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Reading :: Sensemaking in Organizations

Posted by: on May 13, 2013 | No Comments
Sensemaking in Organizations
By Karl E. Weick

Weick's Sensemaking in Organizations is often cited by people working in (or on the edges of) organizational science, org comm, and related areas. Sensemaking is "literally, the making of sense" in an organization (p.4), something that is distinct from interpretation.

That's awfully vague, isn't it? Forgive me for being vague, but Weick tends to define by discussing what sensemaking is not, or by describing others' conflicting definitions, or by giving examples (pp.4-5). At least that's what I found when I looked up "sensemaking: definition" in the index. But we can learn something about sensemaking from these moves as well.

First, sensemaking is not interpretation. It's "grounded in both individual and social activity" (p.6). It's "about such things as placement of items into frameworks, comprehending, redressing surprise, constructing meaning, interacting in pursuit of mutual understanding, and patterning" (p.6). In contrast to interpretation, it addresses "how the text is constructed as well as how it is read. Sensemaking is about authoring as well as reading" (p.7). Drawing on Garfinkel, Weick argues that in sensemaking, the clarification of human situations "often works in reverse. It is less often the case that an outcome fulfills some prior definition of the situation, and more often the case that an outcome develops that prior definition" (p.11). It is less about discovery than invention (p.13).

Weick identifies seven properties of sensemaking:

  1. Grounded in identity construction
  2. Retrospective
  3. Enactive of sensible environments
  4. Social
  5. Ongoing
  6. Focused on and by extracted cues
  7. Driven by plausibility rather than accuracy (p.17)
Let's just pull one of these out for further discussion. Sensemaking is "enactive of sensible environments," and Weick emphasizes that rather than being separated from a "monolithic, singular, fixed environment," the "people are very much part of their own environments," enacting as well as working within the environment (cf. Cynefin). 

Let's jump ahead to the chapter on occasions for sensemaking. Sensemaking is triggered when a situation doesn't fit what we already know—think in terms of unexpected reactions, unexplained correlations, paradoxes. So sensemaking occurs in ambiguous, changing situations, which have these characteristics:
  • Nature of problem is itself in question
  • Information (amount and reliability) is problematical
  • Multiple, conflicting interpretations
  • Different value orienttions, political/emotional clashes
  • Goals are unclear, or multiple and conflicting
  • Time, money, or attention are lacking
  • Contradictions and paradoxes appear
  • Roles are vague, responsibilities are unclear
  • Success measures are lacking
  • Poor understanding of cause-effect relationships
  • Symbols and metaphors used
  • Participation in decision-making fluid (p.93)
Sensemaking, naturally, involves making sense in these situations—not just individually but as a group. And that means occasions for meeting to create sense. For that reason, Weick strongly supports one activity that is often denigrated in organizations: meetings. Meetings, he says, "create the infrastructure that creates sense" (p.144). Indeed, "arguing is a crucial source of sensemaking" (p.145), and meetings provide a venue for arguments. 

So should you read the book? I confess that I got more out of the book when I summarized it for this review than when I read it. I'm not sure what made the book uninteresting to me—perhaps it was just due to Weick's writing style; perhaps it was because much of what Weick discusses has been covered in rhetorical, sociological, and anthropological texts. But it's still worth reading and citing. If you do research in organizations, take a look.