Making Sense of Sensemaking

Peter JonesSensemaking, Wu Wei

Dr. Brenda Dervin presented a lecture and workshop at University of Toronto’s KMDI, kicking off the Making Sense Of series led by professor Peter Pennefather, KMDI outreach director. Peter and I hosted Brenda as befitting this first session in a series of workshops on “how we make sense” in several different domains. What’s new is the focus on new forms of media for aiding sensemaking.

Brenda is Professor of Communications at OSU and one of the founding thinkers of sense-making, along with Karl Weick. Their 1980’s work developed theory and cases for how people individually (Dervin) and organizationally (Weick) make explanatory sense of situations in everyday life and breakdowns. Newer contributors to the sensemaking literature Gary Klein, Dave Snowden, and the PARC (now Google) team of Russell, Stefik, Car, Pirolli have contributed versions that extend their prior work in cognitive science.

In Dervin’s lecture she explicated each contributor to the canon from the perspective of her recent publication in the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences.

While there are other authors contributing to the discourse, Dervin finds these are the researchers committed to the development of a continuing field of research, and have had the most impact by citation. While their differences may appear reconcilable to most interdisciplinary scholars, there are significant differences based on ontological underpinnings and methodology. Dervin finds her sense-making meta-theory closest to Snowden’s view. Philosophically perhaps, but I find Klein’s a closer match because his work draws from naturalistic decision making and Snowden’s models are more abstract and not grounded in empirical field research, as Dervin and Klein’s are.  Dervin’s SMM interviewing process and micro-moment analysis can be understood as a method for understanding streams of subjective experience, and bears methodical similarity to Klein’s Cognitive Task Analysis, even if their purposes and outcomes differ.

Pennefather and I are intrigued by the development of sensemaking theories in clinical informatics and new media. Sensemaking provides guidance beyond the limits of mere “decision making,” an overly constraining view of information activity. I see a hybrid interdiscipline forming between a lifeworld view of the person (how people make sense of concerns) and the media and information tools (media appropriated to aid sensemaking). This convergence is the basis of two papers:

Why do Senior Clinicians Ignore CDSS? (Slideshare) presented at AHIC 2010,

And a paper currently in review.

How Can we Design Dialogues to Enact People’s Capacity to Think?

Dervin asked this question rhetorically. I mean to act on this question in the Design with Dialogue practice community.

Dervin credits the sensemaking dialogic approach to her mentor Richard Carter’s dialogic theory. Carter viewed dialogic communication as expressed within and among individuals (through me to you, within me to you, through me to me, etc. +1 +2 +n).

Buber’s dialogues of within-person, between I-You, between I-Thou, and Man to God may have originated this configuration of perspectives. However, while Buber’s interests were spiritual-ethical, Dervin’s may be seen as social-educational-epistemological. She wants us to learn to think by observing communications as the source of understanding and the making of sense.

Dervin also enforces methodology and I see this as necessary to keep from getting fixated on method.  Method is instrumental, and when pursued for its own sake, is merely about “getting things done.” Method keeps us from thinking about purposes, our stake in the research, and ethical stances. Methodology (and meta-theory) are not academic exercises. They are how and why we are doing research in the first place. This is a critical point for the design professions to acknowledge

Dervin describes her position as post-critical. The methodology invokes Gramsci, Foucault, Freire, and presents a method for understanding power relations in a dialogic “surround.” The surround can be seen as a triangulation of multiple perspectives on a concern, increasing the requisite variety of dialogue to express the different views discovered in the interaction of concern.

Borrowing from critical theory, the SMM pierces conventional notions of human experience by invoking and identifying sense-making and un-making functions, including:

  • The person as contingent in and moving through time and space
  • The person defined and understood as a creature of verbs, not the properties of noun objects
  • The person as a dynamic, multi-perspectival, learning and evolving being
  • The person as autonomous, self-oriented, and inherently superior to structures
  • The person as subject to and interacting with power and controls in structures
  • The person as enmeshed in struggles, muddles, resource appropriation, and seeking helps

These elements contribute to a basis for understanding the experience and evolution of experience.