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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Thanks, Bob.

I appreciate your point. The moral/political reasoning perspective is why in a preceding thread I structured the division of labor in sense making as:

(1.) Moral imperative.

(2.) Financial imperative, etc.

Whilst I appreciate the moral/political reasoning --- having been schooled in the Hobbes, Humes and Lockes as part of Business Ethics at mgmt sch --- I also carry with me the direct experience of discovering that moral/political reasoning is not necessarily what attracts final sign off in big business, and big business is where proactive climate change policies need to be adopted and built upon with appropriate tools.

At the moment, the tools available for them to make sense of climate change and how it impacts upon their business is negligible and rudimentary / piecemeal at best. Another area is one of benchmarking in the same way that cost/income ratios can be tracked with accounting methodologies. Whilst I commend Scott Nesler's Do Good Gauge attempts it has a lot of room for improvement before it'll gain any buy-in or traction at a corporate level.

In 2003 as Director of Corporate Finance I was part of a team trying to raise GBP25 million for a renewable energy company based in California. The potential investors were not interested in the moral/political reasons as core. They wanted to know how the redox battery worked, its power efficiency and what its financial performance numbers were to-date.

They didn't make that moral leap of mind, "Yes, let's sign-off GBP25 million because it will make us feel good to do good on behalf of the planet."

The case made there followed the structure I'm proposing here in comment to George's very valid point: "I have come to believe strongly (in my sensemaking of things) that policy should follow science."

In my proposed operational modus:

(1.) natural and computer science doctrines take the lead and core.

(2.) economics to add some human dimension --- to which I add financial to make the accounting arguments for those responsible for budget sign-off.

(3.) political sciences methodology to coat the case for palatability and public consumption.

We live in a plug+play+pay culture. People and businesses don't allocate the same time or value to philosophical intellectualism. When developing frameworks and tools we need to reflect this modern pragma: plug+play+pay.

The scientific analysis on climate change is available. How do we make it plug+play+pay?
Many to most of the great internet innovation did not get their start with the corporate money bags in mind. Google, Wikipedia, Craig's List, YouTube, and the hundreds of blog type social networks are prime examples.

I would suggest the role of journalism is as important to global sense making as science. Over the past twenty years the corporatization of journalism has tainted the global sense of understanding. When corporations own the media they get to pick and choose what is spun based on what is best for their financial interest.

Twain said - We live in a plug+play+pay culture. People and businesses don't allocate the same time or value to philosophical intellectualism.

From an internet point of view, the public does not pay. The majority has not paid a cent to Google, Craig's List, or Wikipedia. Though in good conscience one should donate to Wikipedia.

I would suggest the desire to be heard trumps the desire for instant gratification. There is no shortage of citizens capable of refining an intelligent argument.

As I write this letter, I am watch Sunday Morning on CBS, the common theme of the commercials is "Gauge Good" - Target, "Energy Saved is Energy Found" - Chevron, "Reduce Fuel Consumption" - Exxon. It does appear that corporations have an interest in philosophical argument, at least from an advertising point of view.

The Do Good Gauge business model would allow corporations to query the statistics to use as they wish. This model allows the global sense making tool to be independently owned by a group with the trust of the masses and the ethics to keep the trust.

Actually if Tim Berners-Lee had been a whole lot less altruistic he might be have become a gazillionaire. Also if money hadn't been invented as a medium of exchange we'd all be liberated from working to pay mortgages and work purely for good and/or self satisfaction and stimulus.

When I refer to plug+play+pay I look towards the traction of mobile devices like the Wii, the iPhone apps (including iTune downloads) and Google Android etc.

People do pay indirectly, using those Internet sites. It may cost US$20 to produce a gizmo but by the time it's been packaged, advertised and searched online people have paid premiums of US$200. The advertisers pay Google and they then recoup those costs by charging more for the goods than their production cost.

"What's the payment? Reward? Upside?" comes into consideration for EVERY commercial venture. Techco's in Silicon Valley are experiencing lay-offs because the pay model isn't there:


which makes me wonder what would happen if Wikipedia launched in a downturn instead of an up cycle.

Even amongst the YouTubes, big social networks, Digg, delicious and Craigslists there are continuous and ongoing pressures wrt, "What's the monetization model?"

I'm not saying "pay" is the be-all-and-end-all of why an Internet start-up should / should not materialize. There's a whole wealth of Open Source material which is democratizing (browsers, file uploaders, code resources, etc.).

It just needs to be acknowledged that how academics, scientists, politicians and philosophers define sense-making and sharing in that process may be different from how corporate business defines it.

For those of us developing tools we have to be aware of which particular segment of sense-making we're targeting:

* charitable like Wikipedia / NGOs

* governmental institutions

* free en masse public

* commercial sector like mediacos, oil companies which need climate change intelligence and airlines to help them gauge their green policies

Sense-making is therefore also situational and needs to reflect that particular situation (ergo it's a dynamic variable in which the percentage of scientific / economic / political philosophy input change flexibly, according to the situation).
"People and businesses don't allocate the same time or value to philosophical intellectualism. "
Without disagreeing, I think it's important to acknowledge this as a variable ... it isn't a universal law of physics.

(BTW I'm here restricting myself to "Global Sensemaking". Seems to me the finest way to avoid actually getting anything done is to strive for some magnificent over-arching "theory of everything".)

From what I've seen (I can't talk about what moves businesses at the upper level) seems to me that folk operate with a hierarchy of values. If there's never opportunity to engage in the sort of self-disciplined back and forth that serves to explore a subject by inquiring into one's own views and opinion interaction with another's then that just slips off the menu ... not that it's no longer a value, but that it's no longer familiar or seen as being plausible. And, for me, at the very lowest level of socially communicative gesture is the "Yes, me too!" of Digg and sites like that. (Social voting and ranking may be a treasury of data for marketers but I don't think it benefits individuals substantially.) At least a person gets to signal that they exist and are active by communicating their likes and dislikes, agreement and disagreement ... core to persona and central to in-group/out-group dynamics.

To use the example I cited in my blog, the "new" discussion functionality gives folk an opportunity to respond directly on the question of HealthCare. And folk have ... 3,400 comments ... 53 pages of comment ... so whatever must be said about this system's effectiveness or lack of same, folk participate.
I have to ask myself: who is going to read pages 1 through 46 to find the little nugget in comment #2694? I can imagine someone with the finest and strongest motives reading through quite a number ... but isn't this communication via message in a bottle? "What if we created a forum and nobody read?"

Over a periods of decades I sought out instances of vigorous discussion, and I found more than a few, easily enough to dissolve whatever cynicism tempted me. That's not to say those instances are common as they should be, or generally available as they should be. But it does tell me the human appetite for vigorous rational exchange lives on. Even though like most appetites it can be temporarily satiated with some form of sugar, salt, and artificial flavoring.
In a recent episode of To the Best of our Knowledge Miles Davis was quoted as asking Dizzy Gillespie why can't I play like you. Dizzy's response was, because you don't hear it that way.

Coooool, Miles Davis, the exemplification of cool does not hear it that way.

There are two relevant thoughts in this quote.

1. Everyone comes to the gig with their own ear and their own bag of experience. Time and space dictate the mood of the audience. The crowd is not always kind. In rare case you are deemed the king of cool.

2. Cool is a gauge. The extremes are binary, you are either cool or you are not. Cool sees no evil. The path to cool is a one way street in the vehicles of knowledge and experience.
Snuffling through the "Our Knowledge" archive I came across "Reviving Politics" from January of 2004 and within minutes found myself listening to Micah Sifry on "third party politics"! :-)
Hi Twain.

Several years back E.O. Wilson wrote a controversial book called "Consilience" in which he posited a convergence of the primary ways of knowing about facets of the world. He proposed a consilience of the natural and social sciences, as well as integration of the humanities, not as a colonization of the social sciences by the natural sciences, a common misinterpretation by some in the social sciences, mostly influenced by the continental philosophers, who felt threatened that he wanted to turn all such sciences into natural sciences. That wasn't his intent but many have perpetuated that meme as truth.

What he envisioned is a melding of methodologies as appropriate to the subject matter. As it happens since that time, economics is now being adapted to a more global biophysical perspective (ecological economics and its Siamese twin biophysical economics) which does meld the correct theoretical aspects of classical economics with ecological sciences. Similarly, political science is being melded with social psychology and evolutionary psychology in an attempt to understand why humans argue and have the will to power motivation. I think a lot of threads from both the natural and social sciences are coming together just as Wilson envisioned. There will, of course, be those on both sides of that classical divide who feel threatened or lost. Some natural scientists are arguing that the subject matter isn't fit for science (as they understand it methodologically) and some social scientists deride reductionism (it has become a dirty word for many) as inappropriate to their subject.

But the general framework of what counts as science is changing rapidly. It is no longer just experimental (think of astrophysics), or even really reductionist. Modeling, for example, has become a means to resolve white box and black box analysis, to allow both reductionist analysis and constructionist (emergence) theory building to proceed together. If science means systematic development of veridical understanding, then all methodologies that produce this result are fair game. What has been missing, I think, is a more systems approach to integrating scientific endeavors.

I have a feeling that systems science (e.g. general systems theory but now with actual methods) will provide the framework for future further consilience of the sciences. My grasp (poor as it is) of sensemaking is wrapped up in that framework. Which is why I believe tools that help scientists (of all persuasions) do their work of making sense of the world as it really is are what we should seek.
What I've come up with, playing off what I recall as Buckminster Fuller's principle of "tensegrity" and perhaps resonant with "consilience" is something I've dubbed "protension". (Come to think of it, prasangika madyamika shen.tong as distinct from rang.tong has probably influenced my thought more deeply, but it's not likely I can discuss that with anybody! Heck, I wouldn't get past "primordial wisdom".) It's something like what de Chardin was grappling with ... why things seem as though to strive upward ... and heh I suppose that's where autopoiesis comes in.

Operationally what I've seen is that opportunists step on innovation, advancement, and emancipation like killing a roach. (The first precept isn't just "ahimsa", it doesn't mean just not ending biological life ... it means opposing the life force itself. But again, that's for another setting.) Those same opportunists profit by progapanda, jingoism and dis-information. So it isn't likely that conventional powers will act from some sort of enlightened selflessness.

And yet ... truth does seem to want freedom ... and sophistication does occur.
You can discuss codependent origination and madhyamika (BTW, those refs are not particularly good) with me: those teachings, although old and eastern, are timely and unignorable in today's world. The former indicates that things, though arising from multiple causes and conditions, do matter and do have their relative truth. The latter points to fundamental openness in which things arise, which is not separate from those things, and which has no ultimate solidity. Resting in the latter (as in I am not just who I think I am) makes it possible to hear opposing views about the former. However, it's lack of such openness that led, for example, to the ultimate failure of the South African Truth and Reconciliation process. You need openness, which allows you to hear relative truths, which maybe can lead to reconciliation.

Openness is not something within argument/debate structures, but if it's lacking the latter will not lead to any meeting of mind let alone heart (and separating mind from heart is another problem - mind is not value-neutral, is not just "in the brain", etc). That's why I think practices such as Art of Hosting or Theory U/Presencing are necessary.
Hey Mark - cheerful New Year &tc

Sorry, suffered sync-loss right at the top:
BTW, those refs are not particularly good
What refs? Apart from the mention of de Chardin and a link to my own site I see none.

Was that your point?

Since I neither linked to external dharma material nor professed my own partial understanding ... are you reacting to the fact that I used the terms at all?
They're shared, you know.

"if it's lacking the latter will not lead to any meeting of mind let alone heart"
... I could use that formulation to depict my design: to dis-confound the two so that the subjective narrative is valued and nurtured while the base of commonly recognized facts is expanded.

p.s. I regret that such as "openness" is brought up as though to contradict / correct me. Always a bit dis-orienting for me to discover that what I write is worth precisely 0.00 ... all the while being lectured on "heart". What I've experienced is a comprehensive lack of collaboration, except where it serves to strengthen in-group dynamics ... quite regardless of "heart".
Breaking news: your manifest knowledge doesn't require that others who don't share your social position be reduced. Democracy, ehh whot?
Umm, seems to be a communication breakdown. I was saying (or trying to say) that the references (Wikipedia links) that I had posted were not very good (not the best descriptions I would wish for).

Your post was worth quite a lot, and "so that the subjective narrative is valued and nurtured while the base of commonly recognized facts is expanded" seems to be a very good way to describe the intention attempting to be clarified here.
Ah, ok ...
... which is actually a nice case in point.

What I'm grappling with is how, in fact and actually, what we do can be described as "communicative gestures" e.g. someone asks me for the time, there are any number of ways I can reply that include the datum 11:45 ... each one of those carrying a different valence, though the data is invariant.

So, methinks, when we are in exchange with another, the air is verily filled with rainbow-coloured hues, not all of them contributing to the transfer of data, however much information is transmitted.

"Framing", I suggest, is only one aspect of this complex. Certainly not trivial, and definitely deserving of close attention by principled practitioners, but I decided years ago (decades!) to approach the whole more foundationally: what happens when we moot the subjective and focus intently on the data? First: most folk get pretty danged irritated! Applying syllogistic logic is problematic ... in most cases it seems argumentative, oppositional, and in the end aggressive.

"What refs?" in my response could seem like that, yes?

So my design sets out to dis-confound the material not to devalue the subjective but, quite the contrary, 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".

My point: 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. While exchanges are little more than rock-throwing and flag-waving the powerful and effective will serve their purposes by foregoing what passes for debate in the public domain.

What pains me is that once I derived a design (Alas, just months before I left Halifax) the "talking about" became more difficult than the actual doing!





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