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The Nature and Process of Sensemaking in Organisations
Discussion around the concept of sensemaking has been around since 1972 with the earliest research on organisational sensemaking coming from Frost et al (1983) who describe sensemaking as the process whereby individuals engage "in ongoing processes through which they attempt to make their situations rationally accountable to themselves and others" (Frost et al,
1983, P.24). It was Weick's work beginning in 1995, however, that is perhaps more prominent in the field of sensemaking in regards to organisations. Given the dynamic and unpredictable environment organisations now operate in, it has never been more important to understand the nature and process of sensemaking.
Sensemaking "refers to how we structure the unknown so as to be able to act" (Ancona, 2012, P.3) and is concerned with the management of ambiguity. The very nature of sensemaking requires it is most necessary when it becomes impossible to make intelligent understanding of the situations presented. This often occurs during periods of rapid change when individuals are either unprepared for or unable to deal with, the situations that arise (Heifetz, 2009). Sensemaking places a greater importance on plausibility rather than accuracy when it comes to interpreting an event which contrasts with epistemology where importance is placed on reliability and certainty. However, Weick suggests that a focus on accuracy is pointless "in an equivocal, postmodern world, infused with the politics of interpretation and conflicting interests" (Weick, 1995, P.61).
The nature of sensemaking has seven key properties (Weick, 1995) however I am going to concentrate on three that are most relevant in an organisational context. The fact that sensemaking is retrospective is particularly important as it is impossible to make sense of an event until after it has occurred. This is a problem for organisations as it does not allow for forward thinking and advanced planning, instead, the focus needs to be on ensuring employees have an understanding of how to sense make and are prepared to efficiently and effectively engage with the process as required. Weick discusses how making links with previous events is particularly important as "a sensible event is one that resembles something that has happened before" (Weick, 1995,
P.170). Whilst incorporating prior experience can aid sensemaking, it can also hinder it as actors may attempt to force a prior experience to fit with the current situation - a 'one size fits all approach'. In addition, depending on the length of time that has passed, memories may have become distorted and actors may not be able to accurately recall them.
According to Ancona (2012), sensemaking is inherently collective and conducting sensemaking individually is ineffective.
However, the social element of sensemaking is one that is sometimes neglected in the context of organisations as often the responsibility of making sense of changes falls to managers rather than groups. It is down to managers to determine the most significant change and interpret their meaning before developing an appropriate response to the change. This lack of collective sensemaking has been observed where team members were asked to estimate how the recession had effected the company,
each team member put forward a different estimate as they all had expertise, and conversely, a lack of knowledge in different areas of the business. However, once they all received input from different functions across the business (HR, Finance,
Marketing etc.) they were able to collaborate and put together a far more realistic, and also collective, estimate (Snook et al,
The nature of sensemaking also revolves around the fact that it is ongoing, it is "continuous in the flow of activities and projects that constitute organisational life" (Choo, 2007, P.79). Weick (1995) discusses that all actors in an organisation should continue
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