When collaborative innovation groups span knowledge domain boundaries, we have the additional complexity of distributed sensemaking. Boundary-spanning groups find it difficult to develop a common language for collaboration — often because they use similar terms to mean different things, or because they frame salient aspects of the problem-situation in different ways. We cannot, therefore, use the typical, goal-directed methods that we would use with a homogeneous design group (for example, IT professionals engaged in software design). We need methods that represent and permit reconciliation of the multiple frames of meaning encompassed by boundary-spanning collaborators.

Managing Distributed Sensemaking in the Solution of Wicked Problems

I have explored the processes underlying the co-design of business processes and information systems in boundary-spannning groups across multiple studies. We are faced with a wicked problem: one that can only be resolved through stakeholder argumentation, rather than analysis. Choices in the design of technology and the effects of alternative forms of technology on work are formed by definitions of organizational problems and, in turn, affect how organizational problems are defined. So design choices are emergent. Technology and process design, organizational innovation, problem-solving, and management decision-making are inextricably intertwined. The critical issue for organizational problem-solving and design groups is how we manage distributed sensemaking in collaborative knowledge processes. In groups with little shared experience or background – such as the typical enterprise systems design group, which is constituted of managers from different business groups and knowledge domains, understanding is stretched across group-members rather than shared between them. This concept is shown in Figure 1.


Figure 1. Distributed Sensemaking in Boundary-Spanning Groups

Most collaboration methods, whether focused on enterprise systems design, business process redesign, cross-functional problem-solving, or IT support for business innovation, employ a decompositional approach, which fails dramatically because of distributed sensemaking. Group members cannot just share what they know about the problem, because each of them is sensitized by their background and experience to see a different problem (or at least, different aspects of the problem).  Goals for change evolve, as stakeholders piece together what they collectively know about the problem-situation — a process akin to assembling a jigsaw-puzzle. (Productive) conflict and explicit boundary negotiation are avoided because group-members lack a common language for collaboration so misunderstandings are ascribed to political game-playing. We need design and problem-solving approaches that support the distributed knowledge processes underpinning creativity and innovation — approaches that recognize and embrace problem emergence, boundary-negotiation, and the development of shared understanding.

Selected Papers:

Gasson, S. (2013) Framing Wicked Problems In Enterprise-System Design Groups, Ch. 4 in Boundary-Spanning in Organizations: Network, Influence, and Conflict, Janice Langan-Fox and Cary L. Cooper (Eds.), Routledge, Taylor and Francis, New York.

Gasson, S. (2006)A Genealogical Study of Boundary-Spanning IS Design, European Journal of Information Systems, Special issue on Action in Language, Organizations and Information Systems. 15 (1), pp. 1-16.

DeLuca, D., Gasson, S., and Kock, N. (2006) ‘Adaptations That Virtual Teams Make So That Complex Tasks Can Be Performed Using Simple e-Collaboration Technologies‘, International J. of e-Collaboration, 2 (3), pp. 65-91.

Gasson, S. (2005) The Dynamics Of Sensemaking, Knowledge and Expertise in Collaborative, Boundary-Spanning Design, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication (JCMC), 10 (4). http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol10/issue4/gasson.html

Gasson, S. (1998)Framing Design: A Social Process View of Information System Development, in Proceedings of ICIS ’98, Helsinki, Finland, December 1998, pp. 224-236.

Achieving Shared Understanding in Online Learning Environments

Online learning environments support a Community of Inquiry, whose members present a system of distributed cognition as shown in Figure 1. As for organizational groups, the critical challenges lie in managing a group of diverse perspectives, who lack a common lexical or representational vocabulary. Our studies have revealed the key role of peer- and vicarious learning, coupled with the development of shared representations (“thinking tools”), in moving from a set of learners to a community of inquiry. We have developed techniques that enable us to evaluate the degree of social engagement with the course community, providing a proxy measure for social-constructivist learning.

Selected Papers:

Waters, J. & Gasson, S. (2015) “Supporting Metacognition in Online, Professional Graduate Courses.” Proceedings of Hawaii Intl. Conference on System Sciences (HICSS-48), Jan. 5-8, 2015. Advances in Teaching and Learning Technologies minitrack, Collaboration Systems and Technologies.

Gasson, S. & Waters, J. (2013) ‘Using A Grounded Theory Approach To Study Online Collaboration Behaviors,’ European Journal of Information Systems (2013) 22, 95–118. doi:10.1057/ejis.2011.24; published online 5 July 2011. http://www.palgrave-journals.com/ejis/journal/v22/n1/full/ejis201124a.html

Waters, J. and Gasson, S. (2012) Using Asynchronous Discussion Boards To Teach IS: Reflections From Practice, Proceedings of the International Conference on Information Systems, ICIS 2012, Orlando, USA, December 16-19, 2012. Association for Information Systems 2012, ISBN 978-0-615-71843-9, http://aisel.aisnet.org/icis2012/proceedings/ISCurriculum/9/

Gasson, S., and Agosto, D.E. (2008) ‘Millennial Students & Technology Use: Implications for Undergraduate Education,’ in: Education in HCI; HCI in Education – The HCIC 2008 Winter Workshop, Jan. 30 – Feb. 3., 2008. Fraser, CO. http://www.hcic.org/uploads/Gasson1178.pdf

Waters, J. and Gasson, S. (2006) ‘Social Engagement In An Online Community Of Inquiry’ in Proceedings of ICIS ’06, Milwaukee, WI, paper HCI-03. [Full research paper].