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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My apologies for the length of time it takes me to digest the thoughts of others and make sense of things!

The on-going e-mail traffic about tool mechanics tends to divert my attention from what I think is fundamental to the whole endeavor, and that is truly understanding the way in which both individuals and groups make sense of anything. My concern about rushing into tool functionality descriptions is that I just don't yet have the feeling that we all agree on what group sense making is all about. Andy provided some descriptions of individual and group sense making at: Trinifar.
But I think we need actual process understanding.

My concern is that unless we grasp, make sense of, how groups actually acquire and process information and eventually come to some kind of group consensus, we won't be doing an adequate job of defining the tool set and providing an integrated platform for access by arbitrary groups out to make sense of things.

Here is what I mean. Ostensibly we realize that individual sense making is what takes place inside the head of one person. That person constructs a model of how the phenomenon works and can use that model to anticipate the future or play 'what-if' by imagining some tweak to starting conditions (Robert's mention of abduction, for example) and running the model in fast forward. OK that is great so far as an individual is concerned. But now we are engaged in providing ways for large groups of individuals to somehow aggregate their individual senses and expect a global sense to emerge from that process.

My problem is that I still don't see how this to be toolified because I don't yet think we have a clear understanding of how it actually happens. I don't think we clearly understand how we get from individual mind to (forgive me) group mind. Even with all the models of structured discourse, argumentation, inquiry, etc., do we really have a model of how individuals interact driving toward a usable, veridical model of how things work?

Simon has brought up the relationship between sense making and learning. I think this is an important discussion because the framework of such learning is a group. I practice teaching by involving students, in groups, to actively explore a subject and ask questions. I've seen the kind of emergence (not always convergence on the truth of a subject!) of shared understanding that results. But I am loathe to say I fully understand what is going on.

I can see each individual deriving their own sense, in part from interaction with others in the group and pursuit of questions and arguments, but also from simply doing individual research and thinking. I can probe the individual vs. group understanding with tests. I conclude that ultimately all sense is made in the head. Different individuals in the group have sometimes wildly different understandings even when the group as a whole claims it has a consistent model. At some point one or a few of the students write down or document what they think is a collective understanding. This might generate additional discourse and thinking if there is time in the quarter. Eventually (with a deadline approaching) they agree (or agree to disagree) and the product is turned in.

The question remains as to whether what they produced actually makes sense, veridically, or is just a best guess effort, perhaps approximating a workable model of reality. There is no external standard of judgment (well me, since I have to give a grade) as to whether they succeeded in making usable sense or not. Unless they have to use their work to build a real model. In most of my courses the groups do a demonstration project that shows the results of their understanding.

Group sense making, in this educational context, amounts to a condensation of individual senses into a more concise aggregate version that can be tested. There has to be a condensed product that represents the efforts of the group.

Translating that experience to the realm of large group sense making I am left with a lot of questions about how you go from the sense in each participant's head to a collective sense that can produce positive results. In the end we are talking about groups actually solving wicked problems and using those solutions to better the world (or save it). I don't feel that our efforts are going to be well spent if we design tools from the approach of cobbling together functions from bits and pieces of stuff that happens to exist already. It isn't about the mechanics of what the software can do, but about what people actually need to share their individual sense with others and then negotiate a global sense that can be used.

I'm missing that piece. Probably because I am slow when it comes to absorbing and contemplating. At one point I thought I understood a process for doing group sense making but with all the different ideas floating around I now find myself wondering if I understood anything at all.

I don't know how anyone else feels about this, but I would love it if we could focus not on the existing tools so much as on the process of (large) group sense making. The existing tools might be useful to test hypotheses about sense making but I think we need to make sense of the process of sense making and then decide what functions are needed (and which tools provide those in an integrable way).

Otherwise just tell me to be quiet and go back to contemplation!
George, please don't be quiet, but do continue to contemplate. I see room for violent agreement along some dimensions and passive, non-violent, friendly disagreement along others.

Agreement that we don't have consensus on what collective sensemaking processes look like, but disagreement to the degree that there are not already some well-painted pictures of brands of sensemaking, painted by lots of people, from Weik, to Dervin, to Snowden, to others including Simon and Jeff.

That is, I think we have a sufficient number of pictures that it is possible to articulate one or more hypotheses, build testbeds, and begin testing. I have a working hypothesis that works on the notion (from Weik) that sensemaking is what you do before you enter decision making. It includes (in my terms) foraging, filtering, organizing, making frameworks, figuring out what the best questions are. Answering those questions leads to decision making. That's how I have distilled what I've studied thus far, subject, of course, to dramatic revision if sufficiently provoked.

I see two kinds of "collective" sensemaking: one in which teams actually work together, as in using tags specified by some goal-based ontology, and one in which loosely coupled or non-coupled people just "play in the garden", tagging, annotating, and so forth, creating conditions in which they or others can stumble upon surprising ideas, say, and connect them. The individuals that connect ideas are contributing to a "story" entailed by all ideas and thus contributing to the process of making sense of a lot of otherwise unconnected "dots".

It might be worth starting a collection of working hypotheses at the wiki, not here. In some sense, pieces of that already exist, scattered about here and there.

In my case, I am imagining combinations of the two kinds of collective sensemaking; I'll admit that I expect some to argue that the second kind, where un-coupled (non team) individuals don't qualify as "collective", and I'll argue that, given they "play in the garden", they are, indeed, part of the collective; they exhibit specific intentions of contributing to a collective knowledge base. My thesis project aims to facilitate groups working together on something like Webquests, seeking answers to questions posed, finding questions to pose, and so forth. My project also aims to support lone "gardeners", tagging, annotating, connecting, and joining dialogues, those four activities constituting the primary processes of sensemaking in my working hypothesis.

I would argue that "sharing their individual sense with others" is an outcome of tagging, annotating (lifting ideas, questions, and so forth), and connecting. Negotiating a global sense (in my terms) lies in the domain of dialogue mapping, where someone contests a connection, asks about a lifted idea, or argues for or against a position taken by another. I am arguing, under the umbrella of one working hypothesis, that your "missing piece" can be handled by the four activities I just listed.

I'll leave the room now and return control of your browser back to you.
I have basically gotten this picture Jack and I think we basically agree on some aspects of sense making. I certainly recognize my own actions in terms of the four activities you mention.

Let me phrase it differently. Is sense making just the development of a 'feeling' or conviction that one understands the phenomenon AND that others understand the phenomenon in the same way? Or is it not, through collective actions, building a model that one can turn the crank on and get possible futures from and then verify the veracity of those results?

For me sense making includes the latter step plus some further (iterative) investigations of the model to see if it really represents a true understanding.

I'm left with an impression from your last multi-sentence paragraph that you are describing the understanding of a dialog with refinements being made. Is this the same thing as producing a final product that people can use to solve problems? That is my missing piece I think.

Maybe another way to describe it is this. We as a group have a bunch of pieces of understanding of what we think sense making is. We're trying to organize the pieces, not unlike a jigsaw puzzle, to see how they fit together. At some point the pieces should start to form a pattern that is discernible and we start feeling like it makes sense. At what point do we believe the group has made sense rather than just individuals having individual senses, which may or may not correspond with one another?

In our own case I feel like we are working with pieces but not of the puzzle of sense making itself as much as pieces of tools that individuals feel work in sense making. I still sense that we have a number of possibly disparate views of what the pattern is, as reflected in all the various tools already produced, but no actual group sense. We are, I think, still in the phase of exploration for meaning but trying to act as if we already have the meaning and just need to get down to business.

What I fear most is Maslow's Law of the Instrument. I would hate to see us flail away at hammering things that aren't nails. I understand that there is a lot of personal investment in the various pieces we are exploring. And, frankly, it blows my mind to see so many views represented by various tools. And maybe its just me. But I'm unrequited with respect to having confidence that we have yet made collective sense out of sense making such that we can build a working model.

But I appreciate your (and others) patience with me if I'm just being dense. I am trying to work my way through the Wikipedia article and its links (Weik for example). So far I keep finding very abstract statements that sound good but don't give much guidance (to me) for formulating methods - a precursor to tool making - for the end game, i.e. building the model.
Great questions, great inquiry, George.

I think I've identified a difference in our styles. I'll not defend either, just explain what I see. Those who know me well would tell you that I frequently ignore caution and run with an idea, half-baked or not. I feel your pain, to borrow from a recent President; we each appear to exhibit differences in the thresholds of sense we require of our universes before, as they say in the aerospace industry, cutting metal; it's a threshold thing, I suppose.

I, too, think in terms of models, those that help explain and predict. I mentioned elsewhere at this site my TSC program that grows qualitative models of processes, showing emerging patterns, explaining and anticipating along the way. I've been following Simon's work since the end of the last century (gads, it feels really funny to say something like that; I recall my grandmother saying the same kind of thing); I've been building a model of what sensemaking means since long before I started reading the likes of Weik, Snowden and others. So, I've got what some call pent up fire-em-up-itis; I need to test my hypothesis, I need to cut metal. Reifying abstract concepts is my game. Tool making is sensemaking for me; that's because I rapidly learn what doesn't work, and what appears to work. In some sense, I do mashups: I push things together as in a jigsaw puzzle as if they were meant to fit together.

In that sense, I think I'm working with the puzzle, not just the pieces. That's what my hypothesis aims at. Those disparate views of which you speak are grist for the mill, something to compare to whatever results I get. Recall, an entire PhD rides on something being learned from my experiment; every one of those disparate views will likely cross the path of my tools one way or another. So, I try to anticipate them as I go. That's what these dialogues are for, at least in terms of my own inquiry. I am unalterably (dangerous concept) convinced that the tools I am working on fall into your category of nails; hammer's in motion.

In the largest picture, I think of everything we do as one form of storytelling or another. Tagging an information resource carries with that process a story, a belief expressed through a tag. Lifting an idea out of some Web page tells a story, say, that you think the point you lift is interesting, is a question worthy of highlighting, is a concept worth remembering. Connecting two ideas together with a coherence relation is wiring a sentence in much larger story. Engaging in dialogues is just more storytelling.

What, indeed, is group sense? Is it narrowly defined as consensus? Does it entail outlier beliefs? Should I really care about it? Should I rather care about my senators making better decisions in congress? Is it possible that tossing up a GSm platform and populating it with a well-tended garden will help them make better decisions? I think I see "group sense" as an emergent property of "individual sense"; what that emergent property looks like is not clear for me. Right now, I'm not worried about that; I'm running on a set of intuitions that are based on an optimistic outlook on human behavior, that, in the end, if given the right information (whatever that means), people will tend to do the right thing (whatever that means). Naive? Indeed! To quote a recent Vice President: So?

Thanks for tolerating my slowness. I appreciate your thoughts and each time I think I get closer to understanding.

While on the way to the office to water my plants I thought of yet another way to explain what's causing my fog. Every quarter I get one or two students who complain about the tests I give. Those tests invariably require students to synthesize an answer out of two or more subjects we have covered in class/text/homework. For example, in my operating systems class I require students to describe how they would integrate a priority scheme with a round-robin scheduling in an RTOS. The RTOS that we use has strict priority scheduling and not round-robin, but we study round-robin as it would be handled in a conventional GPOS. This generally throws the students for a loop (although the solution is not that difficult).

In talking to the students they will invariably say that when they studied each type of scheduling they 'understood' what they were studying. They will say things like "when you explained it in class it made perfect sense." The problem is they don't really understand it because they had only a superficial grasp of some very general ideas. They did not understand it deeply enough to know how to modify (the data structures and scheduling algorithm) each component in order to integrate them into a meaningful (meaning workable) model. Now since I have many students who succeed at this I know that the fault lies in the ones who couldn't pull it off - they were comfortable with what they believed was an understanding until confronted with having to use it. Even when they understand the details of the data structures and algorithms of each, they don't really grasp the WHY of the two schemes, what kinds of problems each solves separately and what kinds can be solved by combining them.

Now I picture this 'you-don't-know-it-till-you-do-it' approach being what you are describing for what you do. You are understanding these mechanisms by trying them out. What I am trying to understand how a group can say, with a voice, that they understand something. It's that latter part that stumps me. I think I'm getting a handle on the process in my head. I just haven't got the same handle on what it means in a group. For example in our own group I don't get the sense that we are ready to synthesize quite yet.

I like the story telling notion. But I'm looking for a praxis; what part of the story leads to action/results. That is the part I have to dig into more, I think. Because the latter is, to me, when you actually understand, when you can do and succeed in some sense. Like a script, along with the dialog the actors move and do affective things. The script includes embedded instructions for action at specific times in the play.

Brother am I feeling metaphorical today!

Here is what I think is a critical point: "Is it possible that tossing up a GSm platform and populating it with a well-tended garden will help them make better decisions?"

I'd like to understand HOW this might be the case. For one thing it would help operationalize the notion of 'populating it with a well-tended garden'. I think I understand a fair amount about how IBIS works to focus attention and structure thoughts to help guide a group to some kind of outcome. It isn't clear that the tool does that. And as Jeff said, the facilitator plays a huge role in guiding the process. So that is still sense making in the head (Jeff's) helping a group make sense. For a large, distributed (in time and space) group to make sense using a set of communications tools it would seem to me that we really need to understand that final phase, when the pieces of the puzzle come together in a meaningful, testable way.

Is anybody else out there listening in? Does any of this make sense??? ;^)
I'll comment here, but I'm also taking account of Mark and Scott's contributions below. I think we're touching on two (or more) views of the product of sense making. Is it a model of a problem that can be used by individuals or groups; or is it an argument, that can be interpreted by individuals or groups. Models achieve an admirable objectivity, and are hindered mainly by complexity, insufficient quality data. Arguments, on the other hand, remain rooted in commitments to values, and have a different sort of complexity and potential intractibility.

Perhaps we're actually aiming for a modeling process that incorporates elements of both models and arguments. I'll propose looking at three models of problem solving:
1. Delphi procedure for future prediction or social simulations of prisoners dilemma or tragedy of the commons.
2. Constitutional governments
3. Habermas's "ideal communication situation" or John Rawls' concept of the original position (social contract theory of justice)

Without going into details of these processes, we know that all of these concepts/models of interaction involve a set of rules for interaction, as well as rules for modifying the rules. They are aimed at approximating the conditions under which problems can be solved; but they are also arguments of a type. They create particular structures and processes of communication; but they also recognize that the structure itself can be improved.

I guess the point I'd like to make is that there is a focal point between George's models of problems, and Jack's models of arguments/stories. The focal point, I think, is the constitution - the structure and processes of communication that are created by the tools, and the commitments that are taken on by participating in the process.

(Well... I guess a political scientist should be expected to come up with something like this.... :-)
A small piece of fan mail.

On July 25, Jack wrote:

"In the largest picture, I think of everything we do as one form of storytelling or another. Tagging an information resource carries with that process a story, a belief expressed through a tag. Lifting an idea out of some Web page tells a story, say, that you think the point you lift is interesting, is a question worthy of highlighting, is a concept worth remembering. Connecting two ideas together with a coherence relation is wiring a sentence in much larger story. Engaging in dialogues is just more storytelling."

Thinking about tagging as storytelling, and as contributing to an ongoing story, is a very nice metaphor (or whatever the appropriate term is). Worth thinking about more.
Fan mail indeed! Thank you for highlighting one of my points. Would that this website included Cohere buttons with which we could highlight points. Then we wouldn't have to wade through miles of posts, all indented for one reason or another which sometimes drifting from the top subject. We could then turn this site into one well-organized story (or story collection), organized by IBIS links that tie ideas and questions together. No wait! That's my thesis topic...

To actually return to George's original thread, it seems to me that this indented message is somehow still on topic, since we are evolving an understanding of just a few of the many possible sensemaking "game" moves.

Tagging as storytelling, perhaps indeed, sensemaking as storytelling warrants its own "thread".
George, I think your "sense" of something lacking - the unrequited - is right on, and maybe even "prescient". Ie, it itself is a form of intelligence which helps pull forward a binding not yet found.

I could contribute two approaches to this contemplation.

One is observing how in my experience groups of people have come together and produced something significant (an "ingression of novelty"). I think there's some patterns:

- converse: do lots of talking, among a small group of people, over some time, driven by some intention seeking expression;

- dialog: an open center starts becoming tangible, as some surrendering of closely-held-view/ego takes place in the space of things mattering: the emergent no-man's land is vivid. There can be lots of trouble, but lots of openness;

- find allies: like-minded people, groups, who can add and create more and different related energy. Start moving coincidence;

- create: make something real happen. There is a paradigm shift. Something has given birth. New sense has been made.

- care: the group activity differentiates. Some ongoing maintenance, caretaking, is delegated to a subgroup, paralleled by by some kind of governance, feedback.

Here's the other approach, which I think can complement the first, and which also has some relation to Jack's foursome (tagging, annotating, connecting, dialoging).

I actually do think that Scharmer's Theory U directly approaches the question George raises. He describes a pattern for groups doing innovative and transformative work together, the pattern being visualized as a U, a journey starting on the top left. On the left side are sensing journeys: deepening into existing senses, understandings, and their gaps. This goes through a dialog phase into presencing, which is a state of energized suspension. Existing, deeply felt patterns are vivid, and melting in the gap co-experienced in my and your sensings. It occurs to me this may be what the Australians refer to as the dream time: things shift and come together. Prototyping happens. Start making sense: new structural coupling of ourselves and our world, both redefined. Scharmer describes this as the place of letting come (after having let go). I see "call by future" there. At any rate it is from this place that the group enacts, or feels itself called.

These two approaches are two broad strokes, painting around something very real that our conversations are circling.
Definitely my search is for understanding process and identifying points along the path where tool use is warranted. In my survey of some of the tools we talk about and discussions of so many more, I get the sense that the tool designers have identified one segment of that process and focused on a tool to satisfy participants in that segment. But the whole process is much more complex and nuanced than can be captured by any one of these tools. I suspect this is Jack Park's view (correct me if I'm wrong Jack).

I would like a map of sensemaking!

I followed some of your leads here and found a couple of Wikipedia articles that may pertain. I am especially intrigued by the role of a possible future state of affairs being the motive force in both Action Research and Change Management. Your 'call by future' sounds right. My own motives for involvement in this effort are based on a vision of being able to assist domain experts collaborate on solutions to global challenges in a timely fashion. I suspect that applies to the other members as well.

Is there, perhaps, a structured way to work backwards from that future state to our current state that would allow us to map out a process for ourselves. Essentially, should we consider doing a strategic analysis and use that to guide our forward progress? At the meeting in Berkeley we spent some time on our personal visions, but with time running out we then thought about next steps. Perhaps we should go back and revisit those visions and concentrate of synthesizing a common vision (I know we have a vision statement, but...). From there work our way backward setting strategic goals and then logistic and tactical goals in support, and finally operational goals that could be delegated for implementation. That is a process with which I am most familiar and when done right, I've seen it work.
George's comment that sensemaking is more nuanced than that which is satisfied by any one particular tool reflects my view. In fact, I'm not certain that even the list of tools I mentioned (tagging, annotating, connecting, dialogues, and organizing) are sufficient; it may be that there are many subtle, latent, or otherwise impalpable dimensions involved.

The role of a "future state" reminds me of Aristotle's final cause, the one that science would prefer we not engage, but which we do engage when we create scenarios to envision that which we must satisfy with our tools. Is there a structured way to model complex systems? I don't know. Rosen talks about that, but the math (category theory) is way over my head. In any case, it's highly relational, along more dimensions than we may be able to envision. But, we have to start somewhere. In fact, isn't that what sensemaking is all about?
The models we have aspire to be comprehensive and predictive, but the best of them take into account the limits of our vision and knowledge. So Jack's focus on tools and a relational model (Rosen) makes sense. Another sketch of this modeling terrain - in the disciplines I've most monitored - is sociologist Amitai Etzioni's comparison of policy approaches: (a) comprehensive, global "rational planning"; (b) piecemeal, local "muddling through"; with the middle ground he calls "mixed scanning".

I'd propose a next step in developing a model is to make a list of what we would propose as important variables, or at least candidates for critical variable status. I'm suggesting the dimensions of knowledge-ignorance, individual-group control, and anonymous-identified contributions. And I think Jack's thesis will identify a large set; and George, Andy, Mark and Scott and others have already contributed good material for a list of variables. Others in this process are also expert in identifying important aspects of the structuring of communications systems.

One way to proceed would be to try to design a simulation system - one that allows us to simulate the interaction of a large number of communication variables. Years ago I was impressed by the potential of simulation systems such as that developed by political economist Joe Oppenheimer ("A Simulation Authoring System for Cooperation and Conflict Situations").






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