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Sense -making theory and practice: an overview of user interests in knowledge seeking and use

Brenda Dervin, Prof essor of Communica t ions, Ohio St a t e Universi ty

Sometimes, it gets shared and codified; sometimes a number of people agree upon it; sometimes it enters into a formalized discourse and gets published; sometimes it gets tested in other times and spaces and takes on the status of facts. Sometimes, it is fleeting and unexpressed. Sometimes it is hidden and suppressed. Sometimes, it gets imprimatured and becomes unjust law; sometimes it takes on the status of dogma. Sometimes it requires reconceptualizing a world. Sometimes it involves contest and resistance. Sometimes it involves danger and death.[2] In this view, sense making and sense unmaking is a mandate of the human condition. Humans, Sense making assumes, live in a world of gaps: a reality that changes across time and space and is at least in part gappy at a given time-space; a human society filled with difference manifested in madness, culture, personality, inventiveness, tentativeness and capriciousness; a self that is sometimes centered, sometimes muddled, and always becoming. In this view, the sense making and sense unmaking that is knowledge is a verb, always an activity, embedded in time and space, moving from a history toward a horizon, made at the juncture between self and culture, society, organization. Since 1972, my primary project, both academic and practical, has involved the development of this verbing approach to studying human sense making. This project now involves contributions from some 100-plus academics and practitioners globally and is generally labeled with the term Sense making, capitalized to distinguish the approach from the phenomenon it studies. The purpose of the project, in the broadest sense, from its inception has been to make possible better design of practices and systems for communicating, whether in person or mediated, whether by voice or pen or computer. The Sense-making approach to studying and understanding users and designing systems to serve their needs is reviewed. The approach, developed to focus on user sense making and sense unmaking in the fields of communication and library and information science, is reviewed in terms of its implications for knowledge management. Primary emphasis is placed on moving conceptualizations of users, information and reality from the noun-based knowledge-as-map frameworks of the past to verbbased frameworks emphasizing diversity, complexity and sense-making potentials. Knowledge management is described as a field on the precipice of chaos, reaching for a means of emphasizing diversity, complexity and people over centrality, simplicity and technology. Sense making, as an approach, is described as a methodology disciplining the cacophony of diversity and complexity without homogenizing it. Knowledge is reconceptualized from noun to verb.

My purpose in this paper is to share with the reader an approach to studying human sense making which has from its inception conceptualized knowledge and information as a verb. This approach, called Sense making, has made no distinction between knowledge and information. Instead, it has referred to the making and unmaking of sense and has defined information/knowledge as product of and fodder for sense making and sense unmaking.[1] In this view, knowledge is the sense made at a particular point in time-space by someone.


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From the inception then, Sense making has been about knowledge management, albeit by another name. Sense making, the approach, has developed over these 25-plus years within the bounds of particular discourse communities. These include primarily the field of library and information science (where applications have focussed on the study of information needs and seeking and on the match between systems and users); the various communication fields (where applications have focused on interpersonal, mass and cyberspaced communication in service, media, medical and other settings); and education (where applications have focused on user-centered pedagogy).


My assignment is to translate or map in some way the implications of my work for this relatively new field called knowledge management, a field whose discourse community has little overlap with those within which Sense making has developed. In getting up to speed on knowledge management, I quickly learned that whatever it is, it is hot. A search of the Social Science, Arts and Humanities, and Science Citation Indexes yielded more than 100 references in the first six months of 1998. Various authors have described the growth in superlatives, noting for example the leap from beginning mentions in the mid-1980s to a plethora of mentions, conferences and books in the late 1990s.[3] What I want to share with you about Sense making as an approach and about understandings of sense making, the phenomenon, that have emerged using the approach rests in good part of my interior dialogue with knowledge management. Since one of the findings of Sense making is that communication (i.e. knowledge management) works better when speakers are mandated to anchor themselves in their histories and their frameworks, it is important for me to start with my reading of knowledge management. The picture that has emerged for me from some 30 recent articles on knowledge management is both hopeful and contradictory. The hopefulness is well summarized by Clarke in his 1998 letter to the editor in Sloan Management Review where he described knowledge management as a new way to solve problemsa new strategic perspective influenced by a new appreciation to interrelationships, complexity, and context (Clarke, 1998). What is described collectively by a host of observers of the knowledge management scene seems,

indeed, an exciting, revolutionary move. On the one hand, the call to knowledge management is accompanied by calls for less emphasis on technology, outcomes, routines, isolation, centrality, explicitness and obedience; and more emphasis on people, context, process, creativity, collaboration, diversity, tacitness and initiative. To the extent that this is a useful description of this new pulse, then the thrust toward knowledge management can be seen as an exemplar of the same pulse that is percolating in virtually every realm of human existence. Other manifestations in the business realm involve the move toward process management and learning organizations (CoulsonThomas, 1997). In education, you hear calls for learner-centered education (Norman and Spohrer, 1996). In media practice, there are calls for civic journalism, or public journalism (Dervin and Clark, 1993). In library and information system design, there are calls for user-oriented systems (Dervin, 1992). In computer science, there are calls for usercentered design (Norman, 1993). Observers of the knowledge management pulse have detailed a host of reasons for the revolutionary force: the demands of increased competition, and the rise of information technologies being most mentioned. But if we look at the knowledge management phenomenon in broader perspective, we can conceptualize it as a symptom of, and a proposed solution for, human confrontation with issues of chaos versus order and centrality versus diversity. Once upon a time, in the western tradition at least, it was thought that information/knowledge could describe and fix reality and that transferring that valuable resource into the minds of participating humans would enable them to act effectively in their work and life environments. One way of thinking about the major philosophic contest of our time is that this old world view is falling to the ground and as a species we are struggling to create alternatives that work. Knowledge management is one manifestation of this quest (Hayles, 1990; Wilson, 1998). At this level of abstraction what this pulse mandates is a radical reconceptualization of what is involved in the enterprises of knowledge creation and management. While once knowledge was valued for providing answers, homogeneity and centrality, now we need to think of potentials for empowering and releasing creativity and diversity. While once we thought we could bask in the certainty of answers and solutions, now need to learn to appreciate the courage and creativity it takes to step into the unknown only partially instructed by information/knowledge. In this view, every next moment is unknown; and the step into it can never be more than partially informed.

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The magnitude of the change being pursued when framed this way, at the highest level of abstraction, is awesome. Some observers suggest that this human struggling to recognize complexity, diversity and fluidity as marks of the human condition will, centuries from now, be identified as one of the major accomplishments of the species in this century and the next. Understandably, given the magnitude of the change, the movement shows signs of struggle and contradictions. It is in this terrain that a second pulse emerges from the knowledge management articles, a pulse that is rooted in a conceptualization of information/knowledge not as verb but as noun, as a thing, as a commodity that can be captured, stored, retrieved and used in achieving effective outcomes. In this view, there are calls to link knowledge management activities to measurable bottom-line outcomes; and conceptualizations of knowledge management that emphasize the need for appropriate technologies and methods of capturing, storing, retrieving and sharing. This view, in fact, seems to typify knowledge management in practice even for those who pay some kind of lip service to the revolutionary pulse. Of course, the line between the revolutionary view and this more instrumental alternative is not so polarized and stereotyped. No one would argue that the making, retrieving and applying of facts (what Sense making calls factizing) is not a useful outcome of knowledge management. But what does differ between the two pulses is the extent to which the latter emphasizes implicitly or explicitly the idea that effectiveness is embodied in information/ knowledge and its assumed capacity to direct use to correct outcomes. One of the primary conclusions from 25 years of work on Sense making is that the sub-set of human sense-making situations which are amenable to this view are small. To think that effectiveness is embodied in information/knowledge rests on the idea that it can transfer from person to person and time-space to time-space without interrogation and interpretation. But life and work are not like that: there are no old situations: a marketing problem is not the same today; a customer yesterday may well be different today. As human beings we know this about our intimates and our own lives. But in the old view of knowledge we have disconnected this tacit survival understanding as if it is irrelevant to the design of our formalized knowledge management systems. One good example of this is the Challenger disaster, a situation where some suggest good management of factually construed knowledge would have avoided the disaster. Yet, recent analyses point to

five different possible causal factors, none of which would have been addressed by traditional knowledge management approaches: a failure in educating engineers so they were unable to interpret appropriately the data at hand; a historical confluence of organizational and environmental contingencies; a failure by decision makers to attend to alternative narratives of the launch because of power games and organizational culture; a rhetorical failure on the part of those arguing against the launch; a non-dialogic organizational community (Harrison, 1993; Lighhall, 1991; Miller, 1993; Vaughan, 1997). What is interesting about the knowledge management literature is that both the revolutionary pulse and its opposite co-exist, often in the same article. The critique of the pull back to conceptualizing knowledge as mapping certainty in people, situations, and things is succinctly described by Fahey and Prusak in their 1998 article on the 11 deadliest sins of knowledge management. I repeat their list here because as a communication specialist it is a list I have heard frequently over the past 25 years in other fields: library and information science, information design, mass communication, health care delivery, public education campaigns, service delivery and so on. Fahey and Prusaks 11 deadly sins of knowledge management are: 1. Not developing a working definition of knowledge. 2. Emphasizing knowledge stock to the detriment of knowledge flow. 3. Viewing knowledge as existing predominantly outside the heads of individuals. 4. Not understanding that a fundamental intermediate purpose of managing knowledge is to create shared context. 5. Paying little heed to the role and importance of tacit knowledge. 6. Disentangling knowledge from its uses. 7. Downplaying thinking and reasoning. 8. Focussing on the past and the present and not the future. 9. Failing to recognize the importance of experimentation. 10. Substituting technical contact for human interface.


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11. Seeking to develop direct measures of knowledge. The importance of listing these 11 sins here is not to convey the exact nature of the critiques. Rather, it is to provide an impressionistic bridge. This is where knowledge management is today; it is exactly like critiques that began to emerge 25 years ago in the fields of communication and library and information science and still do. It is also the set of gaps into which Sense making began to step 25 years ago and what it still struggles with today. Knowledge management as a field has no reason to berate itself for its contradictions and struggles for, indeed, they mirror the same contradictions and struggles in other fields. They form, if you will, one of the highest mandates for attention by the human species.

assumptions which guide the Sense-making approach, to exemplify the kinds of findings about human sense making which have resulted from applying these assumptions, and to then illustrate the potential use of these results in interpersonal, group and technology-mediated interfaces. The first section below will attend to research frameworks for user studies; the second to design applications.


Look i ng to th e g a p: k now ledg e as verb
The trick, Sense making assumes, is to find a way of thinking about diversity, complexity and incompleteness that neither drowns us in a tower of babel nor imposes homogeneity, simplicity and completeness. Sense making accomplishes this by using and applying a central metaphor the metaphor of human beings traveling through timespace, coming out of situations with history and partial instruction, arriving at new situations, facing gaps, building bridges across those gaps, evaluating outcomes and moving on. The central foundational concepts of the Sense-making methodology are, thus, time, space, movement, gap; step-taking, situation, bridge, outcome. This is a metaphorical framework, not a literal map. While we can usefully assume that life is lived in a linear time-space, in fact our results say that sense making and sense unmaking are not. But the Sensemaking metaphor provides guidance for thinking about people, talking to them, asking questions of them and designing systems to serve them. In capsule it says, look to the gap: this is where you will find the action in sense making and senseunmaking making; in communicating; and, in the creating, seeking, using and rejecting of information and knowledge. When used to understand users and their needs, the metaphor forms the basis of the interpersonal interface between, for example, the interviewer and the user, the receptionist and a caller; the teacher and a student, one colleague and another. Thus, for example, in a library setting the user is asked: What happened that brought you here today? If you could wave a magic wand, how would we help you? What muddles are you facing? Or, in listening to user assessments of their use of a database, the user is asked: What happened that brought you to the database? What happened while using it? What emotions/feelings did you experience? What confusions or questions came to mind? What helps did you get? What helps did you want? What got in your way? Sometimes these time-space-movement


The bottom-line goal of Sense making from its inception has been to find out what users audiences, customers, patients, clients, patrons, employees really think, feel, want, dream.[4] The repeated failures of surveys and studies and the well-documented gap between how administrators/ experts describe users and publics and the realities of what users and publics think and do, particularly when the going gets tough, became Sense makings driving problematic. One of the premises of Sense making is that there is an inherent intertwined connection between how you look at a situation and what sense of it you are able to construct of it. Attending to these issues is often called methodological analysis. Sense making has been developed at one and the same time as both a philosophic and a practical project. This is because at the highest level of abstraction, Sense making assumes that to generate research useful to the design and practice of communicating (in communication, information or knowledge management systems) you must study communication communicatively. To do so is the selfreflexively methodological with methodology referring here to ways of thinking about and selecting research practices not to the research methods themselves. In turn, to study communication communicatively means to do battle with underlying assumptions which lead to the sins Fahey and Prusak expound. Readers who are interested may turn to the bibliography for more extensive accounts of how Sense making has challenged these dragons. My intent here is to lay out briefly the primary

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questions are applied to an overall situation, sometimes to specific micro-moments in the situation. Looking to the gap has allowed our research to break out of picturing users only in the reflections of our own mirrors. For example, our studies have typically found that users attend far more to issues of cause and underlying connections and to comparisons of the different answers constructed by different players in situations than traditional knowledge databases account for. In most knowledge management systems this kind of knowledge is relegated to the subjective and opinion and often not treated as knowledge at all. Other studies have showed how users bring to bear entirely different sets of sense-making criteria when they are sense-making on their own terms. Thus, for example, when users are evaluating answers from knowledge sources that they found not useful, they focus on system criteria (e.g. credibility and expertise) but when they evaluate answers they found useful they turn to time-space-movement (e.g. getting new ways of looking at things, unearthing causes, moving toward destinations). One of our main findings has been that information and knowledge are rarely ends in themselves; they are rather means to ends. By freeing our interface with the user from the systems obsession with information and knowledge, we leave users free to define what is informing on their own terms.

This is one reason Sense making is described as attending to sense making and sense unmaking. The other reason, of course, is that todays knowledge often becomes tomorrows struggle. What emerges then is a different way of thinking about human beings. Their changes, formerly conceptualized as error or chaos, becomes fodder for a new kind of prediction. The issue of what predicts human information seeking and use best has been the most tested of propositions in the line of work driven by Sense making. Across a host of studies, two primary answers emerge: one is that it is rarely person attributes (traits and predispositions) or task or organizational attributes but rather how users conceptualize their movement through timespace and their gap bridging that predicts sense making and sense unmaking best. The second is that under those circumstances when noun-oriented characteristics such as status or demography or personality do predict best, it usually means there is a constraining force operating in the situation, a force which may need attention because it may be limiting sense-making potentials. In the process of addressing issues relating to prediction, Sense-making studies have constructed a set of universal categories of situation-facing based on the concepts of time, space, movement, gap, constraint. One such category scheme codifies the users movement at a moment in time-space as stopped: two or more roads lie ahead (decision); something blocks the road (barrier); the road has disappeared (wash out); someone or something is pulling the user down the road (problematic); the road is spiraled and has no direction (spin-out); or the user blanked out (out-to-lunch stop). The categories, part of a scheme that has become identified as focusing on situation movement, has been pitted against demographic predictors in a number of studies. In each case, situation movement has accounted for far more variance in user internal and external behavior. In short, take ten users facing the same situation, those who see it as a decision involve themselves in knowledge creation and use in markedly different ways from those who see it as a spin-out, or wash-out and so on. Sense-making studies have developed prototypical categories based on the time-space-movement metaphor for situations, gaps (questions), and outcomes (helps and hindrances). These categories form a new kind of human universal. For example, across some 15 years of Sense-making studies the ways in which users evaluate their uses of information system has readily fallen into categories such as: found direction, got a new way of looking at things, got connected to information, got companionship and support, avoided a bad place, got pleasure and joy, arrived where I wanted to.

Beyond r i g i d i ty: a n ew k i nd of pred i c t ion

By focussing on movement and gap, the Sensemaking metaphor forces us to attend to the possibility of change. Instead of focusing on human beings as unchanging entities best described by constancy attributes such as relatively slow to change demographic, personality and life-style characteristics, we must find a different way to conceptualize. This forces our attention to human flexibilities and fluidities as well as their habits and rigidities. For Sense making the answer to attending to people as potentially changeable across time space is to reconceptualize the unit of attention in research and system design from the person to the person-in-situation. In Sense making this is called the sense-making instance. Results and design generalizations are applied not to people but to these instances. The fact that some people repeat sense-making behaviors (internal or external across instances) while others do not can be a secondary attention, but it is not, for Sense making, primary. The other aspect of this fluidity across time space is to admit the tentative and experimental nature of much step-taking into the unknown next moment. A step is taken, an assessment run, a mind changed.


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Another prime example of a new kind of universal is the marked differences found in sense making and sense unmaking, depending on how the actor is attending to other people at a given moment in time-space. Strong predictors of differences include the differences between attending to: self relating to self; self relating to another; self relating to a collectivity; self in a collectivity relating to another; self in a collectivity relating to another collectivity. The point here is this: regardless of whether a person is involved in individual or collaborative work, the business of making sense regarding oneself and ones relationships to others and collectivities are universal mandates. Knowledge creating, seeking and use change as these situational focuses change as the sense-maker moves through time-space. Collaborative work is necessary to knowledge management, but it is not sufficient despite the too widespread assumption that the best knowledge is created only in collaborative settings.

design attention be focussed both on communality and contest. In designing a system, for example, the mandate would be to seek out sites of maximum agreement as well as maximum disagreement. Sense making calls this the circling of perspectives or frameworks, the surrounding of the phenomena in order to reach for that which can never be touched or held still. In actual user studies, the mandate to attend to power has been implemented by the continuing application of questions focussing on the users struggles, constraints, barriers, hurts and hindrances, as well as the users assessments of the relationships between a given moment of sensemaking and the power structures of an organization or society. As one example, in a large-scale study of citizens in the home town of a service company, we learned that a substantial number of citizens felt the company treated its employees unfairly. When asked what impact having come to this conclusion had on their behaviors or thoughts about the company, a substantial number in turn replied that they did not intend to use the companys services. In another study, members of a community oriented toward unity and just inclusion unearthed hidden pockets of disagreement and conflict by asking members where they saw disagreements and collisions and what they saw accounting for these. Three main findings have emerged from this work. One is that users often have highly elaborated theories of how power works, how it is hidden in specific arenas of activity, and how it constrains their sense making and their sharing of their understandings with others. The second is that users have been willing to tell us things that ordinary surveys miss entirely. The third is that if we want users to tell us what they really think and feel, we must make it safe for users to attend to power issues. If this cannot be done in public arenas, then anonymity structures need to be added.

Att e nd i ng to pow er: a n e c essa ry cond i t ion

The core of Sense makings assumptions rests on the idea that knowledge made today is rarely perfectly suited to application tomorrow, and in some cases becomes tomorrows gap. In this view, attending to the unmaking of sense is as important as attending to its making. But, there are two main conditions which make sense unmaking harder to tap. One of these is the long legacy (in the western tradition at least) of assuming that there must be factually definitive right answers to all situations and the incessant programming of our world views to this end. More difficult to handle, however, are the forces of power in society and in organizations, forces that prescribe acceptable answers and make disagreeing with them, even in the face of the evidence of ones own experience, a scary and risky thing to do. Even more difficult is when the forces of power flow through an organization or system hidden and undisclosed. Sense making addresses these difficulties on a number of fronts. One is by understanding that no matter how closed a system, somewhere, someone is making deviant observations, arriving at a sense that would be useful to the entire system if a way can be invented to admit that deviance safely into the discourse. To do this, Sense making mandates particular attention in its interviewing and design interfaces to issues of power. Every sense-making instance, even one that seems factually prescribed, is offered as a time potentially to disagree or find hindrance or exception. Further, across sense-making instances for a group of users, Sense making mandates that analytic and

Disc i p li n i ng c a cophony: mak i ng se nse of d iversi ty

The creating of helpful interfaces is a major mandate of Sense making. One of the difficulties of people talking to one another in the nouns of their worlds is that the nouns do not provide a common language. This appears to be one reason for the repeated attention in knowledge management articles on creating a common language. Of course, some degree of common language is necessary. But, Sense-making assumes that if an interface is designed dialogically and if contributions to the knowledge base are anchored in verbs and in the material conditions within which they arose, an important result is a higher capacity of all parties to

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understand one another. Reading about a best practice, for example, makes little sense without an understanding of the struggle and gaps it was invented to traverse; hearing that someone disagrees with you about a decision can easily lead you to stereotyping the speaker unless you hear as well about the material struggles which have led the person to the position. One way of thinking about this is to say that Sense making mandates the embodiment of knowing by attending to the time, place, and action of its making and unmaking. It is this anchoring in material conditions and action which disciplines the cacophony of diversity. Further, by mandating attention to arenas of maximum disagreement and maximum agreement, Sense making forces attention to the full range of diversities that pertain to a situation. In actual studies, diversity is made manageable by codifying based on the time-space-movement categories described above and by anchoring it in descriptions of material situations and actions. Further, studies have shown that the number of categories needed to account for the same variance in outcomes when described in verbing terms (i.e. time-space-movement-gap) is far fewer then when described based on traditional categories for tapping diversity (e.g. personality and demographic traits). Perhaps the most telling finding of all is that when diversity is treated within Sense makings mandates, users indicate they do not need to know all perspectives on a question to be usefully informed and satisfied with participation. Rather, having a sense of the range and the situational reasons for the differences releases thinking potential.

Emotions are conceptualized by Sense making as playing a role in several important ways. One is that they are a major measure of outcomes for human beings. Systems ignore this at their peril. The second is that emotions play a large role in human capacities to share and cooperate with other people. On the one hand, we need rigorous attention to all manner of points of view. But on the other hand, people work best when they feel good about themselves and being fearful because of differences in viewpoints usually leads to counterproductive emotions and actions. The third emphasis on emotion in Sense making focuses on emotions are a site of human struggles. People talk naturally, for example, about emotions blocking their thinking, or repetitive mistake making driven by emotions. This natural talk is another kind of sense making. In the context of organizations trying to capitalize on human creativity and flexibility, it is a useful kind of knowing. It goes without saying, of course, that it requires an unusual level of safety to be created in the organizational environment. Numerous Sense-making studies have incorporated this enlarged conception of the human knower. In a typical study, for example, it was determined that a group of graduate students had what could best be described as a stereotyped viscerally negative emotion about a certain author. The study then teased out the range of positions on this author and allowed to be aired alternative viewpoints which opened up the possibilities for discussion. In another kind of study, a typical result ranks emotional helps among the primary ways users evaluate the utilities of information systems.

Att e nd i ng to th e fu ll huma n b ei ng: br i ng i ng emot ions out of th e c lose t

Sense making mandates attention to sense making very broadly. It does not distinguish, for example, data from information from knowledge and instead looks for fodder that informs sense making by whatever name it might be called. To this end, ideas and cognitions, feelings and emotions, questions and muddles, Angst and hunches, dreams and wishes are all elicited. With this move, Sense making explicitly places on the agenda for the study and design of communication, information and knowledge systems some aspects of the human condition that have been too long relegated to nonpublic spaces. Sense making mandates attention not only to the material embodiment of knowing, but to the emotional/feeling framings of knowing as well. Sense making assumes that the entire human package body, mind, heart, soul is simultaneously verbed, constantly evolving and becoming, and intricately intertwined.

Disc i p li n i ng us: op e n i ng e a rs a nd eyes

The principles above have all mandated a particular way of looking at and intersecting with users of information, communication and knowledge management systems. Yet, bottom-line, the mandate for change is not directed toward users, but rather toward us researchers and designers. The question is how can we build systems which are maximally useful and responsive to real livingbreathing human beings and the real nitty-gritty, changing conditions of their work and lives. The switch is subtle but important. The question is not how can we reach them, but how can we change ourselves to be useful to them. In this framework, Sense making mandates respectful listening to users as theorists and knowledge-makers in their worlds; as actors who if asked can tell you at least something of what they need. Our evidence shows that what users have to


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say is sometimes hard to hear, but that in fact when the hearing of difference and contest is designed well, designed communicatively, the results can be not only useful, but also fun. Permeating the Sense-making framework is an assumption that all interfaces between human beings and between them and the systems they design to serve them are guided by assumptions about the nature of reality, the nature of human beings and the nature of information and knowledge. Most of our current systems, including knowledge management systems as well as our communication and information systems, are based often implicitly on assumptions of order and certainty: human beings as cognitive and rational; reality as fixable; information and knowledge as describing that reality. These assumptions operate implicitly even while we are extolling the spontaneity and naturalness of collaboration and communication. But the difficulty is this: effective interface and communication is rarely well-described as spontaneous or natural. Communication is designed, whether in antiquity or by hidden forces or hereand-now by us with explicit attention. Sense making attempts to provide a beginning methodology that can discipline that design.

As each participant spoke, other participants recorded on a continuing dialog sheet things they agreed with, things that they disagreed with, things that they found useful, and their questions/ muddles. All contributions were timed. At each step in the dialogue, participants were asked to anchor their contributions into their own life and work conditions (e.g. what led to this?). While participants started with marked animosities toward one another, by the end of the day they were brainstorming ways to help one another. The days proceedings both written and taped were collated and used as a basis for system design. In another ongoing application, participants in a community where each member works on separate but interrelated projects come together weekly to share their work. In the typical format, presenters in a given week are given 20 minutes to describe their projects in these terms: the best of what I have achieved so far, what has helped me so far, the struggles I am facing now, the help I could use now. Then each participant responds in timed rounds in this format: what I admired/found useful was, the connection to my own work is, the struggle I had was, what I think you might find useful is, what I look forward to is. Results of this mode of interaction have yielded overwhelmingly positive evaluations and duplication and adaptation in numerous other settings.


The purpose of this final section is to illustrate the above with a small set of examples. Each of these examples is based on an actual application of Sense making to a real communication/information system or on small scale experimental tests. The examples are selected based on their appropriateness to the knowledge management context and come primarily from Dervin (1988; 1989a; 1992) and Dervin and Dewdney (1986).

Desi gn i ng a pub li c i nforma t ion produ c t

Another frequent application of Sense-making principles has been to the design of public information products newsletters, newspaper coverage and information sheets. In this application, typically users are asked in a Sensemaking way for their reactions to past products and their assessments of what would help them if attended to and what would help others if attended to. The design of the actual newsletter or article then implements Sense-making principles by both attending to aspects which are agreed on and at the same time attending to disagreements and differences in views and what accounts for these differences. In the process. the communicative aim is not the typical presentation of one linear coherent narrative, but rather an analogic exploration of sense-making potentials.

Desi gn i ng i nt era c t ion i n a commun i ty of th i n k ers

Sense making has been applied in numerous situations for more than 20 years to group deliberations, focus groups, graduate and undergraduate classes and so on. In one example, representatives of the various constituencies in an organization were mandated to design the organizations first intranet. The meeting went through a successive series of rounds in which each participant spoke uninterrupted. The rounds focussed in turn on: communication situations in this organization that work well for me; communication situations that have hindered me; if I could wave a magic wand I would want this help.

Desi gn i ng th e i nt erf a c e b e tw ee n a user a nd a sys t em i nt ermed i a ry

Another frequent application of Sense making over the past 20 years has been to the interpersonal interface between a system and its users. A typical example is the library reference desk where

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traditionally librarians had been trained to ask users noun-based questions. Thus, for example, if a user asks: Do you have any books on Renaissance Painters?, the librarian has traditionally been trained to respond: Yes, we do. Do you have a particular painter in mind or a group of painters? Do you want copies of art or biography? Do you want art in color or black and white? Numerous studies have documented the mismatches between users and systems that arise from this typical model of questioning, one that still dominates not just in libraries but in all manner of organizational interfaces with their users. An alternative mode of questioning, called Sensemaking questioning, makes minimal use of nouns and ask the user instead: What happened that brought you here? What question are you trying to answer? What help would you like? If I was able to help, what would you do with it? While no large-scale formal study has been executed, practitioners primarily reference librarians who use the Sense-making questioning approach swear by it, saying that it makes their interchanges with users both more efficient and more effective.

and hindered them. Again, students made utility judgments. After reading the full-length articles, students in both classes did a final rating. Results suggested that the addition of the Sense-making overlay produced a marked improvement in user ability to decide what would be useful.

Design i ng a Sense -mak i ng overl ay to a noun-based k now ledg e b ase

The most complicated application is one that exists primarily in imagination, although aspects of it have been tested in small scale experiments. In this vision, a time-space-movement overlay is laid on top of a traditional noun-based knowledge system. Users are invited to add their entries using Sensemaking categories: What helped? What hindered? What are the barriers? What do you conclude? What emotions/feelings relate? What would help? What things need to be discussed here that arent being discussed? Whose voice needs to be heard that is not being heard? In this vision, users have the option of exploring the Sense-making overlay or the traditional nounoverlay. Within the Sense-making overlay, users can move from helps to hinders to barriers to conclusions to emotions to unheard voices or undiscussed issues as they wish. They can add their comments. They are invited to anchor their contributions in their material conditions (e.g. what happened that leads you to this?) They can always opt for anonymity if they feel they need it. In this vision, computerized tools maintain the last set of comments in a particular track within the system, using a maximum diversity rule for retention.

Desi gn i ng th e e ntr ies for a k now ledg e b ase

While Sense makings work in this terrain has all been experimental, a variety of tests have illustrated the potentials. A primary example is asking users of a given information resource to describe the helps and hindrances they now face when using the resource and to then wave a magic wand telling us the help they would want if anything were possible. In a recent study of uses of books cataloging movies, for example, users indicated that they wanted to be able to search by date, actor, title, director and producer. They made relatively little mention of the standard categories of mystery versus comedy versus romance. But they had high interest in knowing of movies that others thought were like a particular movie, and they were interested in seeing a sample of movie reviews, not just from experts but also from other ordinary viewers like themselves. In another experimental test, we selected a set of journal articles appropriate to a graduate level class, articles for which we had access to the original authors. In one class, we gave the students traditional abstracts and keyword summaries and asked them to anticipate the utility of the articles. In a second class, we had the authors add to the traditional abstracts and keywords one or two paragraphs describing what led them to write the article, what they thought was good about it, what they struggled with in it, and how writing it helped

In the above applications of Sense making to the design of communication, information and knowledge management systems, the design never focusses on arriving at right answers or best knowledge. Rather, the assumption is that under those circumstances where accuracy and factizing are important aspects these will emerge from the Sense-making surround. But the surround allows, as well, other strategies for knowledge making and using. The surround by definition does not mandate, as traditional information/communication systems do, attention to coherency or centrality or certainty, but rather to the unleashing of sense-making potential. Such system designs must by definition be responsive and iterative and open. But Sensemaking research suggests these characteristics are not enough. What is needed is a way of


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conceptualizing knowledge making and using which unleashes sense making for the realities of human situation-facing. This also inherently mandates attentions to ways of bracketing or taming at least in part the impacts of power which constrain human willingness to share and problem solve collaboratively. These are, of course, not small mandates. They offer a radically different conception of what a knowledge management system might be about. It is, however, the conception which 25 years of work on human sense making has led me to conclude we must implement in design if our systems are to be maximally useful to their users. More than that, however, is the fact that the mandate for our systems may be even more serious: the success of our enterprises, the haboring of scarce resources and perhaps even the survival of the species.

The Journal of Knowledge Management , Vol. 1 No. 1, September, pp. 15-26. Dervin, B. (1980), Communication gaps and inequities: moving toward a reconceptualization, in Dervin, B. and Melvin, V. (Eds), Progress in Communication Sciences, Vol. 2, Ablex Publishers, Norwood, NJ, pp. 73-112. Dervin, B. (1983), An overview of Sense making: concepts, methods, results, International Communication Association annual meeting, Dallas, TX, May, http:// art/artdervin83.html, Dervin, B. (1989a), Audience as listener and learner, teacher and confidante: the Sense-making approach, in Rice, R. and Atkins, C. (Eds), Public Communication Campaigns, 2nd ed., Sage, Newbury Park, CA, pp. 67-86. Dervin, B. (1989b), Users as research inventions: how research categories perpetuate inequities, Journal of Communication, Vol. 39 No. 2, pp. 216-32. Dervin, B. (1992), From the minds eye of the user: the Sense-making qualitative-quantitative methodology, in Glazier, J.D. and Powerl, R.R. (Eds), Qualitative Research in Information Management, Libraries Unlimited, Englewood, CO, pp. 61-84. Dervin, B. (1993), Verbing communication: mandate for disciplinary invention, Journal of Communication, Vol. 43, pp. 45-54. Dervin, B. (1994), Information <> democracy: an examination of underlying assumptions, Journal of the American Society for Information Science, Vol. 45 No. 6, July, pp. 369-85. Dervin, B. (1997), Given a context by any other name: methodological tools for taming the unruly beast, in Vakkari, P., Savolainen, R. and Dervin, B. (Eds), Information Seeking in Context, Taylor Graham, London, pp. 13-38. Dervin, B. and Clark, K.D. (1993), Communication and democracy: a mandate for procedural invention, in Spilichal, S. and Wasko, J. (Eds), Communication and Democracy, Ablex Publishers, Norwood, NJ, pp. 103-40. Dervin, B. and Dewdney, P. (1986), Neutral questioning: a new approach to the reference interview, RQ, Summer, pp. 506-13. Fahey, L. and Prusak, L. (1998), The eleven deadliest sins of knowledge management, California Management Review, Vol. 40 No. 3, Spring, pp. 265-75. Gould, S.J. (1996), The Mismeasurement of Man , W.W. Norton & Co, New York, NY. Harrison, E.F. (1993), The anatomy of a flawed decision, Technology in Society, Vol. 15 No. 2, pp. 161-83. Hayles, K.N. (1990), Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science , Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.

Not es
[1] Sense making has been developed since 1972 by Dervin and colleagues. A Web-site is devoted to it, listing articles written by Dervin, and some 600 articles citing the approach in some way:http:// The descriptions presented here present a brush stroke portrait across some 100 studies and applications. Particularly relevant specific presentations include: Dervin (1980; 1983; 1989a; 1989b; 1992; 1993; 1994; 1997), Dervin and Clark (1993) and Dervin and Nilan (1986). A debt is owed to Richard F. Carter without whom the development of Sense making would not have been possible (Carter, 1989, 1991). [2] Particularly relevant is Goulds The Mismeasurement of Man , originally published in 1981 and recently revised (1996). [3] The authors understanding of the field of knowledge management is based on a reading of the relevant items listed in the bibliography.

Bi b liogra phy
Carter, R.F. (1989), Reinventing communication, scientifically, in Kim, H.S. (Ed.), World Community in Post-industrial Society: Continuity and Change, Wooseok, Seoul, Korea, pp. 59-84. Carter, R.F. (1991), Comparative analysis, theory, and cross-cultural communication, Communication Theory , Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 151-8. Clarke, D.S. (1998), Knowledge management (Letter to editor), Sloan Marketing Review, Vol. 39 No. 3, Spring, pp. 4-5. Coulson-Thomas, C.J. (1997), The future of the organization: selected knowledge management issues,

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Lighthall, F.F. (1991), Launching the space-shuttle Challenger: disciplinary deficiencies in the analysis of engineering data, IEEE Transactions of Engineering Management, Vol. 38 No. 1, February, pp. 64-74. Miller, C.M. (1993), Framing arguments in a technical controversy: assumptions about science and technology in the decision to launch the space-shuttle Challenger, Journal of Technical Writing and Communication , Vol. 23 No. 2, pp. 99-114. Norman, D.A. (1993), Toward human-centered design, Technology Review, Vol. 96, pp. 47-53. Norman, D.A. and Spohrer, J.C. (1996), Learner-centered education, Communications of the ACM, Vol. 39, April, pp. 24-49. Vaughan, D. (1997), The trickle-down effect: policy decisions, risky work, and the Challenger tragedy, California Management Review , Vol. 39 No. 2, Winter, pp. 80-6. Wilson, E.O. (1998), Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, Knopf, New York.

Eisenberg, H. (1997), Reegineering and dumbsizing: mismanagement of the knowledge resource, Quality Progress, Vol. 30, May, pp. 57-64. Glazer, R. (1998), Measuring the knower: toward a theory of knowledge equity, California Management Review, Vol. 40 No. 3, Spring, pp. 175-94. Knott, D. (1997), Get smarter by sharing ideas, Oil & Gas Journal, Vol. 95, May 26, p. 32. Liebowitz, J. (1998), Expert systems: an integral part of knowledge management, Kybernetes , Vol. 27 No. 2, pp. 170-8. Manville, B. and Foote, N. (1996), Harvest your workers knowledge, Datamation, Vol. 42, July, pp. 78-80+. OLeary, D.E. (1998a), Knowledge management systems: converting and connecting, IEEE Intelligent Systems , Vol. 13 No. 3, May-June, pp. 30-48. OLeary, D.E. (1998b), Using AI in knowledge management: knowledge cases and ontologies, IEEE Intelligent Systems, Vol. 13 No. 3, May/June, pp. 34-9. Ruggles, R. (1998), The state of the notion: knowledge management in practice, California Management Review, Vol. 40 No. 3, Spring, pp. 80-9. Sieloff, C. (1998), Knowledge management (Letter to editor), Sloan Management Review, Vol. 39 No. 3, Spring, p. 4. Skyrme, D. and Amidon, D. (1997), The knowledge agenda, The Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 1 No. 1, September, pp. 27-37. Teece, D.J. (1998), Research directions in knowledge management, California Management Review, Vol. 40 No. 3, Spring, pp. 289-92. Wiig, K.M. (1997), Knowledge management: an introduction and perspective, The Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 1 No. 1, September, pp. 6-14. Zuckerman, A. and Buell, H. (1998), Is the world ready for knowledge management?, Quality Progress, Vol. 31 No. 6, June, pp. 81-4.

Sugg es t ed re a d i ng
Abecker, A., Bernardi, A., Hinkelmann, K., Khn, O. and Sintek, M. (1980), Toward a technology for organizational memories, IEEE Intelligent Systems, Vol. 13 No. 3, May/June, pp. 40-48. Baker, M. and Barker, M. (1997), Leveraging human capital, The Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 1 No. 1, September, pp. 63-74. Been, K. (1998), Knowledge management (Letter to editor), Sloan Management Review, Vol. 39 No. 3, Spring, p. 4. Chase, R.L. (1997), The knowledge-based organization: an international survey, The Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol. 1 No. 1, September, pp. 38-49. Davenport, T.H., DeLong, D.W. and Beers, M.C. (1998), Successful knowledge management projects, Sloan Management Review, Vol. 39 No. 2, Winter, pp. 43-57. Dervin, B. and Nilan, M. (1986), Information needs and uses: a conceptual and methodological review, Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, Vol. 21, pp. 3-33.

Brenda Dervin is Professor of Communications at Ohio State University, USA. E-mail:


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