Human Sensor Networks… the ultimate executive coach

March 5, 2013

I was talking with Laurie Webster about a new online course she is in the final stages of preparing for launch that covers SenseMaker® basics.  As we provide her with feedback on the course one request that came from Dave was to include some information on what we are calling “human sensor networks”.  Now having an engineering background myself, I’m very comfortable with technical jargon and I often make references to human systems using terms more common in technical environments.  I also enjoy stretching my thinking with technical metaphors and their application to complex systems. One such moment that is quite strongly imprinted in my memory was a morning back in 2007 when Dave was explaining to me the “magnet” metaphor for modulators in complex systems over breakfast at a hotel in Calgary.  So not surprising, when I teach or explain modulators, the image of Dave sketching them out in his Moleskine notebook at that table often flashes in my mind.

As typically happens when one teaches or explains things they deepen their own understanding. So when I was explaining this morning to Laurie my understanding of human sensor networks I was prompted to blog about the topic and the role that SenseMaker® plays in delivering organisations the value of human sensor networks.  So the concept is basically this:

“…when you engage a significant percentage of employees, customers, or citizens in the continuous process of recording not only observations and experiences, but also the meaning and influences that such observations and experiences have on them, you have in effect created a human sensor network.  The key is to provide people with a semi-constrained framework of meaning through which they reflect on their experience or observation and signify the meaning of each specific observation or experience. The framework of meaning may relate to corporate culture, innovation, safety, engagement, knowledge transfer, or other topic spaces with some initiatives having a combination.”

If we think this through a bit further what we are saying is that by engaging a large number of people in the process of making sense of their everyday experiences and observations, and allowing meaning to be effectively layered on such experiences we stimulate a network of agents in the systems to make sense of the system themselves. This is where Gell-Mann’s famous statement comes to mind – “the only valid model of a complex system is the system itself.”

Now how can this be the ultimate executive coach?  Well let me attempt to explain this with a hypothetical case assembled with real SenseMaker® experiences.

Let’s assume your organisation has deployed SenseMaker® for the past year as a way of both gathering program lessons and understanding its corporate culture to inform transformation initiatives.  The program is going well and to date approximately 10% of staff have engaged in the process of signifying weekly notes / observations on a rotating basis.  The narrative dataset of over 4000 entries is growing and is being deployed to facilitate training programs and indoctrination of new recruits while at the same time the company’s OD team is leveraging the corporate culture information to guide initiatives for corporate transformation (using the Cynefin framework and safe-to-fail experimentation of course!)  So all is going well with the continuous narrative program. The use of SenseMaker® is delivering valuable patterns of meta-data to make the lessons learning and culture programs effective.

Meanwhile, the executive team at this company identifies a new technology that could either be a threat to the company or an opportunity if licensing or acquisitions are considered.  The executive sponsor for the earlier mentioned SenseMaker® program says – “why don’t we engage our employees to help us make sense of this opportunity / threat?”  And so within a week or so, an innovation framework of meaning is created and a week later all of the engaged employees participating in the “lessons learning and gathering” program receive an email request from the CEO with links to 5 articles talking to various aspects of this new technology.  They are asked over the next week to read these articles and to complete the innovation SenseMaker® site for each article.  500 employees were on the invitation list to complete this task so close to 2500 responses are gathered a week later.  In parallel to this, a select group of “expert” consultants are asked to participate as well and they contribute 300 responses providing an external “expert” perspective. The patterns in these responses then guide the executive team in an evaluation of how to manage this threat and opportunity and a strategy is arrived at all within a month’s period of time.  The decision was to move quickly with an acquisition strategy as the employees identified synergies with their current developments that were not known or fully understood, and the external consultant responses yielded a high probability that this technology would be a key market driver in the future.  The patterns in the responses also helped the company identify a group of people within their employee base that demonstrated attractive patterns of business and technical acumen with the desired predisposition to innovation and action.  The executive team was quite impressed since a decision was arrived at in less than 5 weeks, whereas a similar decision last year that relied heavily on external consultants and multiple executive review sessions took in excess of 4 months to complete.

As you reflect on the above story, think about how traditional approaches often emphasise the value of external experts or selectively privilege a small team within the company on such strategic decisions.  The above process of engaging a large sample of employees and externals yields the power of diversity of perspective but within a framework of meaning that allows for fast but effective decision-making.  In effect a human sensor network developed for one purpose has been activated for another purpose in the time of need.  The approach allows for the executive team to tap into the distributed cognition, intelligence, scanning, and knowledge of a broader network in a way that effectively informs key strategic decisions.

The real power of the process comes from its ability to simultaneously engage employees while allowing executive teams to augment their cognition with the collective insights and ideas of their entire organisation.  It allows executives more space and time to think more deeply and strategically, something which is unfortunately lacking given the incredibly stacked and scheduled environments executives are constantly pressured by.  Leaning on a broader network for cognition and sense-making, rather than overloading themselves with all of the detailed evaluation tasks raised with major decisions, is a key value proposition human sensor networks offer to executive teams.

If you’re interested in understanding how narrative and human sensor networks can coach your leadership team and guide decision-making contact us.


Image source: E:CO Issue Vol. 7 Nos. 3-4 2005 p. 160


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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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