Wednesday, December 17, 2008

More on "Species of Sensemaking"

More on this post, triggered by some recent responses to a couple of our papers on sensemaking.

"As an individual moves through an experience, each moment is potentially a sense-making moment. The essence of that sense-making moment is assumed to be addressed by focusing on how the actor defined and dealt with the situation, the gap, the bridge, and the continuation of the journey after crossing the bridge."
- Brenda Dervin, “From the mind's eye of the user

What do people mean when they talk about sensemaking? There are several types of definitions, which seem to touch each other only peripherally.

Many treat sensemaking as largely the province of information retrieval: there is a problem or question, there is a body of information that relates to it that one has acquired (or has been thrust into) through some means, and there is a need to develop an understanding of it. There is much worthwhile research and tool development being done in this vein, but it is not the only type of sensemaking research. Since it largely focuses on tools and people as users of those tools, there is a tendency to treat the human dimensions of sensemaking in a somewhat uniform, or even mechanistic manner. Given certain types of situations and certain types of tools, people are seen to respond and behave in certain ways that can be more or less aided by different sorts of a priori approaches.

Another, only partially related, vein of sensemaking research is more generally a qualitative or phenomenological approach. This has more to do with the human experience of being brought up against a discontinuity of some kind, something that prevents you from moving forward as you want or need to. This conception is identified in large part with Brenda Dervin but also related to the broader organizational sensemaking described by Karl Weick, in which the ways in which people in groups encounter disasters and catastrophes play a large role.

In this approach, one moves through time until encountering a gap or discontinuity. What you do at the moment you encounter that gap is what's of interest. Each such situation is unique for the people in it; there is nothing uniform, mechanistic, or monolithic about it.

My own research has sometimes been taken as being the former approach. Although I am writing about the human experience of creating participatory representations, a process that is inherently rife with challenges, obstacles, and gaps no matter what sort of tool is being used, some readers assign the focus to the tools and approaches themselves, and the tools’ success or failure in creating seamless experiences in information manipulation. These readers see any problems the people described encounter as lying with the tools or methods themselves. Better tools or improved methods would avoid the problems. If users of the tools I write about encounter sensemaking problems, in this view, it must be because the tools themselves don’t provide adequate support.

But that is not my focus. Further, it is not my belief. No collaborative tool or process provides seamless support to its users, especially when used in live sessions. Tool use, and the creative process itself, seen from the perspective of actual individual people attempting to create participatory representations, is inherently messy and idiosyncratic. What happens in sessions is unpredictable, unless the process is so tightly controlled and over-determined as to give the lie to the idea of “participatory” altogether.

In actual practice things don’t always go smoothly. The unexpected happens. Discontinuities rear their heads, and the actors must respond. These responses can take many forms, ranging from giving up, to falling back on rote prescribed actions, to asking for help, to accepting suggestions, to coming up with fresh creative innovations on the spot.

What I am looking at is the ways that people attempt (sometimes unproblematically, but usually not), to construct collaborative representations, and what types of obstacles confront them in the process of doing this. I take as a given that each such attempt is a new sallying forth into a sea of potential problems, inherent when trying to foster coherence, engagement, and usefulness with a group of independent and intelligent people who may or may not conform to your ideas of how they should behave or contribute. Or the problems can be with the materials or tools – something doesn’t go right or as expected; to salvage or correct the situation something has to be done.

The interesting part for me is what the people do at those times, or how they construct things so as to avoid the problems. Sometimes the problems are major and bring matters to a halt; sometimes they are minor and easily dealt with, a momentary swerve from productivity; still other times, through a combination of skill and luck, they are avoided altogether.

Some researchers treat groups engaged in participatory representations as, in effect, monoliths all bent on a single quest with a single aim. Although that can be the case, it usually isn’t. Groups are complex beasts with multiple identities (people as individuals always have multiple identities) and can’t be reduced to a single information-seeking machine. Particular members of a group may act “groupy”, but they are also, always, individuals with their own aims and goals, their own experience of the proceedings, and their own perspectives on the meaning, relevance, and interestingness of specific events. What for one person is deeply engaging is for another of little or no interest; what for one seems an exciting change of direction is for another an annoying distraction.

The focus for my current research is not on the group members, the participants themselves, although they are just as interesting in their own right. Rather I am looking at the particular sensemaking experience, the particular kinds of discontinuities that occur to people in the role of "practitioner," "caretaker", or "facilitator" of the event – those who have some responsibility to the functioning of the group and event as a whole. People inhabit this role and respond to discontinuities with a wide, even infinite variety of styles and modes of action. It’s the surfacing and describing of some of this variety that interests me. Not to reduce it to a set of patterns that can be uniformly supported. I don’t believe that’s possible.


luskwater said...

You have a passage, "Sometimes the problems are major and bring matters to a halt; sometimes they are minor and easily dealt with, a momentary swerve from productivity; still other times, through a combination of skill and luck, they are avoided altogether."

A kayaking instructor has on his
webpage (which I cannot find at the moment), "Good seamanship is the
application of superior judgment to avoid the need to apply superior skills." (Found in many other forms elsewhere, but I will guess it applied to sailors long before someone applied it to race-car drivers.)

So, perhaps, not "skill and luck" so much as "wisdom and skill, with some

Al said...

Agreed. "Skill" was a shorthand for all sorts of things, certainly including wisdom for those lucky enough to have it. "Luck" (also a shorthand, of course) sometimes matters quite a bit, sometimes not at all. But it can't be discounted.

ben said...

As I wrote in my Soup post, the quote from B. Dervin along with the Quest Map remind me of what I resolved not to grapple with, i.e. the whole of the process. It occurred to me (late 90s?) that trying to do too much would distract from the sub-processes that could be more effectively capacitated.

p.s. BlogSpot really isn't working for you; not only do all comments appear at one level, so you can't reply to an individual comment. Have you considered using WordPress?

Al said...

The volume of comments has not been such where I have had to worry about that too much :-) but thanks.