Seeing the sense-making dance

“Artefacts without participation do not carry their own meaning; and participation without artefacts is fleeting, unanchored and uncoordinated.” – Etienne Wenger in “Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems: the Career of a Concept” in Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, 2010. (Chris Blackmore, ed.).

It is the beginning of the third week of the academic quarter here at the Master’s Program in Learning & Organizational Change and at least two things remain consistent year after year: The winter weather in Chicago and the concepts that (re)capture my attention. The latter is generally more worthwhile dwelling on than the former.

Wenger’s phrase from his chapter in the Blackmore book jumps out as one of those elegant lines that captures something profoundly simple but ultimately complex. And as someone who is both a practicing educator and who focuses on the field of knowledge management, I find this to be one of those anchoring ideas that is worth returning to as a guiding principle in evaluating the work we do. Do we recognize (and acknowledge) the types of things we produce — documents, blog posts, tweets, pictures, videos — as part of a dance designed to creating meaning? Or are we deaf to the music?

As an educator, I am fascinated by how students in my classes create unique paths to discovering something meaningful about the topics we cover. It’s most evident to me in the things that are posted to the online community we create for each course session – the visible artifacts of our knowledge creating efforts. Some students use the micro-blogging feature to essentially take public notes (the Wenger quote above was once such micro-note). Others concentrate on building off of other students’ blog posts – they enrich the dialogue and scaffold off of ideas. Still others share and write thoughtful pieces that can stand on their own or work as starting points for new paths of dialogue. Videos appear in the community about news or people of interest.

It all looks pretty messy at times. But underneath it you can often detect a series of themes or line of thinking, or bits of micro-sense-making. (An example of what I mean by micro-sense-making can be seen in this Google+ conversation on lurking.).

This ability to detect themes and lines-of-thinking is relatively more straightforward in a course setting that allows routine interaction with a common group of people. The challenge that intrigues me, though, as a knowledge management professional, is this: How do we get better at seeing the sense-making dance at 10x, 100x or 1000x the scale of a typical class?

Additional note added 16-Jan: What Wenger’s phrase leads me to wondering is, just what specific types of digital artifacts might be cues to important points in the knowledge sharing/creation process? (And the context here being enterprise knowledge management and collaboration). When we think about trying to measure the value of these E2.0 environments we typically look at participation data (number of people, time spent in digital activity, etc.) or we do some rear-view mirror analysis based on participants telling us stories of where and how they found value.

But – what if we could define and identify specific types of artifacts as indicators of key sense-making moments? What if we could look for the presence of those artifacts as indicators of something valuable happening? Or what if we could design spaces so that these key artifacts stand out a bit more? Wikis provide some insight here; the wiki article is the current state of best-thinking/research, while the discussion and editing functions allow all the messing sense-making and dialogue to happen.

The point is: I just am somewhat unsatisfied in my own practitioner’s capability to look at a large-scale collaboration system and “see” cues of real learning and knowledge-sharing happening — at least in the same way that I can see it on smaller scales. I’m looking for the tools to develop a practice of digital archeology.