Maps and the Territory They Describe

Sunday, May 1, 2011 (All day)

“The map is not the territory.” That’s what Don Fletcher always insisted. Don wasn’t a cartographer adept at surveying and mapmaking. He co-founded Coro, the public affairs leadership training program, and mentored a whole generation of us back in the 1980s and earlier. He always encouraged us to respect maps. If someone had taken careful time to draw one, then their point of view deserved respect. But nothing, Don stressed, could substitute for clear knowledge that comes of territory well scouted. That’s where everything was going on. No map could ever reflect the dynamics, mixed interests and constant motion of people in a place over time.

I’ve tried to follow Don’s advice in working in organizations and communities. Maps represent necessary abstractions of reality. Their usefulness lies in helping us arrive at where reality – the territory – begins. We can use them to orient ourselves and others, guide us, or draw a group’s attention to the places we want or need to go together.

Growing any venture depends on steadily improving our skills of organizational cartography. We map first drafts of emerging projects and organizations in the words, boxes, circles, lines and arrows we doodle on the backs of restaurant napkins or on lengths of butcher paper taped to a conference room wall. Organization charts map out responsibilities, tell how accountability flows, and detail hierarchies of decisionmaking in service to a considered mission and specific goals. Strategic plans map the ends we want to achieve and the means we’ll use to reach them. Financial statements map progress down the resource path, challenging us to keep budgetary markers in view and warning us of danger when we stray from the direction we mapped. For funders, donors and philanthropic investors, grant proposals map – in descriptive words, diagrams, logic models and budgets – a promising direction toward desired results.

Staggering technological leaps today take mapping to the level of entire marketplaces and commercial ecosystems. A start-up company called Quid ( www.quid.com) will search the digitized universe of organizational information and help Quid’s clients detect areas for possible business development, collaboration or acquisition. Quid’s work produces impressive, data-rich visual displays – maps – of the existing relationships among many market players, mining in the process thousands of individual data points and sifting out of them orderly, intriguing gems of opportunity. Quid adds real value to the pictures by turning over to a human team familiar with the actual marketplace – the territory – the task of validating, exploring and analyzing all the clustered and outlying data. The combined intelligence of the digital data and the human analysis helps clients see and make decisions about where possibilities for action and enterprise exist.

Right now Quid’s pricing favors big corporate clients. The company founders, after proving they can secure and keep high-end customers, may be banking on eventual acquisition by a Microsoft or Google. Still, I’m certain that somewhere Quid or another upstart has applied – or soon will – the same or similar technology to sorting out strengths, gaps and opportunities in the social, health and other service organization ecosystems found in major urban areas like Southern California. Few foundations, government agencies or nonprofits can afford to pay Quid’s prices. But the technology marketplace’s insistent democratization will bring costs down eventually. More Quids and Quid-like tools will make every community problem solver into a capable “digitographer.” As minds and capacities catch up, those of us concerned at the local level about advancing the public interest will yield from mouse-deft hands thrilling, complex, information-laden maps destined to become essential instruments of our work. These will help us quickly and cost-efficiently illustrate and unpack complicated systems, problems, needs and networks of critical relationships in ways we have yet to imagine.

Amid the color, complexity and glitz of our high-tech social action opportunity maps, we’ll need to strain with a sensitized ear to hear and recall Don Fletcher’s admonition. He’ll want us to respect what’s on the paper (or the screen) and appreciate the intelligence and the urgency that put it there. He’ll also insist that people who have trod the ground interpret the map with the wisdom and insight of lived experience.