Making sense of Sensemaker

December 4, 2010

If you’re looking for some deep thought or profound insight on Sensemaker here, don’t. If you are, make sure that upon reaching the next full-stop, you do just that. I do however have a small degree of experience with its application and wondered if there might be some value in sharing it here.

Since ’07 I have contributed to a number of Sensemaker projects and project-managed one to determine impact evaluation of a large network’s activity across the public sector. Given the very nature of networks and the inadequacies of the usual survey instruments, for us, Sensemaker was the obvious way to go.

During the course of 2008-09 we initiated two major captures of indexed narrative, each lasting for four weeks at a time. Given a target group of 4500+ our primary capture was done online, however we made considerable effort to capture the sense-making items needed via hard-copy across a range of forums and events.

It’s probably fair to say that many struggled with the concept of sharing experiences given that the standard surveys across the sector try to avoid open questions. I suspect that this is done for fear of staff taking the opportunity to actually tell them what is happening and the expectation that they may have to do something as a result. The unspoken golden rule seems to be, that if we asked directed questions they’ll only ever be able to give us the answers to the questions we ask. Any exploration beyond this = a can of worms. An instrument therefore, asking for serious input beyond Likert scales, was a novel idea for some.

Having said this, we received telling input from all areas of Government and were very satisfied with the results. The most satisfying thing has been that the project ultimately supported many beliefs we have had for some time, but have been unable to elicit from the distributed membership via any other means. Many of the Sensemaker project’s findings/interpretations have tended to be those “elephants in the room” that key decision-makers either remain blissfully ignorant of, or refuse to acknowledge.

Without going into any level of detail perhaps the strongest message coming out of the evaluation was that Senior managers remain the greatest barriers to new initiatives.

Mid-level managers who have developed themselves in recent years on the strength of having personal development plans have learned new ways of thinking and doing but have been frustrated with their inability to gain permission to put these into place by the senior manager group.

A weak-signal has therefore been that some of the most senior managers have been threatened by the network’s reach and activity, this has in turn created angst with middle-managers who are seeking to think and work in new ways in less controlling environments.

We surmise that this is at least in part due to the most senior managers being so “busy” they themselves have not developed themselves in accordance with needs that go beyond the “ordered” domains in which they tend to operate.

What has happened with the survey results? They of course, have largely been ignored on the strength that this is not the way we do things around here! We are consistent at least!

Not to be phased, we are hoping to use Sensemaker over the coming months/years to undertake a systematic capture of the oral histories of elephant Mahouts across Sth East Asia.

Given the Asian elephant is rapidly diminishing in numbers and may not remain extant beyond this century, and given that Mahouts are usually paired with an elephant at a young age for life, it would seem that Sensemaker offers us not only a means of capturing what must be the richest source of elephant knowledge but also a means of possibly identifying ways to actually save the species.

Then again, we could just send the mahouts some questions using survey monkey.

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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.

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