Sensemaking and Visualization
Common definitions of visualization usually read something like, “to form a mental image,” thus we often think of think of visualization as being a simple solo technique, such as picturing “a dog eating a bone” or “a person doing the right thing.” However in an organization context, visualization is much more complex in that while it involves an image of the working environment, it is also a complex process that is very social in nature.
The Sensemaking Framework
Visualization is often used interchangeably with sensemaking—making sense of the world we live in and then acting within that framework of understanding to achieve desired goals. Thus visualization or sensemaking is not just a shared (social) image with intent, it also implies ACTION. This sensemaking framework is composed of seven basic steps as shown below (Leedom, McElroy, Shadrick, Lickteig, Pokorny, Haynes, Bell, 2007):
Visualization Framework (opens larger image in a new window)
The sensemaking process begins with a cue from the environment, such as an increase in customer complaints, an unexpected drop in production, or a team charged with improving a process who discover a glitch in the system :
1. Triggering cues (information that acts as a signal) from the environment are perceived by one or more people in a Community of Interest.
2.Triggering cues create a situational anomaly—the facts do not fit into their framework of familiar mental models. Detection of these anomalies violate the expectancies of the members of the Community of Interest and creates a need for change (improvement).
Note: A mental model (sometimes called a mental map) is a structure or frame that is built from past experience and becomes part of an individual’s store of tacit knowledge. It is comprised of feature slots that can be instantiated by information describing a current situation (such as triggering cues). Its functional purpose allows a person to assess the situation, take a course of action, follow causal pathways, and recognize constraints in order to achieve a set of goals for actively confronting the situation. Fragmentary mental models are often linked together to form a just-in-time mental model of the situation. Examples of a mental model include a chess player reacting to a move on the chessboard, a doctor diagnosing a medical condition, or an instructional designer solving a performance problem. Note that we don't keep a particular mental model in our brain at our times, but rather it is reconstructed when needed (Pinker, 1997).
3. Specific data from the information environments trigger the mental activation of familiar mental models. The members of the Community of Interest analyze and discuss the anomalies until they discover a purposeful structure or pattern for interpreting the new information. This transforms the problem space into various solutions. This process of “pattern matching” starts the basis for constructing new or revised mental models. Since patterns differ among the members, they collaborate by telling stories, metaphors, etc. to build common understanding.
4. Activation of a specific mental model is typically triggered by matching salient facts to one or two key features that uniquely anchor a new model that the Community of Interest can agree upon. Tacit knowledge or intuition is often used to build mental models and the degree of tacit knowledge will vary among the members, thus they use a “negotiation process” to ensure all needs are met (or at least prioritize them according to available resources).
5. An action plan is used to instill the selected mental model into the work space in order to transform it to the desired state (during the visualization process intent must always be associated with action, otherwise it is just wistful thinking). The action plan includes the final development of any needed content, material, or products. Once all the pieces are put together, the action plan is implemented.
6. New information from the transformation process is perceived by the Community of Interest, which in turn processes it to determine if the patterns match their desired mental model.
7. If the new information does not match the Community of Interest's newly constructed mental model (situational anomalies are again perceived and they may or may not differ from the original ones), then the visualization process begins anew.
Probing, Shaping, & Modeling
While the visualization process does use passive information that derives from experience and expertise, it also involves the proactive use of shaping actions to reduce risk and uncertainty, probing actions to discover system effect opportunities that can then be exploited, and modeling actions to test and/or transform the environment.
Modeling is similar to shaping in that it aids in transforming the troubled environment to meet the new mental model, but rather than using prototypes, it uses people (models) to test and transform the environment.
Modeling is a frequently used method to aid in the learning process. Albert Bandura (1977) discovered that it can be a more efficient way of learning than trial and error and that there were five main processes of modeling:
- Acquisition - New responses are learned by observing a model.
- Inhibition - A response that otherwise may be made is changed when the observer sees a model being punished.
- Disinhibition - A reduction in fear by observing a model's behavior go unpunished in a feared activity.
- Facilitation - A model elicits a pre-learned response from an observer.
- Creativity - Observing several models performing and then adapting a combination of characteristics or styles.
In addition, there are two broad categories of modeling, behavioral and cognitive (Jonassen, 1999). Behavioral modeling demonstrates psychomotor skill and involves skillful use of the demonstrated act. Cognitive modeling is more complex in that it models a decision-making process by talking aloud about the considerations taken into account and then explaining the rationale for the final result. Thus, the learner in is not engaged in direct imitation, but rather the use of similar strategies in a related context.
In both cases learners observe the target action (behavioral modeling) or reasoning (cognitive modeling) as presented by an expert or a more experienced peer, thus it is part of social learning.
Probing develops greater understanding by experimentally testing the operational environment, such as asking questions, Cognitive Task Analysis, or immersing oneself in the troubled environment to discover new information. These probing actions help to illuminate key structures and linkages within the environment.
Shaping is taking an incentive action to discover new information in order to determine if it aids in transforming the troubled environment to meet the new mental model. Prototyping may be used as a shaping tool—an iterative process of implementing successive small-scale tests in order to permit continual design refinements. There are normally two types of prototypes:
- Design Iteration (interpretive) — the iteration is performed to test a learning method, function, feature, etc. of the action plan to determine if it is valid.
- Release Iteration (statistical) — the iteration is released as a product to the business unit or customer. Although it may not be fully completed or functional, the designers believe that it is good enough to be of use.
Probing actions serve to illuminate additional elements and linkages within the visualization space that can then be subsequently exploited for operational advantage.
Visualization is Dynamic, Not Static
The visualization or sensemaking framework in not linear, but rather a dynamic process that may flow in any direction, for example:
The Dynamics of Visualization
Dynamics of the Visualization Framework (opens larger image in a new window)
A Community of Interest holds a vested interests when faced with a troubling situation, thus they need a dynamic model that aids them in fulfilling their mission within complex environments. The military has a term called “center of gravity,” which is defined as the source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or the will to act. It is seen as the source of strength of the organization. The ability to act upon and transform an under-performing environment through the use of visualization or sensemaking is an essential attribute in an rapidly moving and complex environment in that it helps to ensure the center of gravity stays balanced.
Next chapter: OODA
Strategies are similar to visions in that they are forward-looking, thus they are related to visions. While tactics are “present” orientated. See Strategy & Tactics.
Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice–Hall.
Jonassen, D. H. (1999). Designing constructivist learning environments. In C. M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-Design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory (pp. 215–239). Mahwah,
NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Leedom, D. K., McElroy, W., Shadrick, S. B., Lickteig, C., Pokorny, R. A., Haynes, J. A., Bell, J. (2007). Cognitive Task Analysis of the Battalion Level Visualization Process. Alexandria, VA: U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences. Technical Report 1213.
Pinker, Steven (1997). How the Mind Works. New York: W. W. Norton & Company
U.S. Army (1987). Leadership and Command at Senior Levels. FM 22-103.