Global Sensemaking

Tools for Dialogue and Deliberation on Wicked Problems

Philosophical aspects of sensemaking and operational definitions

An e-mail exchange between some members of the steering committee got me to thinking about more philosophical (and psychological) issues regarding the nature of sensemaking. And then my practical side got into the fray, wondering if we shouldn't spend a little time trying to explicate our individual definitional ideas about what we think this thing is. I was struck by noting the number of definitions for the word sense in The noun definition that seems fitting is: "16. an opinion or judgment formed or held, esp. by an assemblage or body of persons: the sense of a meeting." But the verb definition: "20. to grasp the meaning of; understand," seems to capture much of what I take sensemaking to entail.

Philosophically I wonder about sense, in the latter definition, related to truth and understanding (where psychology enters the discussion). It seems to me that someone can make sense out of a phenomenon in ways that satisfy them personally but are not veridical. Take an extreme case of a deeply religious person having a profound subjective experience - a vision as it were - and taking it as a revelation, when in fact it is the result of a brain tumor! To them the vision made sense. But to you or me it is a tragedy.

People are always making sense out of so-called evidence when it fits their ideological perspective. Surely we are not thinking that the sensemaking of global issues is of this sort. Sense is such a personal thing in this regard.

Group sensemaking strikes me as more like science, if it isn't 'meta-science'. In other words, we want to make sense we all agree on that isn't just another kind of ideology or dogma, but based on objective reality. Where science, or at least the reductive approach, aggregates facts and data, sensemaking, like integrative methods, puts the facts into context with a larger environment. Sensemaking, in my view, is about understanding reality sufficiently well that one feels comfortable making statements about the future. That is, not necessarily making predictions, but anticipating future possibilities based on understanding how the world works.

Perhaps I'm the only one who finds this kind of exploration fascinating, but, again, my practical side asserts that some deeper shared agreement on the philosophical underpinnings of sensemaking is needed to get to a good operational definition. And that is necessary for developing tools to help people make sense. Maybe everyone else here has plugged into a literature that has already been there, done that, and I'm just late to the party. Just trying to make sense out of this stuff!

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After a long and hectic work day, I finally got time to begin to compose some ideas on exactly this sort of question. You’re not at all the only one who finds this sort of exploration fascination. I suspect though, that many see it as not only fascinating but beyond their expertise. I’d like to step in and suggest its not at all beyond anyone’s expertise – rather, how we come to agree on a meaning for “sensemaking” can take us to the core of the issue of how any word gets its senses. And the way we pursue this issue might be an opportunity to set a pattern of inquiry into the semantic tools I suggested will be needed by any sensemaking community. To put this a bit differently, every community needs lexicographers to record the understandings of the culture for the young or less learned. But those who are learned and at the forefront of inquiry aren’t exempt from the same issues of language and meaning. In some cases, they can be mitigated for a time by the authority of a great theoretician whose authority is accepted. But when inquiry open to diverse perspectives, as is the case with any multidisciplinary project, authority isn’t a solution.

1. The issue of the meaning of “sensemaking” might be pursued by looking for a disciplinary dictionary that has negotiated multiple attempts to explore its potential meanings. We could trace the ancestry of the term, and that might help a bit. But the term has been used in multiple disciplines, and none of them have offered definitions that provide required starting points (at least as far as I know).

2. You appropriately pursue the meaning by looking in a dictionary for meanings of “sense”. But this doesn’t resolve the questions you are trying to raise.

3. I would like to suggest the reason you don’t find dictionary definitions adequate is because you are in “inquiry’ mode rather than “argument’ mode. In
argument mode, we use words in order to make a case. If possible, we consult a dictionary as support, but our main focus is either on facts and inductive reasoning, or theories and deductive reasoning. We want to make a case, and USE words to good effect, not reflect on their meaning.

4. In argument mode, we might ask “what does x mean?”; but in inquiry mode, we ask “what is there for us to mean by x?” It was many years ago in my reading of Stephen Toulmin that I was introduced to this way of framing “inquiry”. It is compatible with the C.S. Pierce’s idea of ‘abduction”. Pierce distinguishes 3 modes of reasoning: induction, deduction and abduction. Abduction is roughly equivalent to generating hypotheses – drawing on both observation and theory, on everyday language as well as disciplinary language, etc…. whatever resources we have available, including imagination.

5. In other words, I think tools for sensemaking must be designed for both argumentation and inquiry. The two modes of reasoning are interdependent. Actually, we might in fact start a discussion of “sensemaking” by asking how it might differ from “reasoning”. Howard Gardner has advocated understanding “intelligence” in terms of many modes of experiencing the world. He distinguishes 12 types of intelligence,, including moral, artistic, etc. Along the same lines, we could ask whether its important to keep the term “sensemaking” open to different modes of experience.

6. This gets to the core of the issues that will eventually doom any aspirations for an overarching ontology for creating a “semantic web”. But it also leads in the direction of philosophical discussions, which may not be to everyone’s liking as a method of inquiry. (But just in case someone is interested, I have uploaded a paper by two Italian academics interested in the way computers can facilitate communication: “Claudia Arrighi and Roberta Ferrario, “Abductive Reasoning, Interpretation and Collaborative Processes”. They explore the philosophical gounding of this view of meaning as by its very nature a dynamic negotiated process. )

7. Negotiating m
I lost several paragraphs of this response, and I'm not sure why....:-( I have uploaded a document with the full posting, and also the other document referred to in paragraph 6, as well as a document referred to later in this posting. Sorry for the confusion. Perhaps there are modes of communication that require somewhat different tools. I had thought of starting this posting by noting that the discussion had been started by email, which is my preferred mode of communication (but I wasn't involved in the discussion George referred to).
I took a quick look at the COCO paper last night, and want to read it again along with the other reference. This is great stuff. I will have more later today, but I'm so glad you responded.
George, thanks for inspiring me to respond in a form that also puts the first post on my blog in the last couple of months. Here it is. Looking forward to your feedback either there or here.

Robert, I find your thoughts compelling and am delighted to have access to the thinking of a professional lexicographer. Your points 5 and 6 resonate with me. Our tools need to capture the tension between argumentation and inquiry (as you say in 5). From the names you'd think Debategraph was about argumentation and Cohere, Compendium, Collabatorium about inquiry, but that doesn't appear to be the case. Seems from my brief inspection that all these tools serve a wide range of application from argumentation and inquiry, so maybe we have that covered.

As for 6, ('the issues that will eventually doom any aspirations for an overarching ontology for creating a “semantic web”') I'm eager to see the response from semantic web advocates. Been wondering when this would come up. I'm both a semantic web advocate and I believe it's an impossible task for the near future (read: not in my lifetime). Hope I'm wrong about the time frame.

One part of the Arrighi & Ferrario paper that stood out for me:

...we not only want to show that in order to converge on the use of a word a negotiation is needed, we also want to claim that repeated negotiations shape the meaning of such word; they shape the ‘private’ meaning, attributed to the word by each individual agent, but negotiations also shape what has been called the ‘literal’ meaning, the meaning a word is supposed to have independently from context.

With this post George has begun the negotiation process in an explicit way. I think that's all to the good.
My comment only got to #7, and the rest was in the attached document. I'll post it here for the record. I hope it will make it clear that the issue is about the role of ontology in the semantic web, rather than in the project of creating a web that relates in significant ways to our processes of meaning construction - aka "sensemaking". These comments propose a pragmatic method to elicit and compare concepts and their relations with the words we use to designate them. The philosophical dispute I'd propose avoiding for the time being is the nature of the "AI" project. I'm not merely skeptical of the approach. I think it is dangerous to the degree that it hides from us what we are doing with words like "plan" and "intention". Its harmless, even useful, to the degree we recognize that we have appropriated those words for specialized use in a context that is merely analogous to human intentions and plans. The point of the different senses is quite different. But ... I did say this dispute is worth postponing.

Here is the rest of the above comment on George's note:

7. Negotiating meanings: Tom Gruber once said an ontology is a treaty. We might also say that a dictionary indicates an alliance among major forces in a culture. But in our inquiries, it might be better to build tools on a constructivist methodology that is agnostic about treaties and alliances. Basically, the repertory grid approach I mentioned in the “semantic tools” posting is just a way of getting people to be explicit about what their words (and phrases) mean. The outcome can be seen as a grid in which people’s conceptualizations are classified by whether they use the same term for the same concept. (I have uploaded a paper by Brian Gaiines and Mildred Shaw that does a great job of clarifying this approach.):

a. Same term, same concept: consensus
b. Same term, different concept: conflict
c. Different term, same concept: correspondence
d. Different term, different concept: contrast

8. You conclude with a definitional proposal:

“Sensemaking, in my view, is about understanding reality sufficiently well that one feels comfortable making statements about the future. That is, not necessarily making predictions, but anticipating future possibilities based on understanding how the world works.”

I think this is a great start; I’d even accept this as a great starting point, since its compatible with my own constructivist views. But in order to assess this as a definition, we would need to do some major theoretical work.

9. Another approach would be to take cases which seem to have the attributes of sensemaking, and see if we agree on them, and in what ways we agree or disagree. You have already started this process when you mention two cases. You wrote:
“Take an extreme case of a deeply religious person having a profound subjective experience - a vision as it were - and taking it as a revelation, when in fact it is the result of a brain tumor! To them the vision made sense. But to you or I it is a tragedy.”

10. Perhaps some of us wouldn’t see this as a tragedy. Just because it is precipitated (caused?) by a brain tumor, isn’t it possible that the vision reveals important truths that have been hidden in this person’s psychic store of experiences? How do we get at this issue.

11. I would like to suggest that we find a series of 10 cases where people have come to “make sense” of their world in ways we admire and appreciate. We can then list the qualities/attributes of those cases, and then compare the degree to which all of the cases share those attributes. This would be the approach that is facilitated by the expert system development tools referred to as “repertory grid” tools.

I’m sorry this got so long. I have also uploaded a .doc file.
For me, this thread doesn't get any better! I'm writing the sensemaking portion of my research report in my thesis project now. For me, also, the citation du jour is:
Weik, Karl (1995). Sensemaking in Organizations, Sage Publications, Inc.

Toulmin and lots of others are also valuable.

I have a strong bias towards constructivist approaches. From Weik, I get that "sensemaking" literally means making sense. Reading much further in the context of wicked problems he talks about making sense of the mess before one tries to make decisions, as suggested above. It involves finding the right framework in which to cast the issue, finding the right questions to ask, then seeking answers in so far as they are available. That's my brief interpretation of Weik.

I follow two speakers on dialogue: David Bohm, and Gordon Pask. Bohm speaks to the notion that dialogues should not first try to solve problems, but rather should be about the dialogue process itself: who are we? where are we coming from? That sort of thing. Pask's conversation theory then invokes speaker-listener models: my model of what your domain model might include in order for me, while speaking, to map my domain model into terms you might better understand, that sort of thing. Pask speaks to the notion of an entailment mesh, a sortof grand knowledge base for the conversation; I call that a topic map. Like the dialogue/issue maps of IBIS, Paskian conversations entail the same notion of a shared model of the domain.

As Bob suggests, and perhaps as Bohm might argue, perhaps we should not cast sensemaking into any single framework or experience.

George: many thanks for starting this thread.
I've started looking at Weik. Got the pointer through Wikipedia and have started following up. Did a quick look at his book through Amazon's preview viewer. Will get it on order (adding one more item to my thousand-long wish list!). I feel like I have a lot of catching up to do :(

I've been teaching some of our Global Honors courses, esp. on global challenges ( and my pedagogy relies heavily on question development. After our seminar sessions students are supposed to bring good questions that they have developed based on readings and prior seminars. A good question is one that generates more questions. I steer the students to think in terms of questions rather than racing to think up a "solution". Some of these honors students naturally tend to be inquisitive but most students don't think this way naturally. I count it as a great accomplishment to get them to think in questions by the end of the quarter. The American education system is not very good at developing this style of thinking - even while proclaiming itself to be about critical thinking.

I'm looking forward to a great discourse here!
Congratulations on your courage in evaluating questions in terms of generating more questions - their productive/generative function isn't measured in terms of answers. I'd also advocate a perspective that "answers" should also be evaluated by the same measure: a good answer is one that makes it possible to ask more good questions. This leads to questions about the nature of questions, of course; and we should consider the Socratic stricture to "know thyself" as perhaps the ultimate font of questions. Are we by nature impelled to question? (Great contribution, George.)
Not sure if constructivist and constructionism are in consensus or conflict, but if the former the current debate on OLPC's tie-in to constructionism may be relevant as a social experiment, as this OLPC News blog discusses.

Re #9 and #10, I also see the question of the validity of a particular experience to be orthogonal to that of the material causes in play at the moment. Galileo's vision of the moons of Jupiter did not make less sense because of his use of the artificial means of a telescope, although the telescope made the vision possible. Likewise my seeing the letters in front of me more clearly because my tumor is pushing against my eye and reducing my myopia is not discredited because of that tumor. The sensemaking is a social activity, something pretty clear in Galileo's case where the clerics' framing of his activity discredited it.

Does this imply that sensemaking tools have to not only map within a frame, but map framemaking as well? The discussion above of abduction relates to this, as also may Bayesian methods of inference.
I left a comment on Trinifar, but I'll repeat it here to motivate others to read your blog. You have provided an eloquent description of wisdom! For me the epitome of knowledge is wisdom. Understanding is a path toward wisdom. I really like what you had to say about life enhancing sensemaking.

Actually, I'd encourage you to bring those definitions of individual to distributed group sensemaking into this venue (as well as in the wiki site).
Excellent discussion. I have a great concern that the tools proposing to be offered by GSM address mapping the rational aspect of deliberations about important issues, so that there can be greater clarity about them, but that the real blockages actually have more to do with human process, and in particular with "pre-rational" framing that creates the context for subsequent rational logic. You (George) note this when you say "People are always making sense out of so-called evidence when it fits their ideological perspective."

How is such ideological perspective formed? What guides or motivates my formation of such perspective?

I think that we all inevitably form such ideological perspectives. Ie, the idea that there is some realm of objectivity apart from our framings seems to me to be naive. Scientific method, for example, requires framing in the form of hypotheses. Furthermore, I think the only way forward is to explicitly include the aspect of framing in our work. I think we've started to do this somewhat in discussing "sensemaking" as including framing.

There is vocabulary and methodology for working with the "blind spot", the place from which framing is generated and motivated. There is philosophical vocabulary, all the way from Kant's categorical schema of the imagination to Varela's autopoiesis as structural coupling of organism/environment. There is also some practice of how to work with this both individually and in groups - I've mentioned Scharmer's Theory U as the best example I know of.

However, in terms of the practice of actually working with my pre-sensing (therefore "presencing") framing, your pre-sensing framing, and coming to some resolution to our pre-sensing framing: I don't think there is any alternative to actually doing this in person, in the flesh, over some period of time. Even then it's a really difficult process. Maybe after such a group process, the group can continue it online: maybe.

I say this as an online person, totally into the web et al. Seriously. Moving that place, even recognizing that place from which our framing originates, is a very personal, inevitably ego-threatening process. But I think it's essential for global sensemaking to make a meaningful difference.
On June 22, Mark wrote (my abbreviations):

" I have a great concern ... that the real blockages actually have more to do with human process, and in particular with "pre-rational" framing ... the only way forward is to explicitly include the aspect of framing in our work... I don't think there is any alternative to actually doing this in person, in the flesh, over some period of time."

I completely agree with this. Understanding framing, though often difficult to get at, is essential; talking about it, especially in person, is often the only way to surface it. Framing is often subtle, hidden, fragmented, unquestioned, multiple, in all ways a tricky creature.

I also think that the "actually doing this in person" dimension, though tough to realize in our modern diaspora (where the miracle of being partially connected through media like this, in some ways only accentuates our dispersion), is equally essential and too often underplayed.

It's as if, because we *can* interact "socially" via the net, at least partially, many believe that such media are enough for true sensemaking, communication, meaning creation, and sharing. I don't think they are. It concerns me that the principal use model for almost all our tools is individuals sitting alone at their computers (as I am doing at this moment). Face-to-face in-person interactions still feel important and central to me (I wrote a bit about this here). Using Compendium for in-person gatherings is still the use case that I find most compelling.





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