Practicalities and applications – SenseMaker in application

Published by Tony Quinlan on

Two great sessions last week at the QEII Conference Centre with Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge. The shift from theory to practical application of new management techniques based on principles of complexity, cognitive neuroscience, anthropology and others has been remarkably swift in recent years – and even for those who’ve heard Dave in the past few years, there was noted surprise at how far things have come and the scope of the projects where these tools are being applied.

Any 3-hour seminar will be difficult to summarise in a single blog post – and this one even more so than usual. Of necessity, therefore, this will be a skim over the highlights that I picked up – feel free to add your additional thoughts and observations in the comments. Ron’s already started over at The Ecology of Knowledge. (Ron mentions the video – we (he) did record the entire session, but it’ll be a while before we even sit down to look at the 5 hours of video we’ve got, let alone think about what we do with it. Ideally, we’ll just make it available, but we need to check first. Bear with us…)

The audience was highly diverse – researchers, psychologists, communications experts, innovators, CT specialists, social media analysts and more – but that reflects the diversity of issues that the tools and techniques – in particular SenseMaker™ – is being used to address.

The session started with a short jaunt around the Cynefin framework, in particular covering the difference between Complex and Complicated domains (a detailed partum intelligendo blog on the Cynefin framework is in the works). And then we were off.

Interestingly – and in many cases challengingly – the projects each meet the needs of multiple, diverse groups. Ideal in a world of better for less, but sometimes tricky to navigate the organisational waters.

Key elements from the sessions:

  • A crisis is a wonderful thing – it means that we’ve reached the limits of our current thinking and something new will (has to) emerge. Cognitive, complex approaches look to be the main contender this time around.
  • Ongoing, continuous capture of micro-narratives as things happen opens up vast new possibilities for communications, impact measurement, knowledge sharing and giving greater voice and self-determination to groups.
    • It also has implications for those looking for a handful of significant outcomes, but having to deal with vast amounts of data leading to those outcomes (e.g. IED detection in the field, pharma research teams in the laboratory)
  • The new techniques allow for abductive research techniques, that reduce expert or interpreter bias
  • Early discovery, fast recovery – problems spotted early are quickly (and more cheaply) resolved
  • The spread of pervasive computing opens up radically new possibilities
  • Narrative research combines qualitative information in quantitative volumes – combining the best of both sorts of research
    • Projects should, however, be run in parallel – each approach has its positives
    • Traditional qualitative techniques are highly biased – focus groups only manage at most 15 minutes before being swayed by facilitator feedback, however well-intentioned
  • Pre-hoc, post-hoc approaches are a new approach to increase anticipatory awareness.
    • Collect lots of signified material from a human sensor network in their day-to-day activities
    • When a significant event has taken place, go back and re-signify from an expert perspective
    • That pattern of signification can then be applied to incoming data and used to ask people to linger in the same spot/watch for anomalies
      • It’s crucial to understand that this is not prediction or even anticipation (in a complex space, both are unfeasible), but about increasing anticipatory awareness
    • Where there is large volume of data coming in and only a few significant outcomes to worry about, statistical or process approaches will fail, but SenseMaker offers an effective alternative approach
  • Obliquity is important in complex environments – addressing the problem directly will not work, but addressing other elements will resolve the problem indirectly

Projects that were mentioned included:


A project run in a slum area of Kenya, local narratives were collected and signified. (The case study and materials on this fascinating project are at the Cognitive Edge website.) One of the interesting results from it was that, when stories were signified by development experts “as you would think a Kenyan native would signify it”, there huge gaps between what locals wanted from development and what the western perspective believed. Locals wanted better social networks and relationships, Western experts believed they wanted better sanitation and clean water. (Locals believed that they would follow from a better social community.)

It’s not an unusual element for this form of research to produce results that highlight the differences between expert views and those of the audiences we want to understand.

International social research

An approaching project is expected to collect day-to-day experiences from children in their communities – giving far greater insight into beliefs, mindsets and cultures than traditional research techniques. The original plan had been a small-scale pilot on a subset of European countries, but using SenseMaker the costs to cover all 27 members of the European Union were the same – so a full-scale project is planned. Schools in each country will be the conduit to collect the stories to look at gender issues – and participating schools will also have access to the material for their own use.

Employee engagement/communications research

Sensemaker product characteristic triad

Collecting fragmented narratives, signified by the teller, applies in all sorts of spaces. We’ve run projects, there was talk of more – linked to knowledge management and customer insight. An example of field engineers equipped with bluetooth pens and notebooks. Notes and stories – both from engineer and customer – made on the left-hand page, while the right-hand page holds a handful of triads and/or polarities.

Sensemaker product dyads

The stories captured are then good for customer feedback, engineer training and induction, technical support, product design and – with the addition of a single triad specifically about how the engineer is feeling – employee engagement. All with built-in context, meaning and analysable data.

Suggestion schemes and innovation

A pause to cover innovation – and its non-link with creativity – and the pre-requisites for innovation being:

  • Need
  • Scarcity of resources
  • Change in perspectives

Innovative people are sometimes creative, but creative people are not always innovative. One of the problems relates to mistaking causation and correlation – a frequent mistake by management writers who work from data and produce conclusions along the lines of: “Successful companies exhibit behaviour A. Therefore exhibiting behaviour A will lead to success.” In inimitable style, Dave gave a specific example of Chief Executives and bowel movements. The details are unimportant…

For innovation, of course, suggestion schemes are often used – but one of the difficulties that has led to their disappearance has been the need to attend to each suggestion individually. Coupled with that, of course, is that each suggestion is (mis)interpreted by whoever is tasked with going through them. An alternative in play now is to use SenseMaker to signify individual suggestions as they come in, building up patterns of where innovation is suggested/needed over time.

Military knowledge capture and sharing – blogs vs doctrine

Experience from the US Army has shown that, while doctrine continues to be produced, the most effective way to share battlefield knowledge was blogging by Platoon Commanders. In essence, lots of fragmentary data from in situ is easier to use for decision-making than doctrine produced back at base and disseminated outwards.

One of the next steps forward is a project involving SenseMaker to collect and signify material from the field in the field and allow for real-time access to situations and reports.

As an aside, there is also a group working on metaphor-based communications – it is easier and quicker to communicate using shared metaphors and examples. Military history is ideal for the use, building with nuances of territory, geography, tactics, etc. Another example of metaphor-based communication came in the Star Trek Next Generation episode “Darmok”. With metaphor-based communication, it’s possible to boil down complex situations and tactics to a few words.

Two of the most interesting examples were the use of human sensor networks that have people inputing and signifying material around anomalies or anything else they think is significant. Different groups of people with different backgrounds can contribute and the patterns that emerge from the signifying data become extremely valuable. Both work not prediction of events (impossible in complex environments and spaces) but on identifying patterns and then prompting anticipatory awareness – or “keep ’em peeled” as Shaw Taylor used to say.

Child protection in Northern Ireland

Social workers and policemen and others focused on child protection are able to collect fragments and signify them as they’re working using handheld devices. The combination of lots of data from different perspectives and a pre-hoc, post-hoc approach make it possible to have a confidential alert come up for visitors to at-risk houses to encourage them to stay another 30 minutes and ask some more questions as overall patterns correlate with previous experiences. It is all about anticipatory awareness again.

Security guards, IED detection

Saving one of the most interesting for last…

SenseMaker technology is currently being integrated into specific handheld devices to allow for anomaly-tagging in particular environments.

For example, airport security personnel see and tag quickly any event or situation they think important. (In previous systems, this would be discouraged – any situation you reported would require investigation, paperwork, interviews, etc) Much of the material tagged is small-scale and results in nothing significant, but the personnel become used to lots of quick and easy tagging of events. The pre-hoc, post-hoc approach means that after an incident actually happens, it’s possible to build patterns of prior tagging that can lead to events.

Subsequently, similar patterns of tagging can generate real-time alerts to the hand-held devices triggering higher levels of observation, but without generating self-fulfilling states of unease.

The approach is being looked at around IEDs in Afghanistan and security guards in London.

One application suggested was also to spot bottle-necks of visitors and other hiccups around the 2012 Olympics – volunteers working around the village and events halls could use these to report all sorts of infrastructure elements that would allow for fast (and often cheap and easy) resolutions.

There was naturally far more than this, but this post should give you a sense. If you were at one of the sessions and spotted other elements, please add your comments, as I’m sure I missed much…

And I’d like to say a personal thank you to the Narrate family there – including Ron, engagement facilitator (including employees, pupils and cross-cultural programmes); Jim, communications supremo (including UN agencies, local and central government); Meg, all-round facilitator and speaking coach. The organisation of the whole piece was run, as always, with charm and efficiency (a rare combination) by Anne.