Distributed Sensemaking in Wicked Problems

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.

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.

Venn diagram, showing intersubjective frames,  intersections of understanding between 2 stakeholders, and distributed cognition as the union of all frames

Figure 1. Venn Diagram Illustrating Different Categories of “Shared” Understanding

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.