Jishnu Mohan


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30 October 2016

E-Portfolio - Models

by Jishnu

This post was part of my final semester e-portfolio: a linked series of posts on a common theme

Models (and their close cousins, frameworks) have been common pedagogical techniques used throughout all kinds of courses. Across mh Computer Science, Business, and USP courses, the utility of models in understanding complex phenomena has been well supported. Going forward as a learner, models are definitely a powerful tool to impose structure on problems. However, it would do well to keep in mind the risks and limitations of their usage as well. This post will consider models in an informal sense, which involve imposing an organized structure, and (optionally) specifying quantitative or qualitative relationships between the elements of the structure.

In Business classes, models are key tools of analysis. There are idiomatic models which are commonly used for analysing specific scenarios or problem domains. The most common of these is perhaps the SWOT analysis, which involves analysing the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats of any organization in any context. An example of how this is used is below, showing a SWOT analysis for the Singaporean traditional Chinese medicine company Eu Yan Sang for its entry into China, done for my BSP3001 Strategic Management class.

SWOT Analysis for Eu Yan Sang SWOT Analysis for Eu Yan Sang in China. Full slide deck here

As the above application shows, applying the technique results in a more organized and systematic way to consider the available information. Using such a construct, in this example, ensures that both positives (Strengths and Opportunities) and negatives (Weaknesses and Threats) are considered, as well as both internal and external factors. It also acts as a basis of further analysis. For example, a ‘TOWS’ analysis is a strategy formulation tool where strategies are formulated to tackle pairs of elements in the SWOT matrix.

This is but one of the numerous useful models that I have been fortunate to learn. In Business itself, there are other popular models like Porter’s five forces (for competitive analysis) and the BCG matrix (for analysing business itself). In Computing, different models of computation are powerful tools for modelling problems, although all of them are provably equivalent (i.e. as powerful) to each other.

However, models can be limiting too. In a USP class, “Nature’s Threads”, I had the opportunity to learn about the history of the development of the theory of electromagnetism. Initial experimenters who dealt with electricity modelled it as a fluid that flowed from areas of positive charge to areas with negative charge. Indeed, signs of these historical origins persist in our usage of the word ‘current’. While this model could explain generation of charge by batteries, it proved unsatisfactory in explaining electrostatic forces (that like charges repel and opposite charges attract) as well as the magnetic effects of current. Michael Faraday’s rejection of the pre-existing model was key in freeing his imagination to make the first steps towards electric field theory, the model which is still pre-eminent today. An excerpt of this argument from my short essay submission detailing Faraday’s contribution to field theory is presented below.

Many of Faraday’s more mathematically trained contemporaries used alternative models to explain electric phenomena. A popular one was the electric fluid theory, variations of which were proposed by du Fay and Franklin. This postulated electric current as a flow of electric fluid, through solid objects from a region of higher accumulation to a region of lower accumulation. This theory, although effective in explain electric discharging, was not satisfactory in explaining electrostatic attraction and repulsion. Faraday was indeed reluctant to even view current as a flow. His usage of ‘bridge of force’ instead of ‘path of current’ to describe a conducting connection indicates his avoiding the connotation of progress in current. Faraday also found Volta’s contact theory, postulated to explain voltaic piles, dissatisfactory, and found it worth reminding his readers that “it was only a supposition”. Instead of fluid flow, Faraday preferred a theory of “electrotonic state”, which causes a state of tension which when released leads to current.

Full essay here

In tackling problems and issues going forward in the real world, models and frameworks can prove invaluable tools in tackling vast amounts of information in a structured and systematic way. They prove useful in ensuring that all aspects of a situation are considered, and enable discovery of connections and patterns. However, they must always be used with care as they impose a specific structure at the cost of other potential options. The statistician George Box’s famous quote, that “All models are wrong but some are useful” (or alternatively, Alfred Korzybski’s “The map is not the territory”) should always be kept in mind so that the model can be freely abandoned when it does not help the problem at hand.

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Similar to models, heuristics too help with massive amounts of information.

Of course, in the real world, we often do not have to deal with all this information alone. Relying on communities to work together is yet another option.

tags: university - usr4002