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Visit some of Sibbet’s favorite websites

The Grove Consultants International

Coro Foundation

Institute for the Future

Calculate your ecological footprint.

Astronomy picture of the day.

The Zen experience

Utne Reader on-line

Unique Book Content on line

Arthur M. Young website

Read some of Sibbet’s favorite books

The Heart of Philosophy, Jacob Needleman, 1982.

The Reflexive Universe. Arthur M. Young, 1976. Updated and re-released, 1999.

The Telling Ursula LeGuin, 2000.

The Promise Ahead, Duane Elgin, 1999.

A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander, 1977.

Systems of Survival, Jane Jacobs, 1994.

The Poetics of Space. Gaston Bachelard, reprinted 1994.

Hidden Order. John Holland, 1996.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Edward Tufte, 1992.

Images of Organization. Gareth Morgan, 1996.

Foundation and The Foundation Trilogy. Isaac Asimov, 1991.

Driving through the redwoods of San Francisco’s Presidio you hope you’ll come across people doing work to rival the tree’s majestic beauty. I wasn’t disappointed when I met David Sibbet, founder of the Grove Consultants International and Ed Claussen, Grove’s general manager. They led me through the halls of an old Queen Anne Victorian that had been converted into workspace for some 24 visual cartographers at a company that turns ideas into art; theory into story; visions into working, tangible histories that speak louder than anyone could shout amongst the trees. I learned of Grove’s business several years ago while attending a meeting put on by Don Tapscott’s organization. They had hired a Grove consultant to facilitate some of the sessions and graph our work processes. Years later I recall and use lessons from that session, not just because of the content of the meeting itself, but because of the connections the cartographer was able to graph for us, bringing vision to ideas in a vibrant way.

For an issue around design, who better to go to than the heart of Grove’s business and the artistic as well as strategic force behind the organization that, over the last decades, has been responsible for such works as Harvard Business Review’s 75th Anniversary Timeline of Management Practices seen on thousands of leaders’ walls, the sixteen foot long vision image that helped turn around National Semiconductor in the early 1990’s, or the majestic map that charted General Motor’s history? Sprinkled throughout this interview are some of those graphic images because, frankly, only speaking with David Sibbet wouldn’t do his magic justice—though his words are far more powerful than those spoken by someone with far less to show.

Conner: You seem to help people experience something they wouldn’t normally do in a standard meeting or strategy session. What you do is to help people walk through, work through, and feel something at a deeper level than ordinary facilitation tool I’ve seen. How did you come up with this model?

Sibbet: The seed to this particular way of working started with creating quad posters in college and flowered during eight years I spent with the Coro Foundation, a very innovative training institute that prepares people for public affairs work. Coro has been in existence since 1942 and now has centers in six cities. What’s interesting about Coro is that it was one of the first and most adventurous experiential training organizations. Their entire program is immersive rather than lecture based. They take 12 different fellows and string together a series of internships over a period of nine months. For example, on an initial round of government internships somebody would be placed in the mayor’s office, somebody in planning departments, somebody in public works. Then they would come together on Fridays and try to make sense out of how the city works. After I went through the program in Los Angeles, I ran the San Francisco Center for several years.

Conner: What lead to the group graphics?

Sibbet: Our neighbors at Coro included the facilitation company, Interaction Associates, who used a facilitator/ recorder model for problem solving and running meetings. They had a big grant to study how kids really learn and solve problems. They observed that human beings use many different heuristic processes (basically cycles of activity which shift as you learn) to discover solutions, and that these processes were teachable. Their project was aimed at placing “tools for change” in the hands of teachers to help them teach problem solving. Being next door to Interaction introduced us to new ways of thinking, some of which came from Doug Engelbart and his project at SRI on augmented human intellect. One of the people who came to Interaction from that project was a fellow named Geoff Ball. He had written a paper on explicit group memory. This paper stated very clearly that of all the experimentation they did at SRI, the thing that made the biggest difference in a working group being productive was having a working group display. As Paul Saffo, at the Institute of the Future is fond of saying “Paper is brain interface.” The way we know what we know is we write it down and we draw pictures. At Coro we took IA’s flip charts and turned them into 16foot long, highly graphic working displays. The results were amazing.

We did this work at Coro in the context a theoretical orientation to communications informed by general semantics. Coro’s founders met Alfred Korzybski (the father of general semantics) when he was on tour in the United States in 1938. They were really inspired by the idea that language and language structure have an impact on perception and action, and worked to see how this played out in the public arena. Korzybski’s point of view was that part of the insanity of the modern world is derived from errors propagated by our language structures. He said if we would only change the way we talk, we would change the way we think and perceive.

Part of what Korsybski attacked was the Cartesian idea that man is a rational animal. He preferred to define humans as “thinking, moving, electrochemical, feeling entities in a continuous semantic transaction with their environment with a memory of past transactions and projection of future ones.” This is a mouthful, and a precursor to the idea that we have different modalities of learning. Many theorists have argued that there are kinesthetic learners, auditory learners, visual learners, in fact, it’s so obvious now that this has almost become a cliché.

But the “thinking, moving, feeling, electrochemical person in constant semantic transaction with its environment” was the way Coro thought about learning in 1948 and with this model, called the “semantic transactor” we were really trying to bust the idea that you learn by thinking clearly. In fact, Don Fletcher, Coro’s founder, believed that clarity stopped thinking. He contended that clarity actually stops the process of learning because the brain automatically, once it sees a pattern and understands it, goes to the next thing and spends all its time on the stuff it doesn’t understand. Because of this idea, Coro staff (of which I was a member) was not allowed to lecture. We were only allowed to construct experiences that would optimize the chance that the learner would run into something.

The presidio

Conner: I can see how the ideas started coming together from all over.

Sibbet: What we learned led us to what would is now called project-based learning, or discovery based education. Collaboratively creating graphic displays as a way to support people sharing their experiences with each other fit right in with the indirect, immersive approach.

I came to big graphics accidentally. When I was a freshman at Occidental College in Los Angeles in the early 1960’s, Terry Gilliam, the animator for Monty Python, was one of the seniors who was busy humiliating us freshman by creating big advertising posters for the senior activities during hazing week. His stunning work made the seniors look really great. Two of us freshmen decided to fight back, got poster paint, and started trying to be as good as Terry Gilliam. We weren’t, but I was good enough that I was asked to do huge quad posters all the way through college. I did a lot of big format work as a sideline. All the time I was stretching to be as creative as Terry, our standard.

During this same time I became editor of the college paper, went on to get a Masters Degree in Journalism from Northwestern, and worked at the Chicago Tribune. While reporting on the incredible urban developments occurring in Chicago, I became convinced I should be an architect and urban designer and spent several years heading toward that career, but Coro offered me a job and I turned in another direction.

When I eventually found myself standing in front of a group of Coro Fellows and applying Interaction Associate’s recording methods to our group process, my journalist orientation to story came together with poster-maker/architect, and “Group Graphics” was conceived. I remember the first session vividly. We wanted to look at how the power structure of city hall and city government worked so we put up two huge sheets of paper, about 8 feet tall and about 20 feet long and just asked simple questions like “What’s one of the agencies in the department of public works?” “How many people in it?” I asked. “Well 70,000” they replied but we weren’t quite sure so I drew a box. Then there was the police department. I asked, “Is it inside that box? How big is it relative to public works?” It was maybe a quarter of the size so we ended up mapping all the boxes nested or not and started doing links. We did what any good consultant would do now when looking at a business process. We drew a picture of it.

Three hours later, with no one asking for a break, people were on the edge of their seats, deep into the finesse of how city government really worked. The whole presentation was supported by our large display. We saw where each fellow was interning and the web of connections between agencies and other organizations. I realized we were in the middle of something that really worked. The amount of engagement and participation was exceptional. For five years I was incandescent with experimentation and the fact I could, just by boarding and mapping and drawing and illustrating a group’s thinking in real time, augment the group’s intelligence and never give a lecture.

Conner: What a valuable experience.

Sibbet: Yes indeed. So that’s the root of what we do at the Grove. When people struggle with things themselves they learn: but when they’re given things, neatly packaged to consume, they consume but I don’t think they are really learning. You may get something out of it but it’s not the same as doing it yourself. There’s no better way to learn than to try to teach something or to try to write an article or to try to draw a picture.

In hindsight, those years seem like a ‘Eureka!’ experience. But at the time, I wasn’t trying to do anything special. I would just get up and, because I could draw and was a journalist, I’d go for the story and try to illustrate it. I wasn’t working with any theory about visual thinking or theory about learning in particular other than general semantics. I’d just get swamped with how fun and rich and effective these meetings were when supported this way. Then I began to get into the theory and subsequently have come to understand why we were getting such great results.

Conner: You mean the theory of individual thinking or the theory of visual learning?

Sibbet: Oh, learning in general.

Conner: Anything specific that’s influenced that?

Sibbet: Well the big breakthrough for me came in the mid 1970s... I don’t know how theoretical you want to get.

Conner: theoretical as you’d like to get.

Sibbet: In 1976, I was about four years into Group Graphics. I started to look at the different ways I could visualize things, and began collecting diagrams and maps and flow charts and matrixes and clusters. I gathered every format I could find but the whole didn’t make complete sense to me. Some of the formats worked well. Others were difficult. We tested many different approaches in Coro seminars, even though most facilitators at the time just listed things on flip charts, and didn’t use many graphics. I was interested in seeing how things fit together and observing the systems thinking part. I was diagramming and mapping from the start, probably influenced by my urban planning interests now that I think about it.

My theoretical understanding took a huge jump forward after meeting a man named Arthur M. Young. Arthur taught in Berkeley through an organization he formed called the Institute for the Study of Consciousness. He was set on trying to update the scientific paradigm. A mathematician and physicist by training, and inventor of the Bell helicopter by profession, he had spent 35 years developing a theory of evolution that was process oriented rather than structurally oriented. Arthur believed that when trying to understand how things work, you need to appreciate that in nature, some things are more fundamental than others. “Fundamental” means that one thing is required for something else to exist. A good example would be water and waves. Water is fundamental to waves. Waves need water to be waves; water doesn’t need waves to be water. So you can say water is more fundamental than waves.

Conner: I think of the primary colors.

Sibbet: Yes. You could go even deeper and say that for water, oxygen and hydrogen are fundamental. Then you might say more fundamental than that are the fundamental “particles” scientists call protons and neutrons. If they didn’t exist, nothing else would either.

Down at the bottom of all this, the most fundamental thing discovered by scientists is light, sometimes called photons or quanta of action. Accepting light as the most fundamental thing in the world created a disturbance at the heart of science. Light, as far as anyone can tell, is completely unpredictable. Even though scientists say it’s a constant, some now are not even sure that that’s true. Light definitely doesn’t have weight, size, location, or anything else that you can pin down. It seems to be highly indeterminate so how can the whole world be built on complete uncertainty and still have predictable, physical laws, like gravity and all those wonderful things of chemistry. How can that be?

This is a great big question because up until the mid-20th century science principally believed that its main mission was to describe what was certain and predictable. Uncertainty was a big annoyance, and everyone kept trying to eliminate it, and all of its associated phenomenon—the observer consciousness, will, intention, vision, motivation—all those things that are fundamentally human and are traditionally excluded from science. Our ancestors built our whole modern civilization on the dream of man as a rational animal; and at the root science discovers uncertainty!

Modernists, in general, hope that through technology, clarity, and a thorough understanding of predictable processes, we’ll get it all together. Now science is finding out that the most fundamental thing is light or fundamental forces which, themselves, are very erratic and unpredictable.

Young set out to update the scientific paradigm and explain how this can be. In his comprehensive theory of evolution, laid out in marvelous detail in his seminal work, The Reflexive Universe, he suggests that the way things move, is more fundamental than the way they appear, and that energy is more fundamental than mass. He also suggests that “light” and “will” or “consciousness” are virtually the same, and that this, indeed is fundamental to everything else. These ideas were radical in the mid 1970’s when I first encountered them, prefiguring Willis Harmon, Ken Wilbur, and Frijoff Capra, some more recent thinkers who have made similar observations.

I saw another feature in Young’s work. He not only had the only really rigorous theory in the consciousness movement, but he also described it all with graphics! Young chose to use geometry as one of his languages. He used angular relations, visual display, and geometric portrayal on a sheet of paper. He also used measured formulas from engineering and metaphors from ancient mythology. He combined these three languages, plus mathematics, to describe and characterize his theory.

I joined his study group in 1976. A committed inventor, he said, “Test my theory against what you really know. Tell me what’s wrong.” He believed his theory could describe ANY process in the universe.

Well what I really knew was group process and the process of visualizing in groups. So I took Young’s theories and, between 1976 and 1981, began a full investigation of visual thinking and how you look at it from a process perspective. In the very first year, I developed a grammar for visual language based on a process perspective that to this day is one of the structures behind how we work and teach our product technology. In retrospect, it’s actually a simple insight.

If you look at graphics and try to understand them as artifacts and structures like you would a finished blueprint or a drawing, you would be taking a structural view, focusing on the lines, colors, and other elements in relationship with one another. There is, however, a more fundamental aspect you could pay attention to: namely the process of how the graphic came to be, and the process you need to go through to understand it. How do we look at things visually? What’s the process by which people scan, focus, drill down, and zoom?

We take the same process orientation regarding the world of digital learning, which the whole world of on-line design is getting into. How do the cognitive processes work in these environments? We don’t just have two-dimensional displays spread on one or two pages—we’ve got drill downs, zooms, and dense linkages through layered material. As our tools become more and more agile, we come closer to emulating what humans already embody—a fully holographic, dynamically updating and cross linking ecosystem of images and understandings. This is a long way from taking a structural view of graphics.

Initially I looked at the process of drawing and creating visuals on charts. What are the properties of this process? Which parts are more fundamental than others? I concluded that the most fundamental thing is to make a simple point; or dot. Common sense tells us that if you can’t set your pen on the paper, you’re not going to do any drawing at all!

The most fundamental cognitive act is focusing on something: being snagged by a difference. There’s a white sheet and there’s a spot on it. What is it about the human psyche that sees differences? The visually perceptive apparatus is tuned to detect differences, movement, and differentiation in color, size. Focusing on a spot is the beginning.

What’s the next thing that’s fundamental, I asked? It’s moving that spot and connecting two spots producing a relationship we call a line. Perceptually, when I look at a line I follow along almost automatically to see what it connects, or what it separates. Magazine designers use borders and lines to flow readers through a magazine. It’s interesting that contemporary designers use little graphic devices with bullets and zigzag lines to point to something else and show links.

Conner: I see that online these days too.

Sibbet: The graphics are a process artifact of hypertext. To understand layering, you need those lines, those threads, and those webs. If you look at it from a process structure standpoint—not from a structure standpoint—you’re moving your psyche when you link things. First, you’re pointing to it, then you’re moving it.

When we connect three dots, we create space: three points make a plane. A cluster map simply spaces information. Put three sticky notes on a chart and a views eye goes from one to the other to the other trying to make a pattern. If I want to stir a group up and activate their thinking, I just leave out all the connections and put stuff next to each other. People will start going nuts trying to make some sense out of it. I don’t need to have any logic to get that effect. I can put sticky notes anywhere. In some ways the more random and messy I am, the more it activates the group to try to make sense out of it.

It seems there’s something in the human brain that tries to connect things next to one another. I think our brains are completely wired to detect patterns, especially spatial patterns. First, we see the focus and move. Then we see the pattern. We don’t see patterns first and then move and then look. So, we have a hierarchy of visual display.

I found grids to be next in line, realizing that grids are the formalization of the comparison activity begun in clustering. When our brains start coming to conclusions, we think in related categories. Ah, this goes with that, ah, that goes with this. Crossing categories and seeing systematic relationships are what you do when you grid something.

Conner: Labeling then allows somebody to not just look at something but to gain some meaning from it fairly quickly without having to through the entire process.

Sibbet: Any of these formats apply to icons on paper or words on paper or words and icons on paper. One of my buddies, Bob Horn, in his book Visual Language has been studying the emergence of text-graphics language like Group Graphics.

Conner: Bob Horn of informational mapping fame?

Sibbet: Yes. He believes, and I’m somewhat persuaded by him, that the tight integration of text and graphics is itself a new language, a visual language. I found that by looking at the visualizing processes themselves I could get a hierarchy of processes that began to form a real visual grammar. The processes themselves provided a foundation experience from which much of the base meaning of the different format derived. Some formats were simpler and became the basis for the next process. For instance, clustering, more formalized, creates grids, and linked create diagrams. The simpler formats can persist in the more complex ones, just like in nature.

One of the features of this process progression is that it takes on increasing constraints, up to a point, and then turns to regain some of the freedom lost in becoming more complex. The constraint of a line, for instance, is that it flows in one direction. They can be fat lines, thin lines, dotted lines, etc. but can’t go in two directions at once. When spacing things, the constraint is how close or far elements are in 2-dimensional space. This is a bit more challenging than listing. You can’t pack too many things in or it causes problems. In front of a group you can list forever. You only have to keep it straight and keep going. With a cluster, however, you begin to get clogged areas and packed areas. It can overload people; they begin looking at it as “too much,” like you’re putting too many buttons on a screen.

Conner: In some ways it’s a reflection of how we think.

Sibbet: There’s a limit, you know. Six or seven distinctions are all the brain can handle. We get beyond this limit by grouping things. The human brain seems to understand better when something is neatly categorized. If a grid is all filled out, we have to get the categories then do the comparison, then understand the data in that joint field that we can grid. It is a lot more complex and constraining process than just listening.

If you’re facilitating and want a group to get going and quickly get the energy flowing, to get the ideas popping, you would not work in a grid. You would work in a list. If you want to encourage juxtapositions and activate comparative thinking, you’d use a cluster.

Early insight like this literally gushed out of applying process theory. The going became more challenging with the complex graphics.

What’s beyond a grid, I asked myself? Young saw plants as more highly evolved that crystals, and claimed that there is a structural clue—all plants have branching patterns. I immediately recognized diagrams as the next format. A method popularized by Tony Buzan, from England, is called Mind Mapping. He claims the whole brain is set up to organize things on branching patterns. These have different characteristics than a grid. They can be much more complicated to read; they pack more in; but they are freer in the actual process of making them. You can branch anywhere, not just in a cell.

In diagramming something on a mind map, you put a central idea in the middle and then you put big branches of ideas and then set up the twigs. When you use it as a way of displaying the group, it always starts slowly and then, as it gets going, starts accelerating. It’s a lot like what happens when you plant a real tree. It goes slowly in the beginning and then, as it gets roots, it begins to grow.

Conner: So that’s an advantage?

Sibbet: It depends. It’s tempting to introduce a value bias in a complexity hierarchy, thinking complex is better or fundamental is better. I don’t think complex is better than fundamental because if you take fundamental away, you don’t have complex. But if you only have fundamental, you wouldn’t have all the richness brought about by complexity. A musician doesn’t say the C note is better than the F note or that the music is better than the scale; he plays the whole keyboard. That’s my organization bias. Value comes from the purposes we have in relating to the world, not from the elements themselves.

Young’s perception was that when molecules figured out branching in the DNA molecule and in polymers, they found the key to plant world and growth, because branches can grow, where gridworks only expand. In growing, they reclaim some of the freedom of movement lost by becoming constrained molecules and crystals.

Conner: They actually found a way.

Sibbet: In Young’s scheme the next evolutionary stage is occupied by animals, so I began thinking about graphics that can really move, and animate, like animals. Animals have two degrees of freedom of movement in space. It is unpredictable; in that, it can move unpredictably in a new direction. But it is constrained in the direction it’s going, much like a line. A duck’s not going to suddenly screech to a stop and head the other way. That would defy the laws of physics. But you can’t predict a ducks going up and down and sideways. So, I look at these graphic displays and said, “Okay, what has the property and can move like this?” I made an easy intellectual mistake in thinking that movement is like flow, and flow charts show movement so it must be flow charts. I published the Group Graphics Keyboard in 1980 with this as the sixth pattern in my series of “processes.” But it bothered me that flow charts were so grid-like in look and in the feeling of what it took to create them. This part was elegant, like the other distinctions.

Around 1984 I had another big eureka. In re-reading Young, I realized animation occurs in a drawing when you point at something the viewer already knows and they project movement into it. When you add analogy and graphic metaphor to a graphic display, you turn it into a drawing.

Let me give you an example. I will often draw charts and, instead of drawing a flat horizon line, I will draw an arced horizon line and put a couple of little green blobs on it. What is that? It’s an arching line and it has some green and then blue on the horizon. But if you saw it, you would instantly see yourself in space looking down at the Earth. The actual amount of information in that line and in the blobs I draw is minuscule. The reason it works is that everybody animates it with their own remembered view of the earth from space—an overwhelmingly common image in our times. A whole class of drawings uses this projective phenomenon to communicate and they have a very different property than diagrams and displays that don’t. You’ll see a lot of this in USA Today where the charts look like the stuff that they are about and you instantly get oriented to them and get involved in an interplay between the graphic metaphoric and the data. These effects are strong enough that they provide a lot of room for distortions as well as quick perception.

At the Grove we are transforming large vision murals into “drawings” when we create landscapes of information in certain kinds of metaphorical settings. One of our first big ones was a vision for National Semiconductor. It seemed to me they wanted to go from being a space barge to being the Enterprise, as in Star Trek. They wanted to evolve into a “go where nobody has ever gone” kind of company. But they were really a big freighter-type company producing thousands of different kinds of semiconductors and parts. When we created their vision in 1990, as part of their turnaround, we create a 16-foot long mural showing a space ship assembling itself and taking off towards a vision. Midway it morphs into the Enterprise and warp speed. Everybody knew the Star Trek metaphor and it was right on for that vision. By the time we were finished with several versions of this mural in 1994 NSC had 95% visionary recognition, for the first time ever in the some parts of their world like Malaysia. The company materially turned around; not just because of our work, but we were a key part of it.

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Creating a drawing that animates meaning can be a double-edged. You rely on the built-in experience of people to animate. If they don’t have the experience, then there are two things they don’t know—the data and the metaphor. In’ one project in the early 1990 ‘s we began a project in Kenya to teach nurses how to teach nursing. We developed a process model for the stages in teaching nursing and illustrated it as a bouncing ball. The nurses in Kenya looked at the various stages and said, “What is this step? Why is it up in the air? Why aren’t they on the same level? In Kenya it turns out abstracting doesn’t work like it does here.

Conner: I lived in Kenya and found the same thing to be true. I suspect the bouncing ball didn’t work either.

Sibbet: It’s a very concrete culture. We were not going to give up so we asked, “What would really represent a big thing, a vision?” They said climbing Mt. Kenya would be a big deal for most people in Kenya. So, instead of a bouncing ball we used a zigzag road going up Mt. Kenya. When we asked what do people use to go up Mt. Kenya, I expected them to suggest a bus and saw planning as a project to run the buses, and make the tires and everything. Nope, they use bicycles. So, we ended up mapping our project management model onto a bike going up Mt. Kenya, which they understood and were totally happy about.

Conner: Because it’s was their metaphor...

Sibbet: Right. And so, when you get into this realm of drawings and what they mean, it’s a magical and complex world where you can do amazing things.

All these same principles apply to cyberspace design. This is how patterns develop. We’ve discovered that the activity of wrestling with metaphors, and what the organizing metaphors off a mural or site should be, turns out to be a wonderful way to get people to do systems thinking without all the heavy lifting. They don’t need to memorize some archaic book. Looking at whether a setting should be aquatic and underwater or illustrates as a jazz band forces a very rich depth of analysis.

Gareth Morgan has a wonderful book called Images of Organization, which explores how, fundamentally, metaphors organize our thinking about organizations. I’m pretty convinced that what people mean by saying there’re organized is that they can see how parts fit together in some integrated way. Ultimately that way of “seeing” is display making. For humans it’s a graphic 3-dimensional display with 2-dimensional interface when we come to representing it. When we start dealing with graphic representation and metaphors, from a process perspective, they become literal lenses on how people make sense of the world.

I knew from the start that there was a format beyond drawing, a pattern of ultimate complexity and inclusiveness. This would be the “mandala” or circular drawing. For the brain to figure out how everything relates to everything in a central way requires the most amount of insight. In a macro kind of way, it takes us back to the point of it all—to see the world in a whole way. This is what we try to do at the Grove.

Thanks for listening. I hope this gave you a little bit of how process theory has become integrating theory behind not only the graphics we create but also most of our organizations, and how we work. As we think so we are.

Conner: Thank you so much, then, for sharing who you are.

David Sibbet is the founder and president of the Grove Consultants International. Visit him online at Grove inspired graphic facilitators are now working around the world, helping transform the art and practice of collaboration with visual tools.

Marcia Conner is Editor-in-Chief of LiNE Zine and CEO of Learnativity. She can be reached at or