Sunday, November 11, 2007

Narrative and sensemaking

Some working ideas about the connections we are making between narrative and sensemaking as ways to frame studies of knowledge art practice.

Narrative involves a story. It sets up a world with causes and effects, usually introducing some kind of disruption. Something happens that upsets the canonicity of occurrences, the expected flow of events. Something happens to impede the protagonists’ flow through the world.

Sensemaking focuses on the perceptions and actions at the moment of the breach in this expected flow of events. In narrative terms, what does a protagonist do when confronted by a breach?

Narrative is concerned with the whole trajectory of a story or a world: characters, setting, and plot. Sensemaking zeroes in on what happens at the moment of the breach.

In our research we have been looking at a particular kind of protagonist: practitioners who create hypermedia representations with groups of people in participatory settings. These protagonists come into situations with a set of established tools, approaches, a repertoire of moves, history and background in the practice (even if, in some cases, at a relatively novice level) and move into a particular episode with a plan, an expected flow of events, of causes and effects. They initiate or are the main actor in some of these; in others, the participants, problem situation, or organizational setting supply the actions.

There is an expected narrative – what the practitioner thinks will happen – then there is the actual narrative – what really happens, what unfolds, with all the breaches (disruptions and unexpected turns) that characterize most human interactions – at least the interesting ones.

The unexpected is interesting because dealing with departure from what’s expected is where creativity, innovation, and inspiration lie. What differentiates ordinary from extraordinary performance in any field is the ability to confront disruptions from the expected flow and convert it into something that works – either to restore order (as is the form of heroic narratives) or to bring about a new order or structure, a reconfiguration that sees the world in a new light. There is also value in the more quotidian ability to keep the normal and expected going, to deliver with predictability, but that is not the domain of narrative and sensemaking, which deal with the unexpected.

A practitioner in participatory or collaborative settings someone who is charged, usually because of their possession of a special skill and/or toolset, with being able to bring about a successful outcome, organizing the flow of events and reacting to unexpected stimuli in such a way as to restore the integrity of the proceedings. In some cases, this may mean doing nothing more than setting things in motion, standing back and letting the expected causes and effects play out, watching the gears mesh in their normal fashion. Much research effort has gone into understanding and strengthening just this ability to bring about predictable and expected results.

But we have taken a different turn, by turning the magnifying glass on the moments where things don’t go as expected, and looking at how practitioners (whether relatively expert or novice) react and move at those moments. At sensemaking moments, a practitioner can’t fall back on pre-planned actions. Instead, they come up with a fresh response, marshalling tools, artifacts, verbal interactions, and other material to try to recover momentum and return on the march toward a successful outcome.

We have analyzed such moments in several contexts:

- face to face meetings of science teams in a long term NASA project, where a single person with relatively expert skills acted as practitioner;
- virtual meetings in the same project, with a different expert acting as practitioner;
- face to face meetings with mostly relative novices given an artificial task

No comments: