Simple, simplistic & making sense

August 12, 2006

Sense-making as a concept is starting to become popular, and as with any new idea that carries both dangers and opportunities. On the one hand at least people know the word when you mention it, but there is also danger in too rapid popularisation. It is not uncommon, although it is regrettable for people to lump together very different thinkers just because they use the same word. Cobbling together partly understood ideas to create simplistic recipes is of course the basic approach of the dark side of consultancy but hopefully we can avoid it.

Now there is a need to give some indication of the diversity of a developing field and to do that is a substantial body of work. However I thought I would use this blog to attempt a brief summary. Part of this is thinking aloud about some aspects of Chapter One of the book. It is also to stimulate some debate as I am worried that some of the attempts at popularising may confuse simplification with being simplistic.

The best known name in the field is probably Karl Weick who takes a normative and retrospective approach typified by his book on high reliability organisations jointly authored with Sutcliffe. Larry Browning & Thierry Boudès recently wrote a comparison of my approach and that of Weick which is an interesting summary of differences and commonalities.

The other major name in the field is Dervin, who approaches the subject from the perspective of communication with a generalised body of methods that can be applied in action. Her web site is a rich source of material. Dervin also draws on post-modernism and critical theory in contrast with Weick.

I drew on both, but principally Dervin, in some of the key development of Cognitive Edge theory and practice.

Of recent years the word has also been increasingly applied to technologies that process large volumes of data with a view to weak signal detection and pattern recognition. One interesting person in this field, who originally developed software for the gaming industry and is now, having had his company purchased by IBM, involved in anti-terrorism is Jeff Jonas. I was involved with him and a host of others in a seminar on sense-making in Singapore last year.

That said, I think there is a deficiency in some of the technology based approaches, in that they attempt to replace rather than augment human intelligence. To take an example. The M4 Motorway in the UK, which is a part of the my life as I move between Heathrow Airport and home, now has a series of cameras every mile or so that read your number plate and calculate your average speed and then the computer based issue of speeding tickets. Now if you asked a computer to work out the alphabet from multiple scans of number plates it would fail. However allow humans to provide it training data in which the letter “a” has many thousands of examples and the computer can then read number plates with high reliability. My own view is that the use of computers is not in primary sense-making, but in the matching of patterns of human memories and speculations over larger volumes of data than those humans can realistically process.

Which leads me to naturalising sense-making (my term) or naturalistic sense-making which is used by Gary Klein of decision theory fame (By the way there is a great conference coming up next year on this subject at which the two of us, along with others will be speaking). Here sense-making is derived from an understanding of the cognitive processes that under pin human decision making and in my case are also informed by an understanding of the sense-making as an emergent phenomenon of a complex system.

There will be other approaches I am sure, and the above is a simplification. By way of summary I offer a definition of sense-making that I offered in 2005.

the way that people choose between multiple possible explanations of sensory and other input as they seek to conform the phenomenological with the real in order to act in such a way as to determine or respond to the world around them

Now that is not simple, and I think I will modify it in the book. A simpler, but not hopefully simplistic definition would be:

the way in which we make sense of the world so that we can act in it

Readers may recall that the better definitions of knowledge management (one of the source concepts for my approach to sense-making) all involved action and were orientated towards future actions rather than retrospective coherence.

One response to “Simple, simplistic & making sense”

  1. cognitive theory says:

    Yes, definitely it makes sense. It was great to visit to your website and hope to see such different stuff ahead as well.

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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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