Monday, May 13, 2013

Reading :: Sensemaking in Organizations

Sensemaking in Organizations
By Karl E. Weick

Weick's Sensemaking in Organizations is often cited by people working in (or on the edges of) organizational science, org comm, and related areas. Sensemaking is "literally, the making of sense" in an organization (p.4), something that is distinct from interpretation.

That's awfully vague, isn't it? Forgive me for being vague, but Weick tends to define by discussing what sensemaking is not, or by describing others' conflicting definitions, or by giving examples (pp.4-5). At least that's what I found when I looked up "sensemaking: definition" in the index. But we can learn something about sensemaking from these moves as well.

First, sensemaking is not interpretation. It's "grounded in both individual and social activity" (p.6). It's "about such things as placement of items into frameworks, comprehending, redressing surprise, constructing meaning, interacting in pursuit of mutual understanding, and patterning" (p.6). In contrast to interpretation, it addresses "how the text is constructed as well as how it is read. Sensemaking is about authoring as well as reading" (p.7). Drawing on Garfinkel, Weick argues that in sensemaking, the clarification of human situations "often works in reverse. It is less often the case that an outcome fulfills some prior definition of the situation, and more often the case that an outcome develops that prior definition" (p.11). It is less about discovery than invention (p.13).

Weick identifies seven properties of sensemaking:

  1. Grounded in identity construction
  2. Retrospective
  3. Enactive of sensible environments
  4. Social
  5. Ongoing
  6. Focused on and by extracted cues
  7. Driven by plausibility rather than accuracy (p.17)
Let's just pull one of these out for further discussion. Sensemaking is "enactive of sensible environments," and Weick emphasizes that rather than being separated from a "monolithic, singular, fixed environment," the "people are very much part of their own environments," enacting as well as working within the environment (cf. Cynefin). 

Let's jump ahead to the chapter on occasions for sensemaking. Sensemaking is triggered when a situation doesn't fit what we already know—think in terms of unexpected reactions, unexplained correlations, paradoxes. So sensemaking occurs in ambiguous, changing situations, which have these characteristics:
  • Nature of problem is itself in question
  • Information (amount and reliability) is problematical
  • Multiple, conflicting interpretations
  • Different value orienttions, political/emotional clashes
  • Goals are unclear, or multiple and conflicting
  • Time, money, or attention are lacking
  • Contradictions and paradoxes appear
  • Roles are vague, responsibilities are unclear
  • Success measures are lacking
  • Poor understanding of cause-effect relationships
  • Symbols and metaphors used
  • Participation in decision-making fluid (p.93)
Sensemaking, naturally, involves making sense in these situations—not just individually but as a group. And that means occasions for meeting to create sense. For that reason, Weick strongly supports one activity that is often denigrated in organizations: meetings. Meetings, he says, "create the infrastructure that creates sense" (p.144). Indeed, "arguing is a crucial source of sensemaking" (p.145), and meetings provide a venue for arguments. 

So should you read the book? I confess that I got more out of the book when I summarized it for this review than when I read it. I'm not sure what made the book uninteresting to me—perhaps it was just due to Weick's writing style; perhaps it was because much of what Weick discusses has been covered in rhetorical, sociological, and anthropological texts. But it's still worth reading and citing. If you do research in organizations, take a look.

Writing :: Integrated Writers, Integrated Writing, and the Integration of Distributed Work

Spinuzzi, C., & Jakobs, E.-M. (2013). Integrated writers, integrated writing, and the integration of distributed work. Connexions: International Professional Communication Journal/Revista de Comunicação Profissional Internacional 1(1). Available:

This is another in my series on writing texts. Whereas the previous post in this series was on a single-author book, this one is on a coauthored position paper barely longer than an extended abstract. My coauthor is Eva-Maria Jakobs, a brilliant professor at RWTH Aachen.

So what is there to say about this short piece?

First, this piece is a nice example of taking an opportunity when it comes up. Eva and I met at Writing Research Across Borders in February 2011 (David R. Russell introduced us). She and a coeditor were attempting to generate interest in an international collection on writing research, the Handbook of Writing and Text Production (to appear in de Gruyter's Handbooks of Applied Linguistics series). the idea was to have coauthors from different continents collaborate to provide global perspectives on research. Eva was gracious enough to invite me to collaborate on a chapter with her on our shared interest, writing in professional domains.

We have written that chapter, which is now in production, and in the process we found that we are well suited to be collaborators. As we developed ideas for that chapter, we focused on three trends that we had seen in our separate research projects. I think Eva is the one that named these: integrated writers, integrated writing, and the integration of distributed work.

These three trends, we agreed, should be discussed more widely. And we decided that when the opportunity presented itself, we should put together a standalone piece to describe it.

Coincidentally, in October 2011, Rosario Durao asked me to join the editorial board of her new journal, Connexions, which focuses on international professional communication. She also sent out a call for papers for the first issue. The CFP asked for a "400-500 word position paper"—which seemed ideal for breaking out the three trends that Eva and I had wanted to discuss.

Eva and I quickly developed a position paper that outlined these three trends along with some literature supporting the work. The work was equal, and I ended up being listed as lead author mainly because I handled submitting the paper and receiving feedback.

It's a short publication, and it's free, so please take a look and see what you think. Eva and I are intrigued by the three trends we describe here, and we plan to continue examining this area. If you're interested in the trends, I commend the extended discussion in our forthcoming chapter in the Handbook of Writing and Text Production.