Visualization (Sensemaking) in Rapid Agile Learning Design

Common definitions of visualization usually read something like, “to form a mental image,” thus we often think of visualization as being a simple solo technique, such as picturing “a dog eating a bone” or “a person doing the right thing.” However in an organization context, visualization is much more complex in that while it involves an image of the working environment, it is also a complex process that is very social in nature.

The Visualization Framework

Visualization is often used interchangeably with sensemaking—making sense of the world we live and operate in, and then acting within that framework of understanding to achieve desired goals. Thus visualization is not just a shared (social) image with intent, it also implies ACTION. This framework can be used for building agile or rapid learning designs, fixing performance problems, implementing informal learning solutions, etc.

Visualization Framework

The Visualization Process

Visualization Framework (opens larger image in a new window)

The start of a visualization process is often sparked by a cue from the environment, such as an increase in customer complaints; or a team charged with improving a process. The steps within the visualization or sensemaking framework include (Leedom, McElroy, Shadrick, Lickteig, Pokorny, Haynes, Bell, 2007):

1. Triggering cues (information that acts as a signal) from the environment are perceived by the people in a Community of Interest (CoI). These cues may be picked up by one or more members of the CoI. A couple of examples of triggering cues might be an increase in the number of customer complaints or an unexpected drop in production.

2.Triggering cues create a situational anomaly—facts that do not fit into the framework of familiar mental models. Detection of these anomalies violate the expectancies of the members of the CoI and creates a need for change (improvement).

Note: A mental model is a structure or frame that is built from past experience and becomes part of an individual’s store of tacit knowledge. It is comprised of feature slots that can be instantiated by information describing a current situation (such as triggering cues). Its functional purpose allows a person to assess the situation, take a course of action, follow causal pathways, and recognize constraints in order to achieve a set of goals for actively confronting the situation. Fragmentary mental models can often be linked together to form a just-in-time explanation of a situation. Examples of a mental model include a chess player reacting to a move on the chessboard, a doctor diagnosing a medical condition, or an instructional designer solving a performance problem.

3. Specific data from the information environments trigger the mental activation of familiar mental models. The members of the CoI analyze and discuss the anomalies until they discover a purposeful structure or pattern for interpreting the new information. This transforms the problem space into various solutions. This process of “pattern matching” starts the basis for constructing new or revised mental models. Since patterns differ among the members, they collaborate by telling stories, metaphors, etc. to build common understanding.

4. Activation of a specific mental model is typically triggered by matching salient facts to one or two key features that uniquely anchor a new model that the CoI can agree upon. Tacit knowledge or intuition is often used to build mental models and the degree of tacit knowledge will vary among the members, thus they use a “negotiation process” to ensure all needs are met (or at least prioritize them according to available resources).

5. An action plan is used to instill the selected mental model into the work space in order to transform it to the desired state (during the visualization process intent must always be associated with action, otherwise it is just wistful thinking). The action plan includes the final development of any needed content, material, or products. Once all the pieces are put together, the action plan is implemented.

6. New information from the transformation process is perceived by the CoI, which in turn processes it to determine if the patterns match their desired mental model.

7. If the new information does not match the CoI's newly constructed mental model (situational anomalies are again perceived and they may or may not differ from the original ones), then the visualization process begins anew.

Probing and Shaping

While the visualization process does use passive information that derives from experience and expertise, it also involves the proactive use of shaping actions to reduce risk and uncertainty and probing actions to discover system effect opportunities that can then be exploited.

Probing develops greater understanding by experimentally testing the operational environment, such as asking questions, Cognitive Task Analysis, or immersing oneself in the troubled environment to discover new information. These probing actions help to illuminate key structures and linkages within the environment.

Shaping is taking an incentive action to discover new information in order to determine if it aids in transforming the troubled environment to meet the new mental model. Prototyping may be used as a shaping tool—an iterative process of implementing successive small-scale tests in order to permit continual design refinements. There are normally two types of prototypes:

  • Design Iteration (interpretive) — the iteration is performed to test a learning method, function, feature, etc. of the action plan to determine if it is valid.
  • Release Iteration (statistical) — the iteration is released as a product to the business unit or customer. Although it may not be fully completed or functional, the designers believe that it is good enough to be of use.

Probing actions serve to illuminate additional elements and linkages within the visualization space that can then be subsequently exploited for operational advantage.

Visualization is Dynamic, Not Static

The visualization or sensemaking framework in not linear, but rather a dynamic process that may flow in any direction, for example:

The Dynamics of Visualization

Dynamics of the visualization process

Dynamics of the Visualization Framework (opens larger image in a new window)

A Community of Interest holds a vested interests when faced with a troubling situation, thus they need a dynamic model that aids them in fulfilling their mission within complex environments. The military has a term called “center of gravity,” which is defined as the source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or the will to act. It is seen as the source of strength of the organization. The ability to act upon and transform an under-performing environment through the use of visualization or sensemaking is an essential attribute in an rapidly moving environment in that it helps to ensure the center of gravity stays balanced.


Leedom, D. K., McElroy, W., Shadrick, S. B., Lickteig, C., Pokorny, R. A., Haynes, J. A., Bell, J. (2007). Cognitive Task Analysis of the Battalion Level Visualization Process. Arlington, VA: United States Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences. Technical Report 1213. Retrieved on January 5, 2012 from http://www.hqda.army.mil/ari/pdf/TR1213.pdf


@MayraAixaVillar said...

Great post, as always! Very interesting analysis on visualization dynamics that could bring us new perspectives to enhance our practices as instructional designers. So, according to the framework you´ve presented here, when designing a learning experience, we should start with a problem/situation which challenges the learners to perform job-related actions. The learners will need to collaborate with peers to find the solution (create patterns) and build mental models. They will also need to test possible approaches to that problem and shape it up effectively through incentive actions. In this way, learners will be developing new skills that can be applied to their jobs and, in turn, transform (=improve) certain work routines and procedures. And all this leads to new valuable information for the learner´s and company´s development. Am I right?

Donald Clark said...

That is a great insight! I was actually thinking more along the lines of it being an alternative for ISD.

In ISD we think more along the lines of creating content to help transfer skills and knowledge to the learners. Visualization differs from ISD in that it is more about transferring mental models.

Of course they both do approximately the same thing in that content is basically an artifact of a mental model.