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'm actually replying to Ben's message down below in deep-nestedness, from which I'm trying to surface :-)

So my design sets out to [...] concentrate on how significant "meaning" is essentially personal and subjective ... in response to or riding on top of mere data. To do that I focus on the propositional ... when we come close to exhaustive disputes by systematically grappling with facts and data we will, I suspect, no longer have convenient smoke-screens for sophistry ... and then rhetoric will be seen more clearly for what it is and how it works, by priming entire constellations of associations. And yes, I'm talking about "cognitive schema". [...] so long as folk are satisfied with the crudest aspects of communications (e.g. flame-wars, word games, put downs, mutual admiration &tc &tc &tc) there will be no market ... no audience ... no pull. Until and unless we create a system as effective as Hesse's glasperlenspiel I don't think we'll see any real progress.

I think I very much agree. I see a lot of value to tools such as Debategraph, but also see part of the value as exposing the limits of what can be done by tracking the logical relationships of arguments. This then makes more obvious the "personal and subjective" which is driving choices of arguments.

Some kind of tool may be needed for pulling up the "bigger picture" that emerges in sustained debates about, for example, Palestine vs Israel, among many participants.

That bigger picture I think includes the subjectivity of the person holding a coherent cluster of arguments.

I do not see an alternative to getting the person of the debator involved: arguments do not live in the abstract, divorced from the people voicing them (I suppose I'm an Aristotelian here).

The next step is then to have those persons with their explicitly recognized subjectivities, which they share, in an alembic type of container (closed container where transformation can take place).

What I'm fuzzily sensing is the need to marry Debategraph and its cousins with something like the group-transformation-journey approaches of Theory-U/Presencing or Art of Hosting.

I think this would have to be done in relatively small groups, or in ways where small groups can scale up a bit (as World Café tries to do, where you have multiple conversation tables of 4-people each which then change participants while retaining and offering previous contributions).

I've lately been exploring Second Life, and find it fascinating that our neuroplasticity allows us to identify so "really" with our avatars - the consequence seeming to be that a group of avatars can feel truly contained within a space. There is potential there for the container principle to work more powerfully than in any other other web-collaborative way I can think of (I have not had first hand experience of Cisco Telepresence/HP Halo class collaborative presence).
A very long time ago (in internet years), Jeff Conklin once commented that it is difficult to have unfacilitated collaboration when some people lack the literacy necessary to "behave properly" (my words). An example: I recently sat at a "World Café"-like table, except there were a dozen people, the first time, and half dozen the next time. I decided to attempt a Bohmian dialogue in which, rather than just diving into the problem posed to the table, let's all get to know each other better. I suggested brief introduction with something about how you relate to the posed problem. There were two kinds of responses: the valued ones went like "Hi, I'm Joe, I've got an ... background, and I see this problem as ..."; the not so valuable ones went like "Hi, I was born in ... I went to grammar school at ... I studied ...I then started a career but got side tracked by ...and, oh, by the way, I'll consider any ideas related to this issue that are like ... to be useless...". We saw lots of the latter types. We ended up spending so much time in those diatribes that we never actually tackled the issue posed to us in the time allotted.

Another instance. I run a "sensemaking" group at It's pretty amazing that a percentage of those who join the group think it's ok to spam the bookmarks with humor--not even sensemaking humor!, with totally off topic stuff. Some folks really get the idea of high signal to noise ratio; others apparently are clueless.

I agree that Debategraph is a powerful tool; I'd prefer to see it integrated with Cohere, and (to turn my hat around for a moment) together with something like a topic map to help wire all the dots. In fact, Cohere comes quite close to being a topic map itself. All that as a boundary infrastructure to serve the needs of sensemaking journeys.
p.s. all the pages I've posted over the years ... I've received 4 comments and 0 email. It really is remarkable.
In developing a group, I feel a clear set of objectives and a framework which is adhered to is required. Blogs, forums, and even this Ning tool is far too loose in providing any cohesive dialog. I would also suggest that group relationships must be given time to evolve.

Jack, I understand your frustration about individuals not behaving in a focused manner, but I would suggest the use of lacking literacy, sounds a bit intellectually snobbish. Between philosophy, psychology, mathematics, logistics, computer science, human factoring engineering, and the hundreds of other disciplines related to the topic of sense making I would suggest noone should be expected to speak fluently in all subject matters. I fear too much is lost if we spend all of our time focusing on the grammar or making people speak to our understanding.

I say this in the point of view of research and development or refining the argument. This is the current state of this global sense making effort.

I'm still intrigued about the framework of Benjamin Franklin's Junto for getting around much of the group mechanic issues Jack brings up.

I describe the Junto on the following link:

Historical Methods of Generating Intelligent Arguments.
Spending some time this evening reading through post since November, the realization of my brashness stood out. I would like to apologize to George, Jack, and Twain for my tone in the valuable exchange of ideas. Starting with George's comments on November 27th some great references to the dynamics and history of problem solving were provided. I realize my tunnel vision was disrespectful to the dialog.

The aspirations and experience of each member in this group is dynamic and valuable. I will work harder to respect this in future post.
I remember reading an essaie or poem in my teens that cut me to the quick ... something about how Napoleon, high on his fine steed, was heedless of the alpine flowers trod upon.
In that regard I'm particular atuned to Alexander ... the apple seemed to fall far from the tree in that case.

And yet, and yet ...
... in my tradition "outrageousness" is a virtue alongside meek and perky and inscrutable.

At the risk of seeming arch: I'm full to the gills with fecklessly nice ...
... democracy is messier than that.

I must be dense! I sensed no brashness. And I certainly don't need an apology.

My reasons for not participating much more here are several, not the least of which is time. This thread, in particular, sort of weaved away from the original idea of exploring more philosophical aspects of sense making, so I didn't have much to say about other sub-threads.

On the time front: When I first joined this tribe I assumed there would be time to develop a killer-app kind of tool(s) that would enable problem solvers to collaborate globally. But events are moving too rapidly in the world and I think the window of opportunity to build and deploy such a tool is closing. At least there doesn't appear to be time to be philosophical about it!

My time now is spent capturing my thoughts and writing them down, documenting them in my blog. These thoughts lean more to what do we do after the crash. I am now at the stage of thinking that there is little we can do to avoid a major crash of civilization and probably a population crash to go along with it. What comes after is now something to consider, if my surmise is correct.

So I hope you won't take my absence from discourse as a sign of my being offended in any way. It isn't. Soldier on!

Indeed ...
... my quibbles are 2:
1) after spending months with VRML concept mapping (During which time I cobbled together a "translator" using VB5, parallel to the contract I had with the Psych department at Dal, working for an ethology lab) and having spent years surveying that field (I mean visual concept mapping) the limitations became all too clear. Systems like cMap and Compendium and Rationale are very good, as far as they go, they truly are. But for my money / IMNSHO they don't go very far ... which is my point.
2) After literally decades grapling with public discussion, everything from GATT (mid-70s) and anti-apartheid (late 70s) through the national debate on cruise missile deployment (early 80s) to the massive outpouring with regards to globalization (late 90s / early 00s ... IndyMedia &tc) I saw the same dynamic: even the most well-intentioned experts had the effect of mooting discourse.

So ... back to square 1 ... and after 3 years I came up with something: as I've written elsewhere, it's a synthesis of Jurgen Habermas (Frankfurt) on "discourse ethics" and John Willinsky (UBC) on "OpenAccess". I mean an actual design. I mean an implementable system specification. That was autumn 2003. In 5 years I've found precisely 0 people who were interested. I mean existentially, concretely. (One company I approached wanted me to send them a system description before talking strategic partnership. In other words I'd sign over the deed to the farm, c/w cows, milk, cream, and butter, and then /maybe/ talk terms later. And they're not different from learne'd individuals: folk get upset / offended when the talk turns to IP ... kinda like talking to banks: you can get money if you already have a lot, else you're SOL.)

But folk are in the grips of "not invented here" ... which is like saying that fish are oblivious to the water.
Bottom-line? If a designer isn't A-list, he isn't asked. Period.

Ergo: innovation is merely one form of social exchange, and so it follows the same inter-personal dynamics as all the others, i.e. it's about rank.
"Participatory deliberation"? A pretext for yet more learned chatter.

Reminds me of the guy who invented a super-cheap super-simple water pump in the 70s ... took years before anyone paid him any attention at all; he wasn't connected ... just bad karma, I guess. heh
Thanks, George.

Starting today I'll read up more on E.O. Wilson's "consilience" theories since my own life experiences to date point to this being a legitimate rather than controversial insight on methodology convergence (cum cross-pollination, in my view).

If we investigate further afield than the environmental and technology sectors --- which I believe a good number of GSM participants have their roots in --- we see this "consilience" manifesting. In management sciences the systems-based scientific approach is increasingly apparent:

* Strategy maps --- Robert Kaplan, 2000
* Six Sigma: the GE way --- Peter S. Pande et al, 2003
* The Global Brain --- Satish Nambisan and Mohanbir Sawhney, 2007

All are examples of natural science frameworks informing rather than imposing upon a social science: the study of organizations and their workforce dynamics is examined systematically in an as equivalent way as possible to how organisms and culture growth is studied, cultivated, tracked and reported on within a petri dish environment or how code is developed, debugged and sanity-checked in a computer system.

The distinctions which have surfaced in this thread between empirical reductionism vis-à-vis anecdotal belief of moral conviction and abstract reasoning of the type undertaken in astrophysics is also very interesting.

At this point I won't go into my personal experiences in-depth. I will say I have a degree in maths, went to mgmt sch where I studied Ricardo, Smith, Friedman, Kotler et al, have worked in chemical labs, can code (know my Alan Kay from my Alan Turing), am a published journalist, have direct experience of political processes, speak a few languages and focus on technology and finance.

From each experience I've gained an insight into sense-making specific to that discipline and I find myself mix+matching and converging tools to shape my own sense of "the world as it really is" --- obviously with my own carried latent subjectivity of perceptions as does everyone else.

The more I engage on GSM the more I become aware that at some point there will be a naturally converged and surfaced sphere of group sense --- almost like our own organic fractional distillation of crude opinion produces the aviation fuel that makes sense take flight?

Clearly, first though, I need to go and read up on E.O. Wilson, :*). He's the only person mentioned in this entire thread whom I have a blind spot on. Hume, Gruber, Bohm, Pask, Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie, Buckminster Fuller et al I have some exposure and knowledge about.

I'm in my early 30s so there's still a LOT of enjoyable reading and learning ahead before the wisdom sparks.
Hear, hear! "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".
I'm not joking at all when I say my "participatory deliberation" is a synthesis of Habermas' "discourse ethics" and John Willinsky's arguments for "Open Access".

What in-formed the design (I can say in hindsight, since what took a moment to realize rested on decades of frustrated beavering) is that the citizen who's vote we so count on actually has precious little opportunity for informed input and, let's face it, is ill equipped to contribute were that opportunity to arise.

What has stumped me for decades is how to at once value the subject matter's expertise (i.e. well grounded rhetoric) and vox populi ... giving every single individual broadband access to the finest libraries will not contribute all that much. So OpenAccess is more than a matter of licensing and connectivity.
What steered me right was the "subjective narrative" aspect of true discourse. If my interlocutor can only say that /something/ in my argument "bugs the pants off him", then that's a start. If (Socratic method, yes?) deign make an effort to inquire, that good citizen might tell me /what part/ of my argument "bugs the pants off him". If I then humble myself so as to interest myself in his narrative, the fellow might (best case, but not unreasonable) say something about why it bugs him.

"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."
What you say here resonates with no less than the director of the CIA (in conversation Charlie Rose) who lamented the ocean of data that needs to be processed. He went on at some length about the daunting challenge, about the difficulty of coordinating so many agencies and so many experts and so many resources. I sum him up: "We must think deeply about what is crucial". (I call my approach "evidence-based decision support".)

p.s. perhaps I'm allergic to the term "junta"; I much prefer my notion of "strategus", where each and every contributes according to their experience and position ... not antithetical to democracy, and not impossible to implement. (In exchange with experts and dignitaries the quality of their theories inevitably swamps the fact that my design is actual.)
"We must think deeply about what is crucial" --- Director of CIA.

“The scientists of today think deeply instead of clearly. One must be sane to think clearly, but one can think deeply and be quite insane.” --- Nikola Tesla.

“If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search.
I was a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety per cent of his labor.” --- Nikola Tesla.


Have a clear vision of what you're seeking first and then concentrate your brainpower and resources there.
You conclusion is a great place to start.

p.s. alongside the CIA director's line I add this: "Thinking deeply about simple things."
Also this:
"To energize collective intelligence …
… to magnetize the wisdom of crowds."

That's from my





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