On narrative, sensemaking, and volunteering

I did promise on Saturday that my next blog post would be on narrative, sensemaking, and the volunteering project. However, Doris Lessing did come between posts with an earlier blog post this afternoon.

Looking at my notes from the debrief from the volunteering project on Friday, I took this point from Dave Snowden’s introductory remarks on complexity and sensemaking, and the wisdom of crowds: distributed cognition is all about the wider network of individuals from which the capability of finding out is greater than the individual on their own. One reason for business to seriously consider distributed cognition with people networks is the need to do more with less resources. By using networks, knowledge can be leveraged more efficiently.

Another key point related to “weak signals” – if we don’t expect something, we don’t see it. Dave showed the basketball video and I won’t steal his thunder with a link, albeit I have now seen Dave present this video three or four times now. One of the problems in looking at something is that we often overlook vital bits of information that, at the time, don’t seem relevant. The human brain actually filters out much of what we perceive in order to avoid overloading our brains with too much sensory perception.

And, it wouldn’t be a Dave Snowden talk without the mention of pattern sequencing. Humans rely on patterns developed at a young age from which the brain forms preferences related to stored experiences and information. These patterns are modified over time so that, for example, consistent patterns emerge to explain behaviours in standardised contexts. Patterns are fractal in nature from which we filter our perceptions (stereotypes are one manifestation of this). A consequence of this is entrained thinking, where our experiences and perspectives and personal learnings tend to override anything that is contrary or different. The human brain and perceptions of the environment exist as a complex landscape from which decision-making takes place. And this in turn gives us meaning.

Something that will help us is a system for the natural process of inquiry – human-pattern processes, not information processing. Information processing is too structured and more specific to time of analysis. Alternatively, narrative techniques are more useful and more relevant since they convey meaning (from the viewpoint of the person telling the story) and they relate to context. The telling of stories and the identification of meaning ascribed to them by the tellers of those stories are powerful sources of meaning, especially when aggregated. In addition, the telling of a story is a more human communication method developed over milennia whilst information processing is a 20th century phenomenon.

For more information, I recommend the Kurtz and Snowden paper on the new dynamics of strategy: sense-making in a complex and complicated world.

And the volunteering project? Well, using the sensemaking software developed by Cognitive Edge, stories are being elicited from people who volunteer or manage volunteers in the community services sector. The project hopes to capture one to two thousand stories between now and February 2008 (almost one thousand have already been collected). The aim is to discover what people believe to be the benefits and barriers of volunteering in community services so that effective policies and strategies can be put into place to help and encourage more people to take up volunteering.

The debrief on Friday was a work-in-progress and focused on the largest data set, the 17-59 year old demographic. The software powerfully showed a range of relationships but more stories are required to enhance scale and emphasise trends across all ages. One of the interesting outcomes from the survey so far has been the identification of post-graduate educated, full-time working people as the biggest group in the community services volunteering pool.

So far, contributions have come via the survey on the internet but a phone-in is scheduled for February 2008. More details later.

In conclusion, for me, the session reinforced the importance of meaning and context in understanding the complex space in which humans work and interact.

Download future_of_volunteering_overview.doc

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