All reports are interfaces

All reports are interfaces

First published on the Sparknow blog in 2004. Lightly updated 2019. Editorial note: the projects being referred to are the EBRD information audit from 1999, the DTI 'Friendly Audit' and the SDC development of a global gender community of practice.


For 7 years now we have been grappling with how to make our reports for clients unfileable.

What is the right balance between rigour and messiness?

What's the right tension between formed analysis and opinion and the making visible of an inviting, if challenging, vacuum into which people from the client feel compelled to step to have conversations which lead to actions which shift patterns for the better?

Report is a verb not a noun

Reporting. Not report.

Our best attempts have been where we have been able to design documents as part of the rhythm of a piece of work where the process (interviews, workshops, events, negotiations and conversations around the final object which is co-created) is seen by us and by the client as of as much value as the tangible consequences.

The right amount of provoking...

So a report needs in some way to be a provocation which recognisably fits into a chain of events, past, present and future. It needs to be in some way a provocation, without being so provoking that they irritate people to the point that they switch off. And it always works best when we are able to honour the richness of the spoken word, rather than blanding everything down, as is the habit of the written artefacts by which organisations are governed.

A vehicle for transition

But we still haven't quite got this idea of the document as a vehicle for transition (a transitional object, says Winnicott, or a negotiating instrument as Etienne Wenger might describe the negotiated instruments at the core of a community of practice) as we would want it, due as much to our own fumblings as to any client brief or response.

Put into the context of some of our more recent work on story in organisations, a report needs to come off somehow as a kind of 'half story' - a beginning which leaves you poised at the crisis point or dilemma and makes you want to finish the story by imagining the path(s) to its resolution. Its a pointless exercise if all you do is consult, write something, present it (in bulletpoint form, all emotion excised), and then have it ticked off and tidied away. Actually, mostly we used to try and not write reports, but people won't have that somehow. I recall this used to be the stance of the Kings Fund too, and they were right. The point of any engagement is actually the engagement and how it moves things along, not what you write down.

Scaffolding the document as interface

The biggest insight probably came last year when we were working on the framework for a briefing document for various teams who were moving in a big organisation. How could we create a kind of scaffolding which would allow them to consolidate raw materials from various sources (interviews, mood boards, analytical documents, images, workshop outputs) in a way which would convey their story of their wishes and ambitions without a veneer of organisational speak, but with coherence and elegance. In that case we didn't quite pull it off, although the ambition was right. And it was on this occasion that Will, who has designed our website, pointed out that the document itself, as a template was an interface.

This was a useful prod forward in the right direction. Until then we had been looking at unfileability - how can we make this document unfinished enough that we invite people into the vacuum in decision-making we have made visible, so that they are forced to negotiate with each other in a way which will lead to productive action. Unfinished and messy are good, but interface is better as a metaphor.

Example: the groundrules for a new community of practice

By way of illustration from last year (2003), here is a lightly edited extract from our introduction to notes for a client following an international event at which they were seeking to develop a global community of practice.

'Dear Friends

This document sets out a list of qualities which the xxxNetwork at yyyOrg may want to be in mind as it evolves into a global communauté de savoir, with regional and local groups, communities and networks.

The material in here comes directly from what was said by participants at a recent conference. It summarises what emerged from around 45 short private conversations in pairs and small groups, 7 – 8 brief presentations and about 30 postcards. These all explored the values and qualities which individuals treasure in networks, groups and communities they have participated in, both in their professional and in their private lives. I have also added some important points which I think came from a case study of a community which was presented. I have not tried to polish this document, only to expand when this seems necessary. Since it is a collection of fragments, it may therefore feel odd to you at the moment, but please do not let that put you off.

The best way to use this document might be as a short list, a reference point to which you can return over time to use as an aide-memoire to remind yourselves of what you said at the time, to see whether you find your global and regional networks to have some of the qualities you have said you value, o learn whether you have discovered other qualities which are equally important, to continue to refresh your insights about developing an effective communauté de savoir by drawing on experiences from all aspects of your life and updating this, or writing a new and related document to distil your most current shared thinking.

But before you can use it, you should reflect on whether it is reasonably accurate as a current mirror of your feelings about the essence of a good community. You may also feel I have put some things in the wrong grouping, or misunderstood what you wrote or said, or that you want to choose different language for this record. I have put some comments in more than one grouping too, so there is some repetition which you might find jars with you.

I invite you to offer ideas for improving this so that it is a foundation document with real shared meaning which you can use over time. With best regards Victoria Ward'

Example: workbook as interface

A more complete example comes from a 'friendly audit'  we helped the then-DTI to conduct. In this case, we needed to help many units in the client articulate their approaches to using a new records management technology, as well as their current records management conventions, in such a way that these profiles lead both to team by team action to improve coherence and quality, and to comparisons, good practices, networks and relationships being deepened or broadened in an emergent as well as in a directed way across the whole group. For, we chose to develop the whole written relationship as a kind of collective, collaborative reporting process through the vehicle of a 'workbook' intended create as much off-the-page activity, social exchange, and reflection, as on-the-page form filling.

The twist here is a kind of double twist.

The very act of using the workbook as a vehicle for negotiation at a team by team level is one twist, and then twisted round it is the need in some way to draw attention to the workbook process itself, so that we can come back later and collect people's experiences of using it in a way which allows us to adapt it as an interface for other uses in the client.

This case study has been written up separately and it will go on the VWL timeline as we start to create an open archive.

Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash