Organizational Sensemaking

Organizational sensemaking is not an established body of knowledge; it is a developing set of ideas drawn from a range of disciplines (e.g., cognitive psychology, social psychology, communication studies, and cultural analysis) concerning a particular way to approach organization studies. Central to the sensemaking perspective is the notion that explanations of organizational issues cannot be found in any form of organizational structure or system but in how organizational actors see and attribute meaning to things. From this perspective, strategies, plans, rules, and goals are not things that exist in an objective sense within (or external to) the organization. Rather, their source is people’s way of thinking. Moreover, from a sensemaking perspective, the issue of whether some-one’s view of the world is correct is not meaningful and the correctness of a decision is contingent on the point of view that is being used for evaluation. The basic idea of sensemaking is that reality is an ongoing accomplishment that emerges from efforts to create order and understanding from complex environments. Sensemaking allows people to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity by creating rational accounts of the world that enable action.

Various definitions of organizational sensemaking have been presented. For some, sensemaking is an interpretive process; for others, it is a metaphor for interpretation. Some define it as interpretation coupled with action. Others divide perception into noticing and sensemaking, whereby noticing has to come before sensemaking so that there is something available to be made sense of. Still others define it as structuring the unknown or as a recurring cycle that uses retrospective accounts to explain surprises. The introduction of a sensemaking perspective into organization studies has, however, largely arisen from the work of Karl E. Weick, who defines sensemaking, at its simplest, quite literally as making sense. By this, Weick means that organizational actors not only come to an understanding of their environments but also create those same environments. The term enactment is used to capture the active role that organizational members play in creating such environments. By way of example, it is on the basis of their subjective perceptions of their occupational environment (their job role, manager, employment conditions, and so forth) that employees will take action and make a range of decisions, such as whether to come to work in the morning, and if so, whether they will do so on time, the decision as to what degree of effort and enthusiasm to invest, and ultimately, the decision whether or not to leave the organization. To differing degrees, each decision will influence individual, team, department, and organizational performance and productivity. Hence, how these individuals come to understand their environments provides the basis for action, ultimately shaping this same environment (at least in part).

Seven Properties of Organizational Sensemaking

Organizational sensemaking is inherently complex (described by some as semi-inscrutable). Weick has, however, attempted to systematically organize and explain this multifaceted concept by distilling seven key properties most often mentioned in the sensemak-ing literature. Although there is some debate as to whether Weick construes this concept in an overly narrow fashion, this synthesis provides the best statement currently available.

  1. Retrospective: All sensemaking processes involve some variation on the theme of retrospection or reflection on experience, which provides rationality and clarity to any outcome. This supports the notion that organizational strategic planning often involves the ability to write the story that fits recent history. Of note, although there is a consensus of opinion that it is primarily by examining history that we make sense, some scholars conclude that sense-making is also prospective and that it is the act of envisioning the future that supplies the impetus for action.
  2. Plausible rather than accurate: Meanings are constructed on the basis of reasonable explanations rather than through scientific discovery. Although filtered information will almost certainly be less “accurate,” it will undoubtedly be more understandable.
  3. Focused on and extracted by cues: In organizational life we attend to and extract certain elements, which form the material of the sensemaking process. However, although only partial knowledge is extracted from a mass of complex information, sense will be made of the whole on the basis of this subset. What is actually extracted and how it is made sense of is complex and dependent on a variety of issues, including context and goals.
  4. Enactive of sensible environments: By taking action organizations create (enact) their own environments (i.e., by doing something that produces some kind of outcome, constraints are then placed on what that person or organization does next).
  5. A social process: Sense is made in organizations through conversations, communications, and the exchange of ideas, and it is influenced by the actual, implied, or imagined presence of others. That is how sense becomes organizational.
  6. Ongoing: Sensemaking is an ongoing, constantly negotiated process. The implication of this insight for organizational sensemaking is that organizations are always in the middle of complex situations, which they try to disentangle by making and then revising provisional assumptions. Viewed as systems of sensemaking, a key organizational goal is to create and identify events that recur to stabilize their environments and make them more predictable.
  7. Grounded in identity construction: The process of figuring out what is going on is a product of and a process based on who the sensemaker is and is becoming. In other words, how an organization (individual or group) identifies itself (who the sensemaker is) will define what it sees out there. Simultaneously, this will influence identity (who the sensemaker is becoming).

The Process of Organizational Sensemaking

Sensemaking is a critical organizational activity. For top managers sensemaking activities such as environmental scanning and issue interpretation are key tasks that significantly influence organizational decisions and strategic change. Sensemaking activities are particularly important in dynamic and turbulent contexts, where the creation of coherent understandings is crucial.

There is no formal model for organizational sense-making, but the basic process is found in Weick’s sensemaking recipe. This is a sequence of enactment, selection, and retention.

  • In enactment, people actively construct the environments, which they attend to by bracketing, rearranging, and labeling portions of the experience, thereby converting raw data from the environment into equivocal data to be interpreted.
  • In selection, people choose meanings that can be imposed on the equivocal data by overlaying past interpretations as templates to the current experience. Selection produces an enacted environment that is meaningful in providing cause-effect explanation of what is taking place.
  • In retention, the organization stores the products of (what it sees as) successful sensemaking (enacted or meaningful interpretations) so that they may be retrieved in the future.

As one property of sensemaking is that it is an ongoing process, there is no beginning point or end to this sequence.

Some view sensemaking as always being a conscious process, coming into play at times of shock or surprise or other particular occasions, for example in times of perceived environmental uncertainty or turbulence. Others believe that, although much of organizational life is routine and unsurprising and as such does not demand our attention, nonetheless we make sense in those habitual situations via the assim-ilation of subtle cues over time.

Organizational sensemaking can be driven by beliefs or by actions. In belief-driven processes, people start from an initial set of beliefs that are sufficiently clear and plausible and use them as nodes to connect more and more information into larger structures of meaning. People may use beliefs as expectations to guide the choice of plausible interpretations; or they may argue about beliefs and their relevancy to current experience, especially when beliefs and cues are contradictory. In action-driven processes, people start from their actions and grow their structures of meaning around them, by modifying the structures to give significance to those actions. People may create meaning to justify actions that are visible or irreversible.

Research in Organizational Sensemaking

A considerable amount of research has focused on strategic issue processing and making sense of the competition. Some researchers have concluded that strategic competition is essentially a product of the tendency of competitors to construct some shared interpretation of a competitive arena within which strategic thinking and action become meaningful. Such studies have provided invaluable insight not only into the identification of industry competitors and the bases on which they compete but also into why competitive industry structures in industries and markets come to develop in the first place. This is exemplified by the work carried out by Joseph F. Porac and his colleagues in the Scottish knitwear industry.

The sensemaking approach has also facilitated an understanding of organizational process, action, and structure in a range of contexts. Notable studies include those of Jane E. Dutton and her colleagues regarding issue and agenda formation and how stakeholders preserve their organization’s image; and the work of Dennis A. Gioia and his associates, who have investigated various aspects of change management, including top management teams’ perceptions of identity and image under conditions of change. Additional contexts include technology diffusion and various aspects of organizational socialization and organizational crisis. Weick’s concept of sensemaking has been further formulated by researchers who have coined the term sensegiving to the process by which managers attempt to influence sensemaking and meaning construction of others toward a preferred definition of organization reality.

References:

  1. Maitlis, S. (2005). The social processes of organizational sensemaking. Academy of Management Review, 48, 21-49.
  2. Porac, J. F., Thomas, H., & Baden-Fuller, C. (1989). Competitive groups as cognitive communities: The case of Scottish knitwear manufacturers. Journal of Management Studies, 26, 397-416.
  3. Porac, J. F., Thomas, H., Wilson, F., Paton, D., & Kanfer, A. (1995). Rivalry and the industry model of Scottish knitwear producers. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40, 203-227.
  4. Weick, K. E. (1979). The social psychology of organizing (2nd ed.). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  5. Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  6. Weick, K. E. (2001). Making sense of the organization. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Business.

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