidacticism isn't necessarily a problem, and can often lead to innovative synthetic thinking. But without the underlying rigor of a discipline, it sometimes amounts to trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle by grabbing pieces from different boxes.

Second, the key insight that people associate with Boyd—the OODA loop—grew out of a tactical insight (from Boyd's days as a fighter pilot), but Boyd attempted to apply it as a strategic insight. The OODA loop posits that entities (from single-celled creatures to nations) all cycle through phases in which they observe the environment; orient to those observations based on their genetic and cultural heritage, previous experiences, new information, analysis and synthesis; decide their next action; and act on it. A simplistic application of the OODA loop treats it as a stepwise cycle (I'm reminded of programming loops in C). A more complex application recognizes multiple feedback loops across each step. Boyd draws from an eclectic variety of sources to establish the OODA loop, including Bateson and Maturana, but also contemporary popular books.

So the briefings have some limitations. These limitations are compounded by the fact that Boyd primarily left behind just the briefings—essentially slideshows—rather than longer form texts. These slideshows were revised over the course of years, and it's unclear whether Boyd really regarded them as finished. Consequently, the briefings are a bit like reading Bakhtin's fragmentary notes in Speech Genres: are they finished thoughts? To what extent are we inserting our own assumptions into them? However, you can find Boyd delivering the briefings on YouTube, and his oral comments may clarify some of these questions. I confess that I have not watched more than a few minutes of them.

Still, let's see what we can glean from them. We'll start with the first one, Conceptual Spiral.

Conceptual Spiral
In the first briefing in this series, Boyd discusses the "conceptual spiral," in which he proposes "To make evident how science, engineering, and technology influence our ability to interact and cope with an unfolding reality that we are a part of, live in, and feed upon." Conceptual spirals are often talked about within the dialectical tradition (e.g., Vygotsky, Ilyenkov, Engestrom); Boyd seems to fit into this tradition as well. As he says early in the slide deck:
 For the interested, a careful examination will reveal that the increasingly abstract discussion surfaces a process of reaching across many perspectives, pulling each and every one apart (analyses), all the while intuitively looking for those parts of the disassembled perspectives which naturally interconnect with one another to form a higher order, more general elaboration (synthesis) of what is taking place. As a result, the process not only creates the Discourse but it also represents the key to evolve the tactics, strategies, goals, unifying themes, etc., that permit us to actively shape and adapt to the unfolding world we are a part of, live in, and feed upon. (Slide 4)
(And yes, that is a partial quote from even more text on a single slide.)

He adds in the next slide that "by examining the practice of science/engineering and the pursuit of technology, we can evolve a conceptual spiral for comprehending, shaping, and adapting to that world" (Slide 5).

Boyd goes on to discuss science, engineering, and technology in terms of the conceptual spiral. Based on historical examples, he concludes:
People using theories or systems evolved from a variety of information will find it increasingly difficult and ultimately impossible to interact with and comprehend phenomena or systems that move increasingly beyond and away from that variety—that is, they will become more and more isolated from that which they are trying to observe or deal with—unless they exploit the new variety to modify their theories/systems or create new theories/systems. (Slide 14)
And he asks: "what does all this have to do with our ability to thrive and grow in such a world that is seemingly orderly and predictable yet disorderly and unpredictable?" (Slide 17) He answers by positing that "Science, engineering, and technology produce change via novelty" (Slide 20, his emphasis). Novelty emerges from "an analytical/synthetic feedback loop for comprehending, shaping, and adapting to that world" (Slide 21). More specifically, novelty emerges from mismatches between our expectations and our feedback (Slide 23). That is, we learn and innovate when we see discrepancies between what we think should happen and what actually happens. (One paradigmatic example: we might expect heavier weights to fall more rapidly than lighter ones; when this turned out not to be true, Galileo had to develop a theory to explain that fact.) Boyd argues:
Without the interplay of analyses and synthesis, we have no basis for the practice of science/engineering and the pursuit of technology — because novelty, mismatches, and reorientation as the life blood ingredients that naturally arise out of such practice and pursuit can no longer do so. (Slide 25)
What does this have to do with winning and losing? Boyd explains that novelty is produced continually through our own innovations, through nature, through thinking and doing, and it is "produced continuously, if somewhat erratically or haphazardly." Thriving in such a world means continuously orienting to such novelties. But orientation is typically constrained by previous experiences, and thus "introduces mismatches that confuse or disorient us." We must engage in the analytic/synthetic process to "we can rematch [and] thereby reorient our thinking and action with that
novelty" (Slide 28).

Part of the previous experiences is systematic theory: "the various theories, systems, processes, etc. that we employ to make sense of that world contain features that generate mismatches that, in turn, keep such a world uncertain, ever-changing, and unpredictable" (Slide 31). (Activity theorists will note that these mismatches are roughly analogous to contradictions, which introduce problems but are also engines of change.) Boyd counsels that we should embrace the conceptual spiral, recognizing its positive results: insight, imagination, and initiative (Slide 34). In fact, we can't survive without the conceptual spiral; it is "A Paradigm for Survival and Growth" (Slide 37).

This presentation lays the foundation for the later discussion of the OODA loop. But it also defines the broader theme of interaction (dialectic?) that Boyd discusses throughout—as we'll see later in this series.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Reading :: Training for Change

Training for change. New approach to instruction and learning in working life
By Yrjo Engestrom

This slim (122pp. without end matter) guidebook was published by the International Labour Office in 1994, seven years after Engestrom's highly theoretical Learning by Expanding. Although Training for Change is certainly different—a practical guidebook for workers rather than a theoretical text for academics—it's certainly rooted in Engestrom's theoretical work in general and activity theory in particular.

As Engestrom says in the introduction, this guidebook is meant for human resources development, personnel training, and other instances in which adults are being trained. Engestrom wants these adults to undergo actual learning: "meaningful construction and creative use of intelligent cognitive tools"; "participation, collaboration, and dialogue in communities of practice"; and "criticism of the given, as well as innovation and creation of new ideas, artifacts and forms of practice" (p.1).

Meaningful learning, Engestrom argues, involves construction: the student must not just receive but construct a picture of the world (p.12). Engestrom illustrates this proposition with the Vygotskian triangle, in which the "Learner" (subject) examines the object, a "problem" or "phenomenon needing explanation," via instruments, "tools of observation and experimentation, books, other people's explanations, etc." (p.12). The basis of productive learning, he says, is internalization, in which "we gradually loosen ourselves from concrete, external means and switch over to performing actions with the help of abstract concepts" (p.13). In fact, high-quality knowledge results from "continuous two-way movement between concrete details and general principles" (p.14).

Engestrom breaks down learning into different types: conditioning, imitation (p.15), trial-and-error (p.16), investigation (p.17), and expansive learning (p.17). The last is, of course, Engestrom's preferred topic: it represents "third-order learning" in which the learner "questions the validity of tasks and problems posed by the context and begins to transform the context itself" (p.17).

Investigative learning involves exposing contradictions to create a context of criticism (p.24). As in Learning by Expanding, Engestrom here draws on Davydov to describe an integral learning process with moments of motivation, orientation, internalization, externalization, critique, and control (pp.32-33). "An integral learning process also leads back to reality and practice, at a new level," Engestrom adds, neatly explaining the dialectical spiral of learning (p.34). Engestrom also maps Davydov's learning cycle onto the Vygotskian triangle, showing how the steps of the process entail movements among the triangle's elements (here, S=Subject, O=Object, T=Tools):

  1. motivation: S->O
  2. orientation: O->T
  3. internalization: T->S
  4. externalization: S->O
  5. critique: O->T
  6. control: T->S (p.35)
He adds that although this learning may take place within institutions, "communities of investigative learning can be built both in workplaces and in institutionally organized training courses. These communities of investigative learning are typically networks that cross and transcend boundaries between workplaces and training institutions. Such transitional communities rely on a high degree of lateral interaction and communication between relatively autonomous teams" (p.36). 

Engestrom also addresses three types of collaboration: coordination, cooperation, and communication (pp.40-41). This is the same typology he has used elsewhere; n.b., he uses the terms differently from how I use them in my latest book All Edge.

Also on p.41, Engestrom expands the triangle to include learning community, rules, and division of labor. On p.44, he describes a collective zone of proximal development, again demonstrating the expansion of Vygotsky's basic ideas for collective activity. 

Let's stop here. What is really striking about this book is that it beautifully and concisely describes third-generation activity theory in a simple, well illustrated way that can be easily followed by its target audience (in human resources development and personnel training) as well as casual readers. If you're interested in the fundamentals of 3GAT as a learning theory, but you are not sure where to start, this slim guidebook may fit the bill.