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 dictionary.com. 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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Hi Scott.

Welcome aboard.

Not off topic at all, in my opinion. Your first paragraph captures some of my concern. My response to Mark S., just above, lays out more of that concern.

BTW: Do Good Gauge is intriguing. Have you considered the idea as a Web service that could then be used by any collaboration process?
Scott, I'd love to know more about what you're doing and if you're considering interfacing with other GSm tools (like importing their argument maps). Maybe you'll find Junto stimulation here in GSm. It's a fantastic idea. (And what's not to like about old Ben?)
Bob says, "In any case, I haven't read all of the sources mentioned by Jack, George, Mark and Scott. And I can't expect my references to be fully understood. So this is just a contribution to an ongoing dialogue."

Isn't this the crux of sensemaking?

Even in the best case where everyone is committed to open and honest discussion like we have here, each of us must necessarily refer to "prior art" in order to express an idea concisely. It's a kind of implicit hyperlinking. "I mean this concept as elaborated by so-and-so." We do this knowing that some will nod their heads in understanding if not agreement, while others, unfamiliar with the reference, will have to do some work to get the gist of what's been said — work that some but not all will have the time and motivation to do.

This leads to a winnowing of participants, concepts, or depth.

It's also where caretaking comes in. Harsh as it may sound, sometimes it's better to let some participants go in order to focus on depth and ideas. Other circumstances dictate that the range of ideas can be sacrificed to maintain high participation along with some amount depth. Depends on what you want to achieve. Taking into account time and goals, caretakers look after these sorts of things.

One thing a high-end discussion mapping tool offers is a way for more people to follow what's being said and why. Instead of wondering which Polanyi is Bob referring to, I might have a live link to a bio or a review of his book Personal Knowledge. In seconds rather than days, I can fill my knowledge gap and stay engaged with Bob's thoughts and the overall discussion — or make a more informed decision that I'm out of my depth.

This was recently brought home to me with David's work mapping Obama's Berlin speech. Using that map I found a completely new, incredibly useful, and compelling way to learn about what Obama said. Two things: (1) it took the intelligence of a human being, not a precise algorithm, to put the map together in a useful way, and (2) it required a software tool to present the results effectively, in a way that's quite different that watching a video of the speech or reading the transcript and much more "reusable" and "efficient."

What am I getting at?

To solve global wicked problems we need to increase participation, the range of applicable concepts, and the depth of understanding of those concepts. To make that happen we need human caretaking.

We need caretakers to look after participants. Who is checking out of the discussion and why? What can be done to counter that?

We need caretakers to look after the concepts/ideas that are or might be part of the solution space. E. O. Wilson can't be the only champion of biodiversity.

We need caretakers to look after depth of understanding. Growing corn to produce large amounts of biofuel was never a good idea. Thinking that carbon sequestration is going to save our bacon is wrong footed.

So I see GSm and the production of GSm tools as a way to support these kinds of caretakers who may or may not know anything about sensemaking, global or otherwise. What they have to offer is wisdom and compassion. That's what we need to enhance. We can do that by creating tools they can use to keep people engaged with meaningful ideas at a nontrivial depth.

Not sure what I've contributed in this post. My focus is on participation, ideas, depth of understanding, and caretaking for the process. Seems to me that foraging and tagging R&D and current tools to support those activities are highly developed. The space that we can make a big contribution to is discussion/dialog mapping and tools that help people create maps, publish maps, and interact with maps. These contribute to participation, idea generation and awareness, and depth of understanding in ways that are not ubiquitously available today.
Fantastic thread. Great thoughts, Andy.
When it is mentioned that some concepts are articulated by referencing someone else's comment, document, etc, we get into notions that digital discourse helps augment: the specific ability to say: "I'm speaking about concept X..." and place a hyperlink to some resource (e.g. Wikipedia) that grounds X, whatever it is.

Then, we arrive at this: what if one were to mouse over a particular word/concept/phrase in some text and have a dashboard-like display appear in a right or left column, or pop up as a small dialog to reveal some information, links for further information, a view of the relationships that concept enjoys with others. Further, what if one is composing a response or argument in an ongoing asynchronous dialogue map online, and one types in a few key words and gets a similar display from which to compose and ground composed concepts? What if Bob's dictionaries are linked in automatically for further grounding?

Those are but simple scenarios that I think are suggestive of the kinds of power we can bring to online collective sensemaking. I agree with Andy's sentiments that a lot of emphasis can and perhaps should be placed not on improving the core components of hypermedia discourse, e.g. Compendium, bCisive, Collaboratorium, DebateGraph, and TruthMap, but on extending their usability through various means of semantic augmentation and facilitation of an improved user experience. That, it seems to me, lies in the domain of Cohere, coupling Cohere (annotation and connecting) with tagging, and in the organizational components that wire information resources together such that they are more readily found and used when needed.
Re Andy's July 27 post on caretakers (among other things):

I tie this back to Mark's post about the importance of in-the-flesh gatherings when it comes to things like surfacing framing, as well as to his other posts re Theory U. In my research I'm trying to focus on the role of what I've been calling "practitioners" in Compendium sessions ("caretakers" might be a better term), which typically include the functions of facilitating the discussion/meeting and doing the mapping. Sometimes these are performed by the same person, sometimes by two or more.

Andy's descriptions of the facets of caretaking map well onto the ethical imperatives I see for Compendium practitioners. I'm currently doing a lot of analysis of some Compendium sessions (both face-to-face and virtual) where I am mapping practitioner choices and actions onto a framework that looks at them from aesthetic, ethical, improvisational, and narrative perspectives as well as from sensemaking. I'll post some links to this soon.
Begging your indulgences!

Condensing my own sense of sense making.

Some of you are aware that one of my main interests these days is in understanding the neuropsychology of wisdom, which I labeled as 'sapience'. Specifically I am interested in the way the brain processes the behavior that we externally recognize as wisdom. Wisdom is a competency, if you will, that seems to be is short supply in our species and I have developed some evolutionary arguments as to why. When I say it is in short supply, I mean the kind of wisdom needed to deal with the complex, dynamic, and uncertain world that our cleverness has created. We're in the current mess because our species lacks the level of wisdom necessary to make regional- and global-scale good decisions (for humanity and for our relationship to the rest of nature). This even though we are extremely intelligent (problem solving) and creative (curious and inventive). The combination of these latter two I call 'cleverness' and claim that it greatly exceeds sapience in terms of how we think. Sapience is also involved in modulating 'affect', our emotional/feeling ancient limbic centers, which provide a substantial part of the drive that keeps us using cleverness to overcome short-term hurdles as we race toward potential self destruction due to poor judgments over issues of large scale in time and space. Below I've included a short reading list of material that has been influential in deriving this picture.

For me, wisdom and sense making are intimately intertwined. Even the rudimentary level of sapience we find in our species is part of the whole sense making story. Every person is continually trying to make sense of her world and from whatever sense can be made, judgments about what to do next come forth.

Wisdom begins once sense is made.

From my studies I have been able to associate the behavioral and cognitive aspects of wisdom with three major thinking styles or foci. Most of human wisdom, which is defined by Sternberg (see list) as the use of tacit knowledge to form morally motivated judgments, and where that tacit knowledge derives from a lifetime of deep learning from experience and observation, can be summarized within these three styles and their interactions.

Wisdom - Sapience: Thinking Styles
Moral/ethical thinking - care for all involved
Systems thinking - Organization and process (cause-effect, dynamics, stochastics, etc.)
Strategic thinking - Future oriented, goal construction and motivation

Briefly, the brain self-constructs (induces) a model of how the world works from experience. It starts with a hard-coded general systems framework (which includes classification hierarchical structure) along with a biological mandate and 'fits' observations into that framework. Sense is made when the parts of the model are internally consistent and the model generates veridical anticipations. Otherwise dissonance ensues and drives the thinker to seek more information. Maturation and development are largely the iteration of fitting and dissonance leading to learning more and refining the model. To the degree that one masters local-scale worlds, one can expand to larger scales (new people, new cultures, etc.) as one matures, always fitting the new into the old. Or spending time figuring out how to do so.

At some point in the thinker's life a sufficient model exists such that s/he may project forward in time and imagine the future. Subsequently the thinker can pre-construct desired future states motivated by needs of self and others (to achieve a 'happy' future). Moral thinking involves understanding better the needs of others and balancing those against the needs of the self. One has to learn about those needs and make sense of them in the above sense. Eventually the thinker can use systems thinking as a guide to achieve strategic plans that incorporate the needs of the whole group.

A substantial part of this process is learning and understanding that the same process is going on in all the other heads in the group! Everyone is trying to make sense of the whole, even as the whole evolves. The trick is to communicate the individual sense making efforts - to share the models - such that refinements and adjustments in each brain can be made as there is convergence to a central (if fuzzy) model.

It is my belief that group wisdom will emerge from these conversations. It is also my sense that members of this group have achieved a more global scale of wisdom. Hence I expect a good result.

Some interesting reading on brains and wisdom:

Goldberg, Elkhonon, (2001). The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind, Oxford University Press, New York.

Goldberg, Elkhonon, (2006). The Wisdom Paradox, Gotham Books, New York.

Hogarth, Robin (1980). Judgement and Choice, John Wiley & Sons, New York.

Johnson-Laird, Philip, (2006). How We Reason, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

LeDoux, Joseph, (1996). The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, Simon & Schuster, New York.

Marcus, Gary, (2004). The Birth of the Mind: How a Tiny Number of Genes Creates the Complexities of Human Thought, Basic Books, New York.

Sternberg, Robert J. (ed.) (1990). Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins, and Development, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Sternberg, Robert J., (1997). Thinking Styles, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Sternberg, Robert J. (ed.) (2002). Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid, Yale University Press, New Haven.

Sternberg, Robert J. (2003). Wisdom, Intelligence, and Creativity Synthesized, Cambridge University Press, New York.
Here is a link to a blog entry that comments on a David Snowden comment about Google's Knol. Possibly worth tossing into the bubbling cauldron here.

My only comment about Snowden's comment is that I agree that, once you turn a knowledge artifact into a cash cow in the way implemented at Knol, issues of authority might take a different tone. I suspect that we travel a really fine line as we navigate a trail from here to there where there is a financially sustainable entity (or federation of entities).
Hello to the sense making community, this is my first post, and though I realize that I am posting to a thread that is a few months old I do hope you will indulge my little poetic insert into this most enlightening and most important topic, namely what is ‘sense-making’ all about.

My two cents then,

To my mind, sense making is not exactly a science, though it is (or more accurately, may be described as) both a discipline and an intellectual activity and at times may even allow precise statements, which might become susceptible to some sort of ‘ reality check’. On the same token and in the same vein, ‘sense making’ is also not an art, precisely, it is to my eyes, more of a contemplative gesture or an inclination of the mind, a reflexive intuition if you like, a hovering sense of the issues at large, which at times may coalesce into a visual/verbal representation, this representation, allow me here to propose, is in most cases (of wicked problems) an approximation that is ambiguous by nature and indefinite in character, for were it not so, it would have been a certainty and decision making would have become the province of child play.
(minds are anything but certain, though we do have an innate social tendency to take the high ground when desiring to be heard. However, that is exactly the point, that being heard by loudspeakers, as in ‘the loudspeaker of certainty’, annihilates the very point of the debate in progress.)

To really be able to ‘make sense’ we need allow the flow of the event to coalesce into a presence, and though it sounds poetic (and it may sound poetic, for the simple reason that it is) in its approach, the view that I propose here, is that ‘sense’ as in ‘sense making’ is an emergent phenomenon of the conscious aware mind that ought to embrace its own ambiguity and approximate nature in order to, as it were, become a coherent whole.
Certain parameters of sense making, in the philosophical perspective, might need be taken into account; facts and observables, may be objective, persons (minds) are not, and it is in my view that very omnipresence of subjectivity that is (or indeed should be) addressed by the sense making community.

In his original post , George wrote: “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.”

To my knowledge no measure exists to “understanding reality sufficiently well”, no objective measure, that is. Who understands reality sufficiently well? how sufficient is sufficient? How well is well? And then comes the next segment:” that one feels comfortable making statements about the future”, comfortable? Again the omnipresence of subjectivity is apparent, both disturbingly and enlighteningly so.

For starters I would therefore hope to see some kind of tool that incorporates omnipresent subjectivity in its full glory of ambiguity and uncertainty.

Sense making is natural to minds, so are the qualities of omnipresent subjectivity and ambiguity.
sense making after all deals with wicked problems which by their very nature are uncertain,ambiguous and mostly subjectively interpreted.
your thoughts?
Welcome to the discussion, Wildcat.

You ask, "Who understands reality sufficiently well?" and say you don't know of related objective measures. However what George said was, and you quote it yourself, "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." [my emphasis] Put that way it's a clear and testable claim.

Obviously we can and often do make reasonable statements about the future, which is easily verified. So sensemaking, if you buy into George's take on it, is demonstratively objective, meaningful, and even quite mundane for a large number of cases. It's just empiricism in the most general sense of that term.

You write, "‘sense’ as in ‘sense making’ is an emergent phenomenon of the conscious aware mind that ought to embrace its own ambiguity and approximate nature in order to, as it were, become a coherent whole." To me that's quite poetic because it uses terms that have no well-defined meaning yet convey enough "sense" to be the subject of graduate level philosophy courses. I'm not being snarky. I think this is a fine opportunity to further delinate what is and is not sensemaking. It's rather like asking are you in Hume's camp or Kant's? Or, what do we take from the work of Moore, Russell, and Wittgenstein or the philosophers who've succeeded them?

Phrases like "emergent phenomenon of the consious aware mind" and "the conscious aware mind that ought to embrace its own ambiguity and approximate nature in order to, as it were, become a coherent whole" to me are purely poetic in that it's up the reader to imbue them with meaning in a very idiosyncratic way, in a way that's quite different than discovering the meaning of a statement like "declining biodiversity challenges the very basis of sustainable human existence."

Here's my friendly challenge. Can you transform the following statements into something meaningful to a software developer like myself?

"I would therefore hope to see some kind of tool that incorporates omnipresent subjectivity in its full glory of ambiguity and uncertainty."

"...it is in my view that very omnipresence of subjectivity that is (or indeed should be) addressed by the sense making community."

The idea of "omnipresent subjectivity" for me translates to something like pure solipsism, and as a software designer I can't do anything with it.

I'm all for poetry -- and think it's useful to distinguish between poetic sensemaking and "empirical" sensemaking.
My simple theory:

Making sense means asking why and finding a personally satisfying answer.

My practical theory for UI design:

Making sense means asking why and finding a personally satisfying answer while it's still a priority.



While I don't have a background in philosophy, it seems to me that any solution's subjective or objective effectiveness depends on recursively asking why, and any system that links multiple "whys" unintuitively will feel dissonant to users on some level.

Assuming users can link different question flows in ways that make sense to them, I suspect any successful system with 10,000+ heterogeneous weekly visitors would allow an inclined user to follow any moderately active issue to some variant of "Why do we exist?" in under a minute.
You write "My simple theory: Making sense means asking why and finding a personally satisfying answer." and I agree with you in a strong way.

In the initial post George wrote, "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." ... I don't think climate change or population explosion or massive biological die-back or nuclear cataclysm or anything else jogs individuals from their mundane practices.

What I've tried to get my arms around is how different people approach "knowing" very differently. It seems to me that most times most people in most situations engage their world on the basis of the most immediate and personal needs ... self-affirmation, confirming position in the group, solidifying group loyalty, strengthening personal, all of that. Actual problem solving is way down the list.

I'm optimistic that "sense making"includes more than technical development and scientific verification. But I don't think there can be sense making until and unless the technical and scientific are grappled with. Worst of all, when the subjective and objective are confounded we get some variation of shit-storm.

"I suspect any successful system with 10,000+ heterogeneous weekly visitors would allow an inclined user to follow any moderately active issue to some variant of "Why do we exist?" in under a minute." I suspect an unanticipated product of my "participatory deliberation" will be that at the end of the day when we have working consensus on substantial matters we'll find that we're only half-way home ... that at root "meaning" is more than definition ... that events and items of knowledge matter because they have some human meaning, that they're of subjective value.

When we engage in authentic discourse the subjective narrative takes its proper place. Only then can the concrete and material be appreciated with its true meaning. IMNSHO only then will things really start to make sense.
p.s. something that's acted as a cornerstone for me: almost everybody has strong opinions on issues; the vast majority cannot put forward arguments in support of those opinions; of the few who can, most of the arguments are factually wrong or logically specious.

I've experienced this in two settings: in situations of community activism, whether anti-nuke or anti-apartheid (I'm showing my age!) or urban development, with folk who were in some sense "up in arms", only very rare individuals had a really good grasp of the issues. Most folk either couldn't talk to the points or got major aspects just plain wrong when they did.
Likewise in electoral politics, either in the throngs of a nomination convention or celebrating after a victory ... perhaps most could quote from the literature, but not much, and not well. And any excursion from the talking points would bring some pretty bizarre thinking to mind.

A convicted technocrat might use this as ammunition against democracy itself. To my way of thinking it suggests a very clearly constrained project.

"Informed citizens" has to be a central concern.

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