How do people “make sense” of things in organizations?

            The formation of the concept of organizational sensemaking is attributed to Karl Weick, an American psychologist (Hatch, p.44).  According to Choo (1996), “The central concern of sensemaking is understanding how people in organizations construct meaning and reality, and then exploring how that enacted reality provides a context for organizational action, including decision making and knowledge building” (p.337).  Organizational sensemaking is set in motion, when members encounter events or circumstances that appear to contradict what they believe they already know.  This “ecological change” forces members to try to understand the differences (Choo, 1996, p.333).  It is how circumstances are categorized and converted into explicit language. It is how knowledge is converted from tacit to explicit.  It is an ongoing process that is “instrumental, subtle, swift, social and easily taken for granted” (Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld, p. 409).  Wright, Manning, Farmer & Gilbreath (2000) introduce the term “resourceful sensemaking” which they define as “the ability to appreciate the perspectives of others and use this understanding to enact horizon-expanding discourse”.  They believe the individual’s past experiences as well as their current standpoint is important to resourceful sensemaking (p. 823).

            Sensemaking theory suggests the real organization exists primarily in the minds of its members.  Organization sensemaking is not just an amalgam of individual cognitions but something more and different.  Sensemaking is a complex and dynamic process where members shape and are shaped by events (Weber & Manning, pp. 238-239).  It is how members deal with ambiguity.  The members create cognitive maps or schema of their experiences through which they construct or “make sense” of the organization.  These schemas have several functions.  They provide a structure to map experience, they direct information storage and retrieval, they impact efficiency and speed of information processing, they help to fill in information gaps, they provide problem solving templates and they facilitate planning for the future (Harris, p. 310).  Schema guided sensemaking can occur consciously or unconsciously and this internal dialogue impacts individual image and decision making (Harris, p. 315). 

             Weick, Sutcliffe and Obstfeld, assigned the following characteristics to sensemaking in organizations:

            “Sensemaking Organizes Flux-organizes chaos

            Sensemaking Starts with Noticing and Bracketing-classifies

            Sensemaking Is About Labeling-defines

            Sensemaking Is Retrospective-compares to experience

            Sensemaking Is About Presumption-tests intuition

            Sensemaking Is Social and Systemic-beyond the individual

            Sensemaking Is About Action-evolves through action

            Sensemaking Is About Organizing Through Communication-tacit knowledge is   made explicit through dialogue” (pp. 411-413).

             In organizations, sensemaking evolves through action.  As members take actions, they learn and make meaning.  The number of plausible options often gets reduced.  Because sensemaking is an evolutionary process, it is less about accuracy than it is plausibility (Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld, p. 415)

            It is generally agreed among the leading theorists that organizational sensemaking follows a connected sequence of stages.  Choo (1996, pp.333-334) indentified these stages as:

            Enactment-bracketing, labeling and rearranging, generate data

            Selection-choose meanings, create schema

            Retention-store successful sensemaking for the future

            Some sensemaking is belief-driven.  That is, members start with beliefs then seek out information to support those beliefs.  Other sensemaking is action-driven. Here, members start with actions and grow structures around them thereby creating meaning to justify or explain their actions.  Once the environment has been enacted, selections made and retained the organization is now faced with the “what now?” question or what Weick called, a consequential moment (Choo, 1996, p. 337).

            Power and emotion are two areas where more research is needed.  Power plays into sensemaking in that those in positions of power may disproportionately impact the sensemaking process.  According to Weick, Sutcliffe and Obstfeld the seven dimensions of sensemaking are:  “the social relations that are encouraged and discouraged, the identities that are valued or derogated, the retrospective meanings that are accepted or discredited, the cues that are highlighted or suppressed, the updating that is encouraged or discouraged, the standard of accuracy or plausibility to which conjectures are held and the approval or proactive or reactive action as the preferred mode of coping” (p. 418).  Members have emotional experiences when the sensemaking process is interrupted or resumed.  Their expectations impact the emotional reactions they will have to these events (Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld, p. 419).

            According to Choo (1996), three types of knowledge exist in organizations—tacit, explicit and cultural.  Tacit knowledge resides in the experience and expertise of individuals.  Explicit knowledge is found in artifacts and it is defined in terms of rules and routines.  Explicit knowledge can be articulated.  Cultural knowledge is found in the “assumptions, beliefs and values” of the organization.  Choo believes new knowledge and capabilities comes from the mingling of these three (pp. 334-335).

            Choo (1996) believes there are four knowledge conversion modes: 

            Socialization-tacit knowledge is obtained through shared experience

            Externalization-converting tacit knowledge into explicit concepts

            Combination-creating explicit knowledge through combination

            Internalization-“embodying” explicit knowledge (p. 335-336)

            If one considers organizations as “decision-making systems” then an organization, like an individual is limited by the concept of “bounded rationality”.  It cannot have all of the information about decision choices before making them.  It’s not possible in reality.  Therefore, like the individual, the organization is limited by “the mental skills, habits, and reflexes; by the extent of knowledge and information possesses; and by values or conceptions of purpose which may diverge from organizational goals”, as stated by Simon. 

            In order to protect itself, the organization establishes decision premises to guide its members.  These premises set up two decision making conditions.  First, members seek to satisfy, not exceed expectations.  Second, members seek to simplify in order to avoid uncertainty and reduce complexity (Choo, 1996, p. 331). One of the purposes of organization sensemaking is to reduce equivocality of information (Choo, 2002).

            Although often considered distinct processes, the information use areas of sensemaking, knowledge building and decision-making are highly interconnected.  Perhaps best thought of as concentric circles with sensemaking the outermost circle, then knowledge building then decision-making the three processes leading to organizational action are analogous to information interpretation, information conversion and information processing as shown below (Choo, 1996, p. 339).

  • Sensemaking—Information Interpretation
  • Knowledge Creation—Information Conversion
  • Decision Making—Information Processing

Choo characterizes an organization effectively integrating these processes as a “knowing organization” (1996, p.339).  In these organizations, there are continuous reiterative cycles of sensemaking, knowledge creation and decision making.  Certainly more research on the interplay of these processes would be of great value.

            Isabella (1990) identified stages of sensemaking taking place during organizational change.  These are anticipation, confirmation, culmination and aftermath.  With anticipation, managers may consider a plethora of information from rumor to bits and pieces of factual and non-factual information.  Confirmation is an interpretational stage following anticipation.  Here, events are put into a framework or schema and standardized.  It’s what Isabella calls “reasoning by analogy”.  Culmination follows confirmation.  Here, organizations members adjust their interpretations of an event. Isabella’s final stage is aftermathAftermath is a post-mortem analysis or an evaluation.  (pp. 16-26)  Weber and Manning (2001) assert the processes proposed by Isabella are circular rather than linear as she suggests (p. 240).

            Meindl, Stubbart & Porac (1994) suggested there are many important questions for those conducting research in organizational cognition. 

  • What is an appropriate construct system for describing managerial and organizational cognition?  While there is general agreement schemas play an important role in the sensemaking process, there is not much agreement about how to use and interpret them (Meindl, Stubbart & Porac, p. 290).
  • What is an appropriate way to treat level-of-analysis issues in cognitive research?  Should research be conducted at the individual, group, organization or industry level? (Meindl, Stubbart & Porac, p. 290), (Walsh, p. 280).
  • What is the relationship between cognitive structure and cognitive process?  Most of the research has looked at either the process (individual/collective) or structure (schema, etc.) of thought. Very few have looked at both. (Meindl, Stubbart & Porac, p. 291)
  • What is the relationship between managerial cognition and organizational outcomes?  There has been pressure to link research on organization cognition to outcomes.  Unfortunately, the measures are difficult at best.  (Meindl, Stubbart & Porac, p. 292)
  • What role do “cognitive aids” have in shaping managerial and organizational cognition?  Not enough attention has been given to collective problem formulation and solution development (Meindl, Stubbart & Porac, p. 292).

            Substantial research exists about sensemaking and innovation. Dougherty, et al (2000) suggests innovative and non-innovative organizations have qualitatively different sensemaking systems.  Innovative organizations link knowledge to solve customer problems.  Non-innovative organizations link knowledge to solve functional operational problems which do not necessarily directly address customer concerns.  Innovative organizations differ from non-innovative organizations in how they manage tension.  Innovative organizations purposefully contrast new technologies and insights with established ones at the product, business and strategic level in order to create new knowledge.  Non-innovative organizations use tension to “confirm, verify and exploit existing knowledge”.  It’s more about doing what they do better than doing something new or different (pp. 342-344).

            Weber and Manning (2001) suggest cognitive maps may help further understanding of sensemaking in organizations by explaining how hierarchy and culture impact the process.  Their study indicated one’s position in the organizational hierarchy, and access to information, were significant factors in sensemaking during organizational change.  They advocate a broad distribution of information as a means to address those differences (p. 243). 

            Research suggests information technology can be designed to better support the sensemaking processes in organizations.  In their article, Boland, Tenkasi & Te’eni (1994), argue information technology has not addressed the distributed cognition phenomenon of sensemaking.  They believe distributed cognition should be viewed as a hermeneutic inquiry and technology should be designed to support that process.  Information technology should “support distributed cognition by enabling individuals to make rich representations of their understanding, reflect upon those representations, engage in dialogue about them with others, and use them to inform action. The authors suggest six design principles for distributed cognition.  They are:

  1. Ownership-an interpretation belongs to an individual
  2. 2.    Easy Travel-an interpretation should be easily linked to another
  3. 3.    Multiplicity-individuals should make their own interpretations and participate in critique
  4. Indeterminacy-interpretations are not necessarily complete or precise
  5. Emergence-new concepts emerge during interpretation
  6. Mixed Form-members should be able to represent their interpretations in mixed form.  They should not be limited to written communication.

                                                                                                            (pp. 456-457)

                A substantial amount of research has been conducted around individual cognition.  However, much work is needed in the area of organizational thought processes.  Weick speaks of the “collective mind” in organizations.  According to Weick and Roberts (1993), “collective mind is conceptualized as a pattern of heedful interrelations of actions in a social system”.  The mind, says Weick, “is an integration of feeling, thinking and willing”.  An organizational mind evolves from social processes.  Weick says, “People act heedfully when they act more or less carefully, critically, consistently, purposefully, attentively, studiously, vigilantly, conscientiously, pertinaciously” (p. 361).  When organizations practice “mindfulness”, they seem to be more effective (p. 357).

            Wright, Manning, Farmer and Gilbreath (2000) suggest the sensemaking practices “shape and are shaped” by events and the “lifeworld”.  Events are occurrences which trigger a need to interpret.  The “lifeworld” is the background against which these events are evaluated.  It is the “routines, interactions, values and skills which are essential to the conduct of everyday affairs (pp. 818-819)

           Isabella (1990) suggests one of the implications of the organizational sensemaking research is that organizational change professionals and leaders might begin to think differently about change resistance. Rather than something to be mitigated, it may be better construed as a necessary part of the organization’s learning process.  Additionally, her research indicates manager’s roles may vary according to the stage of cognition (p.33). 

           Walsh (1995) identified several areas for a future research agenda.  In the area of representation, he suggests researchers need to reconsider the value of descriptive studies of knowledge structure.  He believes a better understanding of the relationship between knowledge structures and the environments they represent is needed.  Walsh suggests the study of content and structure should be combined.  He believes researchers should look at organization cognition as something other than an aggregation of individual minds (pp. 303-308). 

           In the area of use, he suggests many researchers may be guilty of “The Fallacy of the Wrong Level” when investigating supra-individual knowledge structures.  Walsh thinks more research is warranted in the area of knowledge structure use.  As he states, “research suggests we can be mindful, mindless or ‘out of our minds’.  We need to know more about “out of our mind” behavior.  We need to know more about how knowledge structures are linked to managing organizations (pp. 303-308).

           Development is another area where more research is needed.  Since there is so much evidence of the dynamic nature of organization knowledge structures, we need a better understanding of information processing.  Additionally, we need more information about the “costs and benefits of forgetting”, according to Walsh.  And finally, more research about the “social and emotional bases of change” is needed (pp. 306-308).

           There are significant methodological challenges for researchers in this domain.  The subject matter is inherently difficult to classify and measure.  It is even difficult for researchers to be certain they are measuring their subject’s processes and not their own.  Advances in research design are called for.  Longitudinal studies incorporating cognitive mapping, argument mapping and semiotic analysis techniques have promise. (Walsh, pp. 308-311)

           The field of organization sensemaking and cognition is still very broad.  It’s believed future research will focus upon areas of the domain which hold the greatest promise.  The highly-exploited arena of level-of-analysis is likely to fall by the wayside to more promising topics such as interpretive dominance.  Future research will better integrate the study of both process and content and the most important studies will link cognition, behavior and organization outcomes.  And finally, information systems will play a more important role in facilitating, managing and measuring sensemaking and other organizational cognition processes (Meindl, Stubbart & Porac, p.293).


Boland, R., Tenkasi, R. & Dov Te’eni. (1994).  Designing Information Technology to Support Distributed Cognition.  Organization Science, Vol. 5, No. 3, August, pp.456-475.

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Weick, K. & Roberts, K. (1993).  Collective Mind in Organizations:  Heedful interrelating on flight decks.  Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 3, September, pp.358-381.

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Wright, C.R., Manning, M.R., Farmer, B. & Gilbreath, B. (2000).  Resourceful Sensemaking in Product Development Teams.  Organization Studies.  21: 807, pp. 808-825.

2 thoughts on “How do people “make sense” of things in organizations?”

  1. Hello Ed,
    Very interesting article. I will give it a read, but I am wondering why the decision process would be different for people – in organizations as opposed to any community group, club, or individually as then confront the world and others?

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