Sensemaking in Organizations

Feb 7th, 20111 Comment

Title: Sensemaking in Organizations
Author: Karl E. Weick
Publisher: Sage Publications, 1995
ISBN: 9780803971776
Reviewed by Erin Schauster

Organizations are a complicated collective network of individuals, each bringing unique skills, perceptions and beliefs into an organization and at times, putting the collective network into a state of flux. Cohesion within the collective net is established and reestablished when members engage in acts of organization. Sensemaking, as suggested by Weick, is what both allows organizing to take place as well as allows one to understand these processes of organization. Sensemaking is a process of explanation that incorporates seven attributes. All seven attributes are linked by various connections and when applied collectively, these attributes hold explanatory power over an organizational phenomenon. The attributes of sensemaking include identity construction, retrospection, enactive sensible environments, a social nature, ongoing processes, extracted cues, and plausibility.

Weick argues that the outcome of organizational sensemaking is not discovery but invention. If considered a theory, then sensemaking is a means to understand how an organization works, but must include the seven attributes, each dependent upon the others to exist. Organizational sensemaking offers a sensible reality of an organization and of the organizing processes that individuals engage, within that organization.

Sensemaking is grounded in identity construction, which is a reflection of one’s actions, or the enacted cues. Therefore, identity construction is bound to attributes of retrospection and enactment. Retrospection depends upon previous action, knowledge, or belief as part of an ongoing process of reflection, interpretation and articulation through historical connections. Enactment plays a role in retrospection by shaping the environment of action, knowledge and beliefs.  In part, individuals produce the environment they face through action that in part, affects other individuals of the same environment.

The ongoing nature of sensemaking also applies to the social nature of organizations, the opportunities to extract and enact cues, and the construction of individual and collective identities. The end result of the ongoing interrelated actions is an invention driven by plausibility, rather than accuracy. Plausibility incorporates the dynamism that a social environment imposes. If “people simultaneously try to shape and react to the environments they face” then the social context is dynamic and therefore capable of multiple readings (p. 23). Plausibility extracts the most suitable, but not accurate, reading of the complex phenomenon under review.

Is the future of sensemaking to explore and provoke new models of sensemaking; therefore is it to test the methodological soundness of using sensemaking on the researcher’s behalf? Or is the future of sensemaking a theoretical application to explore the organizations’ processes of making plausible sense of organizing and of the organization? While Weick does not fall on the side of either methodology or theory, I contend that sensemaking could be both.

Sensemaking could be methodological, with the recognition of the researcher as a new member of the organization. For example, a participant observer stepping foot into acts of organizing will reflect a personality into the collective net and project new cues up for interpretation by other members of the social group. As a research method, sensemaking then is not separate from an organization and its processes. A realist perspective would assume the researcher could extract elements of reality, but this would not rein true to Weick’s definition of organizational sensemaking. Sensemaking is an active construction and invention of the most plausible explanation of organizing between members of a social group, including the researcher as a new member.

The idea that all seven attributes must be present to define the process of sensemaking may cause limitations to understanding action within an organization. For example, the attribute of retrospection assumes unprecedented invention cannot occur and that sense can only be made through connections to the past. Perhaps, levels of connections or levels of retrospection would allow for greater range of explanation including a concrete level in which like situations are compared opposed to an abstract level of comparison. Possibly there are organizational situations where no comparison can be made, but where action should not be overlooked as an opportunity for invention. These may include the tacit levels of organizing that are not expressed by members and therefore missing from their articulated retrospection.

Leave a Reply

1 Trackback

  1. Effectively Communicating Change – The Human Factor

    […] Sensemaking is when employees are left with questions that they try and answer themselves.  Everyone wants to speculate why change is being implemented.  Is it because the company didn’t make its numbers?  Are we all getting laid off?  It starts with the cooler talk and snowballs into rumors which can create fear, creating a counterproductive environment. […]