Issues with Sense-Making

I’ve heard quite a bit of discussion in recent times, especially led by Dave Snowden, about the demise of knowledge management in favour of something more akin to sense-making. 

At a recent presentation to VPSCIN by my good mate and fellow birdo Neill Allan from the UK, he talked about sense-making as being reliant on sensory information and interpreting that information in some form.  He stated that we sense-make in the following process; first by trying to categorise (ie it looks like a chair), if we have trouble with that, then we try to pattern-match it, and if we are still trying to make sense of it after that, we will construct a hypothesis and test it.  Sense-making then is less subject to accuracy and is more driven by likelihood – it is more narrative rather than objective in its approach.

I liked that little model but I felt uneasy with it at the time.  Just as discussions with others who say in a Popperian manner “All life is problem-solving”, the act of sense-making appears to be that that there is a strong desire to make sense of it – to do something, to engage and interact and to understand it.

I’ve thought about this a bit since then and am still trying to digest my thoughts.  I feel uncomfortable as a part of me wants to just experience the uneasiness of sense-making and that by solving the problem or understanding the issue or making sense of it, there is a loss.  Sure, there will always be something else then to move on to if we have made sense of an issue – another problem to solve, another issue to explore. 

I guess my main concern is whether the sense-making that has been done is sufficient.  Is it that I am perceiving that people will consider it as accuracy or truth when I know that it is just likelihood?  Or is it that I would actually prefer to play with the issue a bit more, fiddle around with it, look at it from a couple more angles and try to pattern match it a bit better rather than set up an hypothesis to test it and understand it. 

I guess on reflection, that I often feel that I have a pretty good handle on a particular topic (it makes sense to me), but that then someone will say something else and the handle that I had evaporates and I realise that the sense that I had made was an illusion and not adequate.  It means that I need to keep reflecting on what makes sense to me and to engage in dialogue with others to check my sense of it with others and make comparisons. 

Sense-making to me has more gravitas than KM but like KM, it can be superficial and lack depth of understanding of a particular topic.  Just as with KM, it is all in the eye of the beholder as to what is listened to and incorporated into the mind of the actor in the setting (EF Schumaker’s concept of adequatio in his book Guide for the Perplexed). 

Something might make sense to someone but that depends on their particular development, their ability to comprehend a situation, their morals and values, their openness and their curiosity.  Another person might have difficulty understanding the same issue, not because they are less experienced, developed or understanding than the other, but that their thinking on the topic has advanced to another level and they see new dilemmas that require additional sense-making to gain clarity. 


4 Responses to Issues with Sense-Making

  1. I doubt that most people create a hypothesis and test it as a third step to sensemaking. I’m assuming Allan means that only a certain type of person, someone who is explicitly adopting the scientific method, does hypothesis testing. When categorization and pattern matching fail in the first instance other patterns are adopted that are the individual’s way of coping with the unexplained: religion, supernatural, gaia, etc.

    For me sensemaking occurs when we create a story about what we see happening. We might just tell this story to ourselves or share it with others. In this way I agree with Karl Weick when he says: “Sensemaking involves turning circumstances into a situation that is comprehended explicitly in words and that serves as a springboard into action.”

    I know Dave Snowden disagrees with this view and I would love to understand his objection.

  2. I recently heard that one the major criticism of Weick’s work was his emphasis on the past and how his flavour of sensemaking is only retrospective. I believe Weick has addressed this in a recent article where he talks about forward looking sensemaking. Sounds like your area of interest Luke 🙂

  3. Matt Moore says:

    Luke – I agree that sensemaking can be superficial or deep. And I too often feel that I have never completely understood something – which tends to drive my action-oriented colleagues wild. Mindful & awareness are pretty key here.

    Shawn – Odd you should mention the past because I think sensemaking is the primary tool that historians use (I studied history at Uni). You can’t run experiments on historical events. Instead you have to take mutually contradictory accounts and produce a coherent & convincing narrative from them.

  4. Thanks for that Shawn and Matt
    The notion of sensemaking as retrospective is of interest to me and one that I think is only partial as you would expect Shawn!
    There is a great article by Jack Petranker from the Centre for Creative Inquiry on “The When of Knowing” which I will have to look up again and will comment on at another time. Basiclly his view is that is that while logico-scientific modes of thinking dominate, narrative and sensemaking modes as alternatives are arising but that these use the past as the locus for knowledge. Another alternative is to use the present as the locus but that this lacks theoretical grounding. Instead, Petranker uses the future as the locus for knowledge inviting a focus on the dynamic of the lived story rather than its content.
    It’s quite a read and I will try and summarise it better and give my perspective on it at another time – I’m sure that you will find it fascinating.

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