What is Sense-making?

June 7, 2008

This apparently innocent question was asked on the ActKM forum this morning. I replied and reproduce that response below. Michael Olsson, whose contirbutions to the forum have been a breath of life in the last few months , also contributed and reproduced this quote from Brenda Dervin:

…embodied in materiality and soaring across time-space …a body-mind-heart-spirit living in time-space, moving from a past, in a present, to a future, anchored in material conditions; yet at the same time with an assumed capacity to sense-make abstractions, dreams, memories, plans, ambitions, fantasies, stories pretences that can both transcend time space and last beyond specific moments of time space.

Now I love that (and I generally favour Dervin over Weick) because it combines the material with the transcendent, a point I tried to get across a few days ago.

My response to the question

I define it as “How do we make sense of the world so we can act in it” which carries with it the concept of sufficiency (knowing enough to make a contextually appropriate decision). In that respect I am bring complexity science and narrative into sense-making as a discipline.

Klein has a more elaborate version

Sensemaking is the ability or attempt to make sense of an ambiguous situation. More exactly, sensemaking is the process of creating situational awareness and understanding in situations of high complexity or uncertainty in order to make decisions. It 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

The two main academic players are Karl Weick and Brenda Dervin both of whom are very readable. Weick I think tends to a more normative and organisational approach while Dervin looks more at individuals and communication.

Overall I think Klein is right to emphasis situational awareness and he and I carried out a series of controlled experiments in this area for the Singapore Army which demonstrated increased weak signal detection using narrative based sense-making techniques and also formal or ritual dissent.

Dervin and I have had several conversations and she is currently attempting to get Weick or one of his students to create a three way dialogue given the different perspectives (organisational, communication, complexity)

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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