Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Understanding Sensemaking, part 2

In this previous post, we discussed the idea of sensemaking and how this concept is different (in some aspects) from the concept of interpretation. Now, in order to really grasp the meaning of sensemaking we need to explain its seven distinctive features:

1. Grounded in Indentity Construction: when we define a situation and interpret it we do it according to who we are and how we see ourselves. Our identity (identities) influences how we interpret the world. "I make sense of whatetever happens to me by asking, what implications do these events have for who I will be? What the situation will have meant to me is dictated by the identity I adopt in dealing with it" (Weick, 1995). Therefore we "decide" which aspects of reality are relevant and then interpret it according to who we are.

2. Retrospective: time is basically a pure duration, a stream of experience, it has no end nor a beginning. It flows. When time takes the form of distinct events that have a beginning and an end it is because we are interpreting it. It is like if we step away from it and look at it from an observer position. Therefore the direct implication of this is that the creation of meaning is a process that can only be retrospective.

3. Enactive of Sensible Environments: the idea of this point is that reality is not already defined, we define it. We decide what are the aspects of it that are part of our interest. We produce the environment we face. Reality is not something that is out there, it is mainly defined by ourseleves. Again, our mental schemes, our culture, our identiy influences what are the sensible environmentsto be enacted. But, it is important to be aware that we have defined those environments and that, therefore, we have defined the limits of the situations.

4. Social: the way in which we see the world is socially defined. Basically, we can summarize this point with Donne's expression "No man is an island". In fact, there is no way in which we can think, speak or act without being influenced by culture/society.

5. Ongoing: here, again, the idea is that pure duration (time) never stops flowing. "People are always in the middle of things, which become things, only when those same people focus on the past from some point beyond it" (Weick, 1995). German philosopher M. Heidegger, created the concept of thrownness to describe the idea that we find ourselves thrown in the middle of ongoing situations. The idea is also that we are in the middle of different competing things (called projects); how we see the world in a given moment is determined by these projects. Therefore, sensemaking doesn't have a clear beginning, nor a clear end and is strongly influenced by emotions.

6. Focused on and by Extracted Cues: we extract "elements of analysis" (cues) from the experience we are leaving and then focus on these elements to "perform" our interpretative work. Weick writes, "extracted cues are simple, familiar structures that are seeds from which people develop a larger sense of what may be occurring". Context influences what is extracted as a cueand also how it will be interpreted.

7. Driven by Plausibility Rather Than Accuracy: The idea here is that, in order to make sense of reality, we do not need to have all the necessary "data". We only need enough of it in order to get to our conclusions. Therefore, the precedence is given to satisfaction and plausibility rather than perfection and accuracy. This is also because of our bounded rationality, we can't, in fact, store and later elaborate all the information available. We have to filter information and with what we got we create plausible realities.

Ok, now we have know all the elements of sensemaking (hooray!!). At this point, we can continue with the exercise that I proposed in the previous post on the topic and refine it with the newly acquired categories. Try to notice, for example, how your identity (at a given time) influences how you build and later interpret a situation (point 1); Try to appreciate how reality is a shapeless thing and how you desperately and continuosly strive to define it and extract cues on which to focus (points 3 and 6), and so on and so forth... With all the points in place, if you really exercise, your ability to understand the phenomenon will grow significantly. It is working with me so far!

A little summary: the idea is that we live in a senseless and shapeless reality. It is not exactly something that is out there ready to be objectively described. We live in a "stream of experience".Reality is enacted: it emerges from an ongoing interpreting and updating of our past experience that is inevitably influenced by our social selves (social identity) and by the context itself. This is sensmaking!