Sensemaking in and around Organizations
- LAST REVIEWED: 08 February 2021
- LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846740-0158
- LAST REVIEWED: 08 February 2021
- LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846740-0158
Sensemaking is one of the main theoretical perspectives that is used to understand both social cognition within organizational theory and the social construction of organizational behavior. Initial scholarship focused on the cognitive processes of sensemaking; discursive approaches followed in order to understand how actors come together to coordinate action. In recent years, the scope of the sensemaking perspective has expanded to account for the role of affect as well as to consider the political nature of sensemaking. Although sensemaking is most closely informed by ideas in social psychology and management, it also draws from cognitive psychology, symbolic interactionism, and ethnomethodology. The first section provides an introduction to sensemaking, including introductory works, overviews, and reviews. Next, the journals where sensemaking research is published are highlighted. This is followed by a review of the primary and emerging approaches to sensemaking. We conclude with a discussion about sensegiving, a related construct, and how a sensemaking perspective informs other areas of organizational theory, including strategic change, organizing, and symbolic approaches to organizational life.
General Overviews and Reviews
The following overviews provide invaluable resources for students of sensemaking. It includes Weick 1995 (and a review Gioia and Mehra 1996) that crystallized sensemaking as a core theoretical perspective within organizational theory as well as two edited volumes, Weick 2001 and Weick 2012, that contain some of the most important articles on the subject. Key articles that summarize the state of sensemaking research include a trenchant précis (Sutcliffe 2013), an intriguing exposé (Brown, et al. 2014), a comprehensive analysis (Maitlis and Christianson 2014), and a digestible conceptualization (Weick, et al. 2005). This section is rounded out by Holt and Cornelissen 2013 and Sandberg and Tsoukas 2014, two articles that focus on future directions.
Brown, Andrew D., Ian Colville, and Annie Pye. “Making Sense of Sensemaking in Organization Studies.” Organization Studies 36.2 (2014): 265–277.
In a review of sensemaking research published in the journal Organization Studies, the authors identify the key roles of discourse, politics, and identity in sensemaking processes, the recursive nature of micro and macro processes, and sensemaking’s role in decision-making and change.
Gioia, Dennis A., and Ajay Mehra. “Sensemaking in Organizations.” Academy of Management Review 21.4 (1996): 1226–1230.
In a thorough review of Weick’s Sensemaking in Organizations, Gioia and Mehra explain how sensemaking research has evolved from the social psychological to the organizational. They also posit that scholars of sensemaking should pay attention to less conscious or controlled processes, be more forward-looking, and consider the role of affect.
Holt, Robin, and Joep Cornelissen. “Sensemaking Revisited.” Management Learning 45.5 (2013): 525–539.
Linking Heidegger’s phenomenology and Weick’s sensemaking, Holt and Cornelissen revisit Weick’s analysis of the 1949 forest fire at Mann Gulch. They persuasively argue that Heidegger’s ideas might allow scholars of sensemaking to loosen the conceptual shackles by considering how sense (1) can arise in non-instrumental ways, (2) is experienced through mood, and (3) can arise when we are open to an unimagined future.
Maitlis, Sally, and Marlys Christianson. “Sensemaking in Organizations: Taking Stock and Moving Forward.” Academy of Management Annals 8.1 (2014): 57–125.
A peerless overview of the sensemaking literature. Maitlis and Christianson provide a remarkably broad and detailed analysis of the historical roots of sensemaking research, how sensemaking is accomplished, how sensemaking is an important process for other key organizational activities, and suggest important opportunities for the future.
Sandberg, Jörgen, and Haridimos Tsoukas. “Making Sense of the Sensemaking Perspective: Its Constituents, Limitations, and Opportunities for Further Development.” Journal of Organizational Behavior 36.S1 (2014).
Sandberg and Tsoukas provide a thorough review of the sensemaking literature, emphasizing the triggers, processes, and outcomes of sensemaking. Most intriguingly, they identify those areas in need of attention to advance existing scholarship: (1) prospective sensemaking; (2) sensemaking as implicated in the mundane and routine activities of organizational life; (3) embodied sensemaking; and (4) reconceptualization of enactment as co-occurring throughout the sensemaking process and not only at the beginning.
Sutcliffe, Kathleen M. “Sensemaking.” In Palgrave Encyclopedia of Strategic Management. Edited by D. Teece and M. Augier, 1–4. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Sutcliffe provides a concise overview of the sensemaking literature, emphasizing (1) how sensemaking can be differentiated from decision-making, (2) what instigates sensemaking, and (3) a summary of the key aspects of the process of sensemaking.
Weick, Karl E. Sensemaking in Organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995.
The primary reference text for any scholar of sensemaking. This comprehensive overview is the culmination of three decades of writing and thinking on the topic of sensemaking by its most important scholar. It explains how reality is an ongoing accomplishment that manifests when we direct attention to past events; it covers a wide range of topics including the historical roots of sensemaking, key components of sensemaking, and potential future directions.
Weick, Karl E. Making Sense of the Organization. Vol. 1. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.
In this collection of some of the most influential articles on sensemaking, Weick explores the process of how organizations uncover the important events they must navigate. It is organized into three parts: (1) organizations as contexts for sensemaking, (2) the components of sensemaking, and (3) the applications of sensemaking.
Weick, Karl E. Making Sense of the Organization. Vol. 2, The Impermanent Organization. Chichester, UK: John Wiley, 2012.
In this second volume of influential articles on sensemaking, Weick emphasizes the ubiquity of impermanence in organizational life. By focusing on the steady stream of interruptions and recoveries that actors artfully navigate, this book is organized around the processes of sensemaking: attending, interpreting, acting, and adapting.
Weick, Karl E., Kathleen M. Sutcliffe, and David Obstfeld. “Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking.” Organization Science 16.4 (2005): 409–421.
A comprehensive overview of the sensemaking perspective. The authors argue that sensemaking is central to how people act within and around organizations. They elaborate the central features of sensemaking and look to the future, suggesting that further work needs to be more future-oriented, action-oriented, macro, identity-focused, and concerned with matters of emotions and politics.
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