In their recent book chapter Jarke, Klamma & Lyytinen (2009) are exploring a framework for classifying and describing different metamodelling approaches. Their approach is captured in a nice diamond model consisting of a triangle of ontologies, notations and processes, with another triangle on top driving the analysis based on the identified goals of the information systems development.
Four aspects of metamodel-based environments (Jarke et al. 2009, p. 52)
Every time I see a triangular model, the activity system model of the Cultural-Historical Activity Theory comes to mind. So, are there any similarities between the two models? Well, there are. Both models are kind of object oriented, directed towards an outcome, a goal. “The diamond shape of the model is intended to illustrate that the model’s three aspects are neither exclusive nor orthogonal” (Jarke et al.). In CHAT this would be stated as the dialectical aspect of the model; you always study one aspect, e.g., the actors’ actions in the light of the others aspects, i.e., the mediated nature of the actions and the ways they are oriented towards an object and an outcome.
Activity system model (EngestrÃ¶m)
If you turn the models around you may even find that they overlap quite well. The Process aspect is pretty much congruent with the Subject entity of the AT model; the Notational aspect is clearly about the mediating artefacts (tools) we use; the Ontologies are about the way we capture the subject domain the ISD process is all about, i.e., the Object in the AT model.
So, why mixing and matching activity theory and metamodelling theory? It is just a hunch, driven by the fact that I find AT a very nice framework for describing human and social activities, especially the LET (Learning, Education and Training) aspects of these activities. And the fact, that I find AT (or rather the AT believers) to have a rather limited vocabulary when it comes to describing what’s going on when for example technology meets learning activities.
From a AT perspective, what would be the contribution from this metamodelling framework to a better analysis and understanding of the LET domain?
- Treating the object as an ontology will give a better understanding of the nature of the object. At least it will lead to an exploration of the different aspects of the object, instead of just treating it as an endpoint for the activities.
- AT has a very good grasp of the role of artefacts. However, looking at notations as tools might give AT a more formal language or constructs to express relationships in the AT triangles .
- Furthermore, adding process models to the AT toolkit might enrich how we understand activities - or at least give a better way (or some tools) to describe these activities.
From a metamodelling perspective, what would be the benefits to have AT as a backdrop for the modelling exercises?
First, AT could be seen as a particular metamodel that is well suited for making sense of certain activities or domains. It is used in design and workplace development research; it explains well technology enhanced learning, etc. As such, AT could inform metamodelling activities within these domains.
Second, at a more methodology level I would say that AT could
- give a better understanding of the role tools, e.g., notations, play in the design of information systems.
- AT has methods to tease out the contradictions in activity systems, and thus capturing the dynamics of the design process itself.
- AT could shed light on the goal aspect of metamodelling, which according to Jakre et al. is the least-studied aspects of metamodelling.
The book Metamodeling for Method Engineering is available from MIT press.