Sensemaking Tools

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Shared Understanding is a critical prerequisite for High-Performance Collaboration. Sensemaking is a fundamental part of this process. The more complex the goal, the more important this sensemaking process becomes.

Consider the following thought experiment: Suppose you had a million piece jigsaw puzzle and a thousand people tasked to solve it. What would be the process and tools for achieving this?

Think about this for a moment. The biggest challenge is coordination. Even if you are an expert puzzle solver, and you know exactly how to solve this problem, how do you get the word out and gain the trust of your peers?

The best process for solving this problem would be to project an image of the final solution, so that everyone had a Shared Understanding of where they needed to go. That sensemaking process would be enough to catalyze the Collective Intelligence of the group.


Visualization is a powerful tool for sensemaking.


  • They Rule. A site that visualizes the connections between board members of the top corporations.
  • Sunlight Foundation is doing tremendous work visualizing public government data.


There are some excellent visual tools for sensemaking. Visual Facilitation at face-to-face meetings are excellent for this, and they work well for real-time Online Conferencing as well. Generally, Visual Facilitation depends on one or a few people mapping and modeling the discussion. There are also techniques that are more participatory in nature.

Digital sensemaking tools include:

These tools have been less successful when used asynchronously and collectively. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • Many of these tools depend on some grammar or ontology (e.g. pros, cons, facts, opinions). Synthesizing arguments using these formal-ish grammars is hard. Expecting people to be able to do so without training and practice is unrealistic.
  • Most of these tools are not designed to be social (a failing of many poor online collaborative tools). For example, being able to trace the history of some synthesis builds trust and overcomes fears of "breaking" things, thus encouraging participation.

Some tools which do a reasonably good job of addressing this challenges include:

Asynchronous Visual Sensemaking

Given the immature state of online, visual sensemaking tools, what are some alternatives?

One strategy is to facilitate simple transactions that could lead to useful visualizations. A simple example of this is Tagging. Tagging is not cognitively difficult if you are open-ended about it (i.e. you don't require conformance to some pre-determined ontology). If you can derive a useful visualization from people's tags conversations, then that might encourage more Tagging.

Another strategy is to overlay a visualization (which is primarily created by one or a few people) on top of a conversation and link to the appropriate places. This is essentially what happens with Visual Facilitation, except that the resulting images or nodes would be linked to the actual conversation, and hence, would be traceable. This could be done with existing tools, as long as conversations are addressable. Here's an example of a Dialogue Mapping visualization that was created and linked to a mailing list discussion.

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