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ReAppreciating Richard Saul Wurman

Updated: Sep 21, 2023

Starving for Understanding?

Required historical background reading for anyone joining Humantific is Richard Saul Wurman’s Information Anxiety, published in this first edition in 1989. Years later Richard did a refresh and republished the book as Information Anxiety 2. The later version is easier to find than the original book. Either is recommended if you want to better understand the remarkable time-warp story of how the Understanding Business, the Explaining Business, the SenseMaking Business actually preceded, by decades, the Big Data business.

Of course, all of the technology-related references inside Information Anxiety are now dated, but Richard’s central message remains even more relevant today than when it first appeared. Forget all the Big Data buzz for a moment. It was 20+ years ago that Richard began expressing concern about “the black hole between data and knowledge”and “the widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand”. It is rather amazing to consider Information Anxiety in the timeline of technology history. It was in 1989 that the world-wide-web began appearing in public and Apple introduced its Mac SE/30 and the Mac 11ci, running at 25 MHz with an 80 megabyte hard drive!

By 1996 Richard Wurman was exclaiming in his book, Information Architects, that “a tsunami of data is crashing onto the beaches of the civilized world. This is a tidal wave of unrelated, growing data formed in bits and bytes, coming in an unorganized, uncontrolled, incoherent cacophony of foam.” In Richard’s world, Information Architects are the dune on the beach, the beachhead, the enablers of sensemaking and facilitators of understanding. Suffice it to say that not everyone in the later-to-arrive Information Architecture community got that memo. (A fascinating story for another day.)

Wurman is among a relatively small group of sensemaking-oriented thinkers who figured out early on that what is important is not the data, but rather the understanding, the making sense of it. If you look at the present, relatively early cycle of the Big Data wave, this realization regarding the importance of sensemaking is only just starting to emerge.

At the moment in the Big Data phenomenon cycle, tons of beauty-oriented graphics are being thrown up on the web every day – a small fraction of which have anything to do with helping others reach understanding.

Always bridging scholarly thinking and everyday practice (a word he does not like), Richard Wurman was among the first to figure out that helping others reach their own understanding in the face of information complexity could be a business; ie the understanding business, the sensemaking business. Awareness of such professional expertise was not widespread in 1989. In Karl Weick’s 1995 parallel universe book, SenseMaking in Organizations, you will find no realization that professional sensemaking expertise existed at that time. Richard Wurman and Karl Weick were thinking around the same subject, using slightly different words and from very different perspectives. (See SenseMaking / The Weick Question below)

In Richard’s world there has always been a building block hierarchy from low to high value, which builds from data to wisdom like this:

Wisdom Knowledge Information Data

Moving through the cycle with the ultimate goal of reaching Wisdomis the trajectory that Richard had in mind.

Today in Humantific’s world, we are working towards and enabling constructive action, cocreated meaningful change, not just wisdom–and to get there we are helping organizations make sense of much more than just data sets. To drive all the way through to action, to changemaking, we are utilizing an expanded toolbox. Regardless, Wurman’s underlying logic frame remains valid in our work today. We embrace Richard’s perspective that the real value is in the sensemaking.

Savvy organizational leaders well know that business fads come and go. The value and importance of visual sensemaking remains constant. The truth is, recognition of the importance of sensemaking as a leadership and organizational capacity is on the rise across every industry.

Looking ahead it seems likely that the Big Data wave will cycle through, and eventually catch up to, Richard’s 1989-1996 vision and realizations regarding the importance of understanding!

Now an international butt-kicking celebrity, Richard Saul Wurman remains a significance presence in the ever evolving understanding business community and for us an always inspiring force of nature.

Richard Saul Wurman quotes: Here are three of our favorites:

“Understanding is a path, not a point. It’s a path of connections between thought and thought; patterns over patterns.” Richard Saul Wurman

 “The key to making things understandable is to understand what it’s like not to understand.” Richard Saul Wurman

“The kingdom of understanding is ruled by the emperor, Diagram. The kingdom, rich in fiefdoms, is filled with inherent rules and applications.” Richard Saul Wurman

Background to the Background

Humantific CoFounder Elizabeth Pastor and I met many years ago while working for Richard Wurman in New York City. We remember what it was like to work on projects with Richard and that level of expected excellence informs our own work with clients today. Since those early days we have added many tools to the Humantific toolkit, but a high degree of precision around visual sensemaking remains a central ingredient.


Making Sense of SenseMaking

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1 Comment

Unknown member
Mar 23, 2022

I’m a suicidologist. For over 30 years I’ve been using visual “Maps, Models, & Metaphors” to help my suicidal clients visualize (“conceptualize”) the “upstream” complexity of their core problem that has nothing to do with the “downstream” SYMPTOM that is called “suicide.”

It has been said that “to prevent suicide it needs to be properly conceptualized.”

i’ve recently learned about “Visual Sense Making”” and it makes perfect “sense!”

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