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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I did read the business model carefully and went through various pages of the site. There's an undeniable need to track, quantify and sanity-check argument positions today in the same way the agoras and foros of old did (thumbs up = +1, wavering hand = 0, thumbs down = -1, recorded on papyrus).

However, I do wonder where the DGG stacks up relative to the 5-star and other rating systems already out there --- more on this later.

Whilst, conceptually, I think I understand the PURPOSE and aim of the DGG: to quantify and qualify different dimensions of an argument, relative to other strands this hasn't been clearly communicated in the business model.

The brand name is also incongruent with what the metric does. Intuitively, DGG implies a tool by which --- for example --- we can designate a score to each household for their recycling / less waste of water / use of energy saving light bulbs. Actions like these would be considered as and constitute "doing good".

People don't intuitively make the mental connection, "DGG = measuring a debate."


Currently, this is the opening paragraph to the business model:

The Do Good Gauge has numerous methods for collecting data. The potential for this data is huge.

Wikipedia has over 10 million encyclopedia articles posted and average over 12 million page visits a day. The utility of the Do Good Gauge has the potential of exceeding Wikipedia. The Do Good Gauge ability to gather statistical data, provides a potential for a self sustaining revenue stream.

If the public believes in the ethics of the Do Good Gauge, it has the potential of becoming the worlds most trusted source of non-bias poll statistics. Whether it is through advertising or through subscription services to query this statistical data, there is a potential for revenue.

This is how it would be better positioned and communicated:

The Opinion Radar is an integrated set of online wiki tools which enable users to quantify and qualify different strands of an argument, relative to other strands. Initially, it's targeted at users interested in policy debates (domestic and international, green issues and XYZ).

Revenue generation will be through the following, over time:

(1.) Commissioned analysis by media outlets interested in tracking public opinion with unbiased tools, such as On Point, Science Friday, Diane Rehms, To the Best of our Knowledge or PBS programs such as Bill Moyer and Charlie Rose.

(2.) Subscription service to consultancies that need to know user preferences and trends for political campaigns.

(3.) Paid for advertising, onsite.


As you rightly noted previously, arguments are an iterative process. This is why the gauge --- which essentially looks like a speedometer --- may not be the best representation for tracking an argument over time.

Like speed, it seems to capture only a finite, binary and scalar position (-1, 0, +1) --- distance and time. At the very least society needs tools which capture the VELOCITY of an argument (distance, time, position and the external forces, including Newton's four laws of motion impact).

Arguments CHANGE direction, gather impetus (mass, acceleration, force) and incorporate multi-variant provisos over time.

IS A GAUGE or a chart/graph or something not yet built in the metaverse environment the way forward to account for the full complexity of intelligent discourse and case presentation?


In certain ways, the technology behind portfolio optimization techniques may be informative. There we have constituent arguments --- invest in A over and above Z and here are the reasons why. The difference with debates is that they don't have historically known quantifiables (stock price, earnings per share, future projections, etc.) that can be plugged into the model.

The DGG and other tools like it --- including YouGov's --- is an attempt to apply objective, unbiased quant tools to what are essentially subjective, dynamic and diverse opinions.

Certainly, it's worthwhile developing such tools. It's just the shape of the tool (e.g., gauge versus graph) and the defined audience needs to be more comprehensively considered and then LEAPS OF IMAGINATION made on extending OOPs to their full capabilities.

Good luck with it.


Unfortunately, aside from these comments I won't be able to assist further.

I'm trying to code my own sense-making application and will be fairly busy with that. It's a complete departure from the 5-star ratings and other polling tools in the marketplace to date. There are already a million and one of those.

What I'm attempting is ORIGINAL.

Whether it will work or not is an "as yet unknown" but I figured I should have a stab at it since nothing like it exists yet and I like the challenge. It cross-pollinates some key tools from chemistry with corporate strategy mapping, semantics, Javascript and some other goodies.

Twain, I cannot thank you enough for your analysis. You have provide great insight into the perceptions of my thesis.

The pharos thumbs up or down analogy is really the antithesis of my goal. I agree that 5-star voting system have been done into the ground. The finality of these voting systems provides little contemplation for improvement or what is better for the common good.

Scores of the DGG are not only based on direct argument votes, but on a formula of related arguments and their relevancy. I perceive this dynamic as the uniqueness of the DGG idea.

In a prior post, I mentioned that Adolph Hitler was pegged as great by the German citizens for his effort to pull them out of a quarter century economic depression. The DGG provides the metrics for exposing the collateral damage for our good intentions.

The thesis has yet to describe a method of capturing snapshots of the statistics over time, but this is certainly doable and instrumental to a business model.

Twain, thanks again for the in depth analysis and good luck with your project.

Making some belated contributions to this important discussion.

As Robert said you're not at all the only one interested in such questions. There is far from any unity in what is meant by "sensemaking", or what group sensemaking can be said to be about. For example, Simon and I attended a workshop on sensemaking at CHI 2008 in April. There were at least four principal stances that attendees were coming from, which only partially overlapped: sensemaking in the sense of understanding complex information (e.g. search results), organizational sensemaking a la Weick, gaps-and-barriers phenomenological approaches a la Dervin, and mashups of some or all of these (our own approach falls into the latter category). After listening to a number of the presentations, one of the organizers (I think it was Stu Card) said, "Are we even talking about the same thing?"

In my current research I'm looking at how participants and practitioners encounter and react to "sensemaking moments" in the course of participatory hypermedia construction sessions (e.g. with Compendium). I'm especially examining what happens when things go wrong and run off the rails, as they tend to do at least some times, even with expert practitioners. I'll be posting more about this in the upcoming days on my research blog, but one of the things I thought to mention here is that, in some senses, "group sensemaking" is kind of a chimera. Groups rarely cohere around one way of seeing and thinking about things, or at least, to they extent they do, it's only one level of many that's worth looking at. Rather there are always diverse individual experiences and "projects" even in what seems to be a group effort; understanding what sensemaking is really going on (imho) requires some degree of taking into account where the individuals are going (and where they think they are and have come from).

So a unitary definition of sensemaking, one that can be taken as given to design sensemaking tools, is also, to me, a chimera. Rather it's a matter of targeting what kind(s) of sensemaking you want to support and in what ways, and taking your best shot at developing tools and practices that do so.
Groups rarely cohere around one way of seeing and thinking about things, or at least, to they extent they do, it's only one level of many that's worth looking at.
I am wondering to what extent that assertion relates to the underlying theses of The World Café in which larger groups are divided into small sub-groups (typically 4) and assigned the task of sensemaking some particular aspect of a larger context. People then shift from one sub-group to another and continue the on-going dialogues.
Sense-making is the ORGANIC alchemy of distilling complex information, prioritizing and surfacing the points which catalyze change, synergizing it with other inputs and crystallizing it into an action plan.

In tech terms that's Bayesian search filters, AI ranking and some semantics for relational context, wikis to drag+ drop information (videos, images, slides etc.) into and then some generation of a 3D road map where we can haptically move pieces around as new complex information is dynamically pulled in.

It may also be helpful to do an Adam Smith division of labor on sense-making into 5 main constituents:

(1.) moral imperative.

(2.) financial imperative.

(3.) technological capabilities.

(4.) human facets.

(5.) paradox negotiation.

In the corporate world this translates into these departments:

* Legal + Compliance
* Accounting
* IT + Helpdesk Support
* Human Resources
* Management

This reflects and respects each group's expertise and their autonomy of responsibility to focus their attentions, with loose co-ordination by one designated steward (this is better than the term "manager", imo).

Groups tend to cohere around a unified vision as a result of the following:

(1.) equivalent sense of ownership or parity over the project.

(2.) democratically elected leader.

(3.) defined objectives rather than loose talk.

(4.) the risk of non-compliance results in loss of a material gain (bottom line / reputation / award recognition).

(5.) sense of team satisfaction.

Having break-out or smaller groups is good. However, micro-managing these breakout groups may prove unproductive. Strands of knowledge that contribute to sense making have to be free and flexible and emerge naturally of their own volition.

In terms of sense-making there's no better case study than how various banking and government teams are responding to the US$700 billion bailout and attendant global financial crisis.

GROUP sense-making like Group IQ is contingent upon the individual(s) being sensible, evolved, inclusive and intelligent in the first place.

Plus it helps if there's a lot of LOL.
Thanks Al. I mostly concur with this view.

I will argue from the solipsistic viewpoint that each individual participating in a group sensemaking activity ultimately has to construct a model of understanding and then, Habermasian style, through discourse, assert that understanding and/or attempt to match that understanding with evidence provided by the discourse of others in the group.

In other words. sensemaking, for me, is an individual achievement followed by a reality check with the group to see if my sense makes sense with the group! I can claim I have made sense of some phenomenon when I can explain my understanding to others and they to me and there appears (always a subjective exercise) that there is concordance, at least in general.

The group makes sense when some kind of consensus emerges out of the collaboration of individual understandings. Even then it must remain suspect until some collectively agreed upon projection of the future, based on that understanding, is borne out. Predictions come to pass or scenarios play out.

Now I am still at a juncture in understanding group sensemaking as no different from science! That is, if group sensemaking is to be practical and useful in the long run, it must, in fact, be making sense of the way the world really does work. Otherwise, it devolves into individual and group feeling confidence that they understand the world when in fact they might not. I am currently witnessing this phenomenon in the realm of economics. The discipline of economics has been touted as science-like but in fact is more of a belief structure based on false premises and producing crappy (excuse) predictions. Extensions of economics, like biophysical economics, start from a scientific perspective and let the data drive the theory (vs. looking for data that confirms a theory).

But the point is that groups can feel confident that their understanding is correct and groupthink convinces them that they have made sense of the world when, in fact, they haven't. As we see with this example from neo-classical economics, there are consequences (e.g. the biophysical economics models of energy flow can explain the current financial problem; the neo-classical models not only could not predict the problem, they are giving false recommendations for fixes). Why provide tools that allow groups to reinforce their poor understandings?

I think that my interest remains in tools that help the scientific process make sense of the world as it really is, rather than provide reinforcement to groupthink. That means tools that help scientists do their work in developing a collective understanding. For many years the rate of scientific progress allowed us to rely on journals and conferences as a major mode of presenting results and counter evidence when warranted. But journal publication has now become obsolete and overly cumbersome given the rate of change in most fields. Peer review is still essential, but the time lags can not be tolerated. The situation with respect to the slow progress of the IPCC process is an example of a small improvement, but it is still insufficient given the threat of accelerating global warming.

I have come to believe strongly (in my sensemaking of things) that policy should follow science. Even though politics and democratic process demand argumentation, I have come to believe that we really don't have time for these processes to work themselves out. There is no real scientific debate about greenhouse gasses causing global warming. The science is clear and the targets (350ppm) are clear. Also clear is the rates that govern the changes. That we need to reduce our carbon outputs to near zero in a very short time is clear. So why are we arguing over the policies (e.g. cap and trade vs. carbon tax)? Because people who are not comfortable or familiar with science want to play a part? I don't know. But I do know we have to let the scientists get on with their work and we have to have a policy development process that is based on that science not just who everyone thinks has the best sounding argument.

The world is what it is. If we are serious about sense making as an activity it seems to me we have to make sense of that. All else is just arguing to hear ourselves argue.

Or, at least, that is the sense I am making!
George said: The world is what it is. If we are serious about sense making as an activity it seems to me we have to make sense of that.
One interpretation assumes that the referring word that refers to the phrase The world is what it is. We are to make sense out of a situation that the world is what it is, whatever that means. Yes? Where do we start? What would be the ideal first question?
Another candidate interpretation assumes this: we are to make sense out of the fact that we are serious about sense making as an activity. Again, where do we start? What would be the ideal first question? For now, an appropriate question, at least for me, is this: which of the two interpretations (sense) is appropriate?
It's great to see the recent group activity in this thread.

The world is what it is.. This argument sounds a bit static.

You can't make everyone happy. The best you can hope for is a selfless since of understanding. Sense is like time and space of which Albert Einstein devoted his life to understanding. Sense is relative.

Everyone has to make sense based on the baggage they carry. Each person's bag contains different items. Sense making should focus on getting our head out of our bags and focus on solutions for the common good.

Any thoughts on whether I could make it in the fortune cookie industry. My wife seems to thank so.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.
The 'that' refers to the need to make sense out of the statement "The world is what it is"!

Assertion: The world is what it is.
Assertion: We need to make sense out of what the world is.
Assertion: We need to make sense out of sensemaking so that we can make sense out of what the world is.
Assertion: I'm getting a headache!
The way the Director of CIA put it was that the has oceans of data and reams of data and hundreds of experts clustered around dozens of tables and they none of them have the tools to do the job.

If I was still in the military I could walk my design up the chain of the command.
Since I'm civilian and self-employed I'm absolutely crippled by what I call "personality politics" ... we're a credential culture; I don't have the credentials; ergo my solution is naught.

Lawrence Lessig quite rightly pointed to "money as access to decision making". But that hardly exhausts the problematic.

BTW. I stopped getting headaches ... 54 and I can still pull all nighters. Maybe it comes from weighing in at 118lbs my whole adult life. (I was 114 when I did airborne training ... I lied.) Or maybe I'm just gung.ho ... Hungarian Revolution, Prague Spring, Mai Lai, that sorta thing serves me as inspiration. Oh, and Allende SEP73.

p.s. "Need to know" has a very clear operational definition. In this situation pret'near everybody has "need to know" clearance. But those who've opportunistically positioned themselves as gate-keepers trade in others' IP to service their own careers ... and that bogs innovation. There's nothing hypothetical about social pathology.

Your argument that sense-making should more closely proxy the reductive (and I would add deductive) rigor of the natural sciences in classifying the world and understanding observable phenomena has a lot of merit.

The three approaches to sense-making are different: natural sciences versus economic sciences versus political sciences.

In the natural sciences there is a precision in the process. The results of an experiment lead our thinking rather than vice versa. As an example, if we pass our produced compound through a Nuclear Magnetic Resonance machine and we see an anomalous spike, in the next experiment we follow EXACTLY the same process --- albeit we isolate where that impurity occurred and we extract it so that we have the purest form possible of the compound we're seeking.

In computer science too there's precision: we can isolate an exact bug in a code and fix it.

In the economic sciences, there are a multitude of imprecisions which compound each other ergo leading to "giving false recommendations for fixes".

Firstly, the underlying assumptions of:

* perfect market information
* everyone has equal access to the same information
* humans are rational and make rational purchase decisions

are well-known to be inherently flawed. Moreover, the reality is that most of those neo-Classical models refer to 2-party relationships: demand with supply; labor costs with unemployment, etc. They've not kept apace with how the advent of communication technologies like the Web or even the telephone --- much less the iPhone --- would change consumer behavior and nor have they incorporated green paradigms in.

As for the political sciences, well the individuals who seem to thrive there are either lawyers or those who've studied PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics). They do win arguments by confident presentation of the case (style) over cases where the confidence metrics are within 2 standard deviations (substance).

I tend to believe that sense making within the context of this group would be enriched by the participation of all three forms of science. However, in process terms and what tools to build, it would be preferable to let the natural and computer science doctrines take the lead and core, with economics to add some human dimension and then the political sciences methodology to coat the case for palatability and public consumption.

By letting the natural and computer sciences doctrines take lead I mean providing tools which will answer these three questions:

(1.) Which OOP environment is optimal for pulling in all the dynamically available information on climate change effects?

Clue --- it may not be the Ning platform nor even a social media wiki. In Phase I development it may be closer to Google Finance.

(2.) Which scientists and leading environmentalists can we attract to help interpret that complex climate change information?

(3.) What tools can be provided to measure the success (or otherwise) of various objectives?

I have to concur with everyone that this is a most interesting and enjoyable thread.

Nonetheless, it yet again demonstrates that we are each trying to make sense of what others are writing in their TEXT and trying to interpret and track the strands of argument in our own heads.

Hopefully, within the next 2 years or so we see those strands being trackable in 3D environments with semantic tools........


Happy Thanksgiving and enjoy your family festivities!
Your summary is quite close to my own sense of the needs for sensemaking. The triad of natural science, economic science and political science may strike some as odd, since it leaves out a host of interesting disciplines, with important contributions to make. But I would agree that these three areas represent an important range of methodologies. Both economics and political science have internal methodological battles, between empiricist/reductionist and theoretical/deductive approaches. My only concern is that political science may have a more worthy core than you give it credit for. The aim of political science is (ought to be) to bring together visions of human needs and interpretations of human capacities - plotting the practical course of what we need and what we can accomplish. As Hume stated most clearly, what "is" can never tell us what we "ought" to do. The scientist's facts and theories may tell us that our species may be endangered. But preserving any species - especially one that fouls all nests - has an impact on the birth/creation of new species. I don't doubt we should preserve species. But my conviction doesn't come from scientific reasoning, but rather from moral/political reasoning.





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