Thursday, 29 October 2009

Understanding Sensemaking, part 1

In these days I am reading a book called Sensemaking in Organizations, written by Karl E. Weick, professor of Organizational Behavior and Psychology at the University of Michigan. I am supposed to read this book for a class I am following here in Copenhagen, but I am, anyway, getting more and more interested in the phenomenon of sensemaking (apart from the necessity to read the book for the exam!). I have to admit that I am having a hard time understanding the book, because it is pretty dense and complex, so that's why I decided to write a post about it: it may be a good exercise for me (so I understand if I have understood) and a nice reading for you (hopefully). The phenomenon described in this book - sensemaking - is an activity we are continuosly engaging in (on a more than daily basis I would say); so that's another reason for the legitimacy (and usefulness) of this post. In order not to make the post boring, I will try to be very concise and therefore explain only the basics aspects of the concept. I will split the discussion in two posts: a first one where in which I will define the concept and a second one in which I will explain the seven distinctive features of this phenomenon (always according to K. weick).

So, let's start with some definitions: Sensemaking is, in plain words, the process of giving a sense to reality. The idea is that we live in a continuos "stream of experience" that has no meaning in itself. It only gets a meaning when we attach one to it. Therefore, we place the various stimuli which reality offers into a given framework of understanding. We create cognitive maps of an environment we wouldn't otherwise understand.

A useful way to better appreciate the concept of sensemaking is to differentiate it from the similar notion of interpretation. The difference between these two concepts is subtle and difficult to understand, but if you manage to get it, it probably means that you have truly understood the meaning of sensemaking. Interpretation involves the existence of an object that has to be interpreted. The object to be interpreted is, anyway, already given, it already exists. You interpret a situation, a text, an affirmation, and so on. Sensemaking, instead, also adresses how that situation, is built. Weick (1995) writes: "the concept of sensemaking is valuable because it highlights the invention that precedes interpretation." Interpretation is a component of sensemaking, but the latter is also about how the situation is built. The assumption here is that we define reality. Sensemaking is about "authoring as well as reading"; whereas, interpretation is only about "reading".

Therefore, we can summarize the forementioned ideas by understanding how "people make sense of things by seeing a world on which they already imposed what they believe." With this quote we can well understand how sensemaking implies the construction of a given reality and the subsequent interpretation of it.

In the next post, as mentioned above, we are going to dig deeper and discover the seven distinctive features of sensemaking. In the meantime, as an exercise, you can try to start to pay attention to when your are involved in making sense of situations: think about something that happened to you recently, try to understand how you made sense of it and pay particular attention to how you have defined the situation (and also try to understand if that was the only way in which you could have defined it). After some exercising (I am also doing it in these days) you will become more acute and attentive to these processes. Moreover, you will also be able to understand when other people involve in sensemaking and, last but not least, you will be able to better appreciate the next post on the topic.