Managing (life) is about making sense.

History and Orientation

Since Sensemaking has been under development since 1972, it cannot be explained in a few sentences. It is important to know that the project has been based on three central assumptions regarding communication practice: a) That it is possible to design and implement communication systems and practices that are responsive to human needs; b) That it is possible for humans to enlarge their communication repertoires to pursue this vision; c) That achieving these outcomes requires the development of communication-based methodological approaches.

Core Assumptions and Statements

Sensemaking is an approach to thinking about and implementing communication research and practice and the design of communication-based systems and activities. It consists of a set of philosophical assumptions, substantive propositions, methodological framings and methods.

According to Weick, sensemaking consists of seven aspects

  1. Grounded in identity construction: a sensemaker is needed otherwise there won’t be any sensemaking, sense is in the eye of the beholder. The sensemaker is singular and no individual ever acts like a single sensemaker, each individual has a lot of identities.
  2. Retrospective: After a certain time the process is reflected. This is always done afterwards. This aspect, looking afterwards at a process, will depend on the success of the process.
  3. Furthermore, retrospection makes the past clearer than the present or future; it cannot make the past transparent (Starbuck & Milliken, 1988).
  4. Enactive and sensible environments. In organizational life people often produce part of the environment they face (Pondy & Mitroff, 1979). Action is crucial for sensemaking; we can’t command and the environment will obey. Moreover, we can’t predict something that will happen exact, because everything is part of a larger truth. Entity and environment are factors which influence eachother. You are neither a plaything in the environment or independent. Somewhere between is the meaning.
  5. Social: Sensemaking is a social process; human thinking and social functioning are essential aspects of another (Resnick, Levine & Teasly, 1991). What a person does depends on others, so the direct influence is not clear. To understand sensemaking is to pay more intention to sufficient cues for coordination such as generalized other, prototypes, stereotypes, and roles.
  6. Ongoing: Sensemaking never starts or stops, it is an ongoing process.
  7. Focused on and by extracted cues: In life people are confronted with a lot of cues, too much too notice anyway. A person will only notice a few cues, because of his own filter. Your own interest and your unconsciousness depend what cues you focus on. As said earlier, it is also impossible to notice all the cues, because there are too many.
  8. Driven by plausibility rather than accuracy: People are cognitively lazy, when they found an answer to the question, people stop searching. No alternatives are evaluated, while people might not even know the half of it.

An example of how these seven elements are used in sensemaking: (Weick, 1995).

‘How can I know what I think until I see what I say?”

  1. Identity: The recipe is a question about who I am as indicated by discovery of how and what I think.
  2. Retrospect: To learn what I think, I look back over what I said earlier.
  3. Enactment: I create the object to be seen and inspected when I say or do something.
  4. Social: What I say and single out and conclude are determined by who socialized me and how I was socialized, as well as by the audience I anticipate will audit the conclusions I reach.
  5. Ongoing: My talking is spread across time, competes for attention with other ongoing projects, and it reflected on after it is finished, which means my interests may already have changed.
  6. Extracted cues: The “what” that I single out and embellish as the content of the thought is only a small portion of the utterance that becomes salient because of context and personal dispositions.
  7. Plausibility: I need to know enough about what I think to get on with my projects, but no more, which means sufficiency and plausibility, take precedence over accuracy.

Source: Example from W Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. P. 61-62.

Sensemaking in organizations

In dealing with organizational issues, sensemaking requires us to look for explanations and answers in terms of how people see things rather than rather than structures or systems. Sensemaking suggests that organizational issues - 'strategies', 'breakdowns', 'change', 'goals', 'plans', 'tasks', 'teams', and so on are not things that one can find out in the world or that exist in the organization. Rather, their source is people's way of thinking.

Conceptual Model

Not applicable.

Favorite Methods

Interviews, critical incident, discourse analysis.

Scope and Application

Sense making can be used to study information seeking and use in the workplace (Cheuk, 2002). . It can also be used for understanding deaf culture (Linderman, 1997) or to explore reflective thinking in nursing practice (Teekman, 1997). Rajendram (1997) used sense making in media education classrooms with students. Dervin (1997) tried to use sense making for difficult subjects such as racism, sexism and able-bodyism.


To be added.


Key publications

  • Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Duffy, M. (1995). Sensemaking in classroom conversations. In I. Maso, P. A. Atkinson, S. Delamont, J. C. Verhoeven (Eds.), Openness in research: The tension between self and other (pp. 119-132). Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum.
  • Dervin, B. (1983, May). An overview of sense-making research: Concepts, methods, and results to date. Paper presented at International Communication Association Annual Meeting, Dallas, TX.
  • Dervin, B. (1992). From the mind's eye of the "user": The sense-making qualitative-quantitative methodology. In Jack D. Glazier & Ronald R. Powell (Eds.), Qualitative research in information management (pp. 61-84). Englewood Cliffs, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
  • Greenberg, D.N. (1995, June). Blue versus gray: A metaphor constraining sensemaking around a restructuring. Group & Organization Management, 20(2), 183-209.
  • Hulland, C. & Mumby, H. (1994). Science, stories, and sense-making: A comparison of qualitative data from a wetlands unit. Science Education, 78(2), 117-136.
  • Nilan, M. (1985). Structural constraints and situational information seeking: A test of two predictors in a sense-making context. Unpublished master's thesis, University of Washington, Seattle, WA.
  • Savolainen, R. (1993). The sense-making theory: Reviewing the interests of a user-centered approach to information seeking and use. Information Processing & Management, 29(1), 13-28.
  • Weick, K.E. (1985). Cosmos vs. chaos: Sense and nonsense in electronic contexts." Organizational Dynamics, 14(2), 50-64.
  • Weick, K.E. (1993). Collapse of sensemaking in organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38, 628-652.
  • Starbuck, W. & Milliken, F. 1988. Executive perceptual filters: What they notice and how they make sense. in D. Hambrick (ed.) The executive effect: Concepts and methods for studying top managers: 35-65. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

See also Cognitive Dissonance Theory, Enactment, Interpretative and Interaction.
See also Organizational Communication, Interpersonal Communication and Relations