Schools of sense-making

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"Sensemaking is nothing more than a scholarly articulation of something that comes quite naturally to us: we recognize, act upon, create, recall, and apply patterns from the material of our lived experience to impose order on that lived experience" - Laura A McNamara

Whilst the reflection on sense-making has been part of pretty much all traditions, everywhere, 21st century western "schools" of sense-making have arisen out of specific contexts, and against a backdrop of concern with organisational design, knowledge management and decision support, especially (though not exclusively) in relation to the needs of large corporations. From those roots, the thinking has spread into hugely diverse fields, even entering the mainstream of adventure sport through Powder Magazine's promotion of The Human Factor.

The landing page provides context, introduces the five schools of organisational sense-making and serves as a portal to other relevant content on / beyond this Wiki.


"Although we can trace this notion to the early 1980s, it has emerged since the 1990s as a subject for organizational research, educational research, and symposia on decision making."[1]

In 2006, Gary Klein wrote about how sense-making might be taken as a reference to "concepts that have been common currency in psychology for decades, if not well over a century." This would fit with seeing contemporary schools as having roots in Dewey's How We Think (1910) and with the way Tor Ole B. Odden and Rosemary S. Russ talk of sense-making in science education as "a dynamic process of building an explanation in order to resolve a gap or inconsistency in knowledge."[2]

The Five Schools of Organisational Sense-making

In his Twelvetide 20:10 The fifth school Christmas Blog of January 2021, Dave Snowden postitioned Naturalised Sense-making in relation to four other schools as outlined in Peter Hayward Jones' Sensemaking Methodology: A Liberation Theory of Communicative Agency and in Christine Urquhart et. al. Sense-Making/Sensemaking.

Five Schools of Sensemaking.png

Each is introduced below. Jump to #Weick, #Russell, #Dervin, #Klein or #Snowden.

Karl Weick's Sensemaking in Organizational Communication

"To talk about sensemaking is to talk about reality as an ongoing accomplishment that takes form when people make retrospective sense of the situations in which they find themselves and their creations. There is a strong reflexive quality to this process. People make sense of things by seeing a world on which they already imposed what they believe.[3]

"Weick’s focus has been organizational activity (collective), and the location of sensemaking is internalized as representation of collective meaning" - Peter Hayward Jones.[4]

Laura A McNamara's summary of Weick’s work picks out his most cited sentence as being “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” Her summary of his seven constituent ideas of sensemaking get to the heart of the approach he outlined in his seminal text, Sensemaking in Organizations:[5]

Connections / Relationships / Criticisms

Holt and Cornelissen have Weick as their primary target in their criticisms of organisational sense-making as fixated on what is of instrumental value (especially to a "high reliability" organisation), as fixated on being able to "consciously bring about an envisaged state of affairs" and as preoccupied with contexts in which socially shared codes and conventions (including frames and narratives) have been found wanting. They worry about organisational approaches "discounting experiences of sensemaking in ordinary organizational life" and turn to Heidegger around three themes: {i} temporal experience of rupture; {ii} everyday experiences of discrepancy or "out-of-jointness"; and {iii} experiencing life projects as inherently open.[6] Compare Leah Tomkins and Virginia Eatough's Hermeneutics: Interpretation, Understanding and Sense-making.

See also

Daniel Russell's Sensemaking in Human-Computer Interaction

“Sensemaking” is what you do when you’re trying to figure out some complicated problem that involves too much data, or the wrong kind of data. It’s problem-solving, but of a particular type. When someone says “I need to make sense of <something…>” generally what they mean is that they don’t get what’s going on in a deep way."[7]

"Russell’s information theoretic view establishes sensemaking as a collective location (an information world) largely in the service of interpreting external data." - Peter Hayward Jones.[8]

In a 2008 paper entitled Sensemaking for the rest of us, Daniel Russell suggested sense-making was simply "the way people go about their process of collecting, organizing and creating representations of complex information sets, all centered around some problem they need to understand." Having expressed concerns about "the field’s focus on extremely high-end visualizations and tools" he suggested "advanced representational constructs don’t actually seem to help, but can hinder the process of sensemaking."[9]

School members Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card have worked on cognitive task analysis "to characterize processes in intelligence analysis and demonstrated two major loops, a foraging loop and a sensemaking loop."[10] The overarching focus is on information: a focus reflecting an ongoing commitment to cognitive psychology.

Connections / Relationships / Criticisms

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See also

Gary Klein's Sensemaking in Cognitive Systems Engineering

Sensemaking is a motivated, continuous effort to understand connections (which can be among people, places, and events) in order to anticipate their trajectories and act effectively.[11]

"Klein’s focus is the individual mental model (frame) applied to an external context or activity (how external data is represented)." - Peter Hayward Jones.[12]

In the 2006 article, Klein was keen to distinguish what he and his colleagues were meaning by sense-making from "everyday" usage of the term, and to warn against what he perceived as trends towards sense-making becoming an "umbrella term for efforts at building intelligent systems." He went on to suggested reasons why it could not be reduced to established frames of reference around things like creativity, curiosity, comprehension, mental modelling and situational awareness. [13]

By then, Gary Klein's emerging "school" of sensemaking was inescapably bound up with his work on Naturalistic Decision Making (NDM) and with his model of the Recognition Primed Decision (RPD). The reach of this work has been immense. For instance, Naturalistic Decision Making has become a focal interest in Adventure Sports (see, for example, Collins and Collins' Decision Making and Risk Management in Adventure Sports Coaching).

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Brenda Dervin Sense-making in User Studies

"Dervin has a clear individual and hermeneutic approach, on the individual’s situation and their internalized subjective experience of it." - Peter Hayward Jones.[14]

"Dervin’s project forsakes the dominant foci in communication studies on the transmission of “accurate” intent and meaning from senders to receivers and in its place uses an approach that mandates attention to both interpretive diversities as well as interpretive views of differences between diversities."[15]

In 2015, Brenda Dervin noted that her Sense-Making Methodology (SMM) "was not developed as a substantive theory but rather as a philosophically informed methodological approach for attending to (and researching) human 'communicating'."[16] Her intent was to develop and implement:

  • a meta-theoretic set of assumptions for conceptualizing the communicatings involved in human sense-making;
  • a methodological framework for applying these conceptualizations;
  • a set of methodologicallyinformed methods that provide a flexible array of options for research as well as communication practice.

Connections / Relationships / Criticisms

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See also

Dave Snowden and Organizational Sense-making in Knowledge Management

"Naturalising sense-making for me encompasses the early work on knowledge management, narrative-based sense-making and the more recent work on anthro-complexity. Indeed Cynefin® itself is defined as a sense-making framework. The distinguishing feature is the use of natural science as a constraint" [17]

"Snowden’s more evolutionary model considers sensemaking a knowledge production activity, using data toward a shared understanding of problem areas (which I call “understanding about” as a unit of analysis)." - Peter Hayward Jones.[18]

Dave Snowden's Naturalised Sense-making is essentially pragmatic and is most commonly associated with collaborative sense-making tools, organisational design and knowledge management praxis and Anthro-complexity theory around decision-support. The school is most famously associated with the Cynefin® Framework (for decision making) and with the Sensemaker® tool (for narrative capture and for the real-time visualisation of patterns across narratives).

The school uses natural science as a constraint on the development and generation of praxis to support those asking "how do I make sense of the world so that I can act in it?"

See also

Other related work