Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Species of sensemaking

I attended a workshop on sensemaking at the CHI conference on April 6. It was a full-day gathering of people representing several different perspectives on the phenomenon of sensemaking. Some of these perspectives have only peripheral connections to one another. They can be roughly gathered into three categories:
  • informational sensemaking, which deals (primarily) with information retrieval (such as searching the web) and organizing the information into various kinds of representations (the organizers were mostly from this area)
  • organizational sensemaking, which explores how groups organizations respond to anomalies and discontinuities (a la Karl Weick)
  • individual or experiential sensemaking, which looks at people encountering disruptions and breaches as they move through life.
Many of the attendees also compared how individual and collaborative sensemaking occur in these three areas.

My paper brought concepts of narrative and improvisation to the discussion, which I won't discuss further here. But it occurred to me that the above dimensions only scratch the surface. Sensemaking, as a general phenomenon of response to anomalies, onslaughts of new information, or disruptions in the expected flow of events, occurs on a plethora of levels in human experience. Some that came to my mind that day are:
  • emotional sensemaking (in response to this person, phone call, music, life event, what are my feelings?)
  • physical sensemaking (what does this event mean for my body, in terms of movement, health, physical response?)
  • visual sensemaking (there is an onslaught of confusing visual information, where is the meaningful pattern?)
Even in ostensibly "intellectual" or "cognitive" contexts, there can be emotional and physical dimensions, such as a sense of threat or frustration that must be dealt with. Sensemaking can also occur on time-scales ranging from the immediate moment (certainly the physical, visual, and emotional varieties can happen in an instant) to minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or even years, in the case of organizational or societal sensemaking.

Beyond these, sensemaking can certainly said to occur in thousands of individual domains where the character of the triggers, the context around them, and the nature of the responses are all specific to that domain and best understood utilizing the language and metaphors of the domain, those closest to its unique experience. While at the workshop, one that occurred to me was musical sensemaking. Let's say you're playing in a band, performing live in front of people, and the drummer suddenly changes the beat. What does it signify? That she means to change what song you're playing (segueing into a new one) which means you need to figure out what song is meant, or that she made a mistake that you need to help cover, or one of many other possibilities. Recognizing what it might mean, knowing what to draw on in response, knowing what you are and aren't capable of in the situation (as well as what she and the others are and aren't) are all domain-specific.

My own research interests, while they could go after many of these, at the moment lie largely in what I'll call artifactual sensemaking -- the challenges to meaning-making and coherence that occur in and through the creation of an artifact, particularly a collaborative artifact such as the hypermedia representations I've been looking at. I'll expand on that in an upcoming post.

1 comment:

ben said...

re: "artifactual" ... to be playful with this, the artifacts I have set out to produce can be thought of as the "glass beads" in Hesse's glasperlenspiel. (Do folk more often call the book "Magister Ludi" or "Glass Bead Game"?) I found that concentrating on that one aspect of the complex allowed my system a certain vigorous rigour; I see the "bead" as being the strange attractor that in-forms the cloud of concepts that surround it, as though the center of a constellation.