Sense-making is an intersubjective process of making meaning for individuals, groups, organizations, and societies. Weick’s theorizing about organizing and sense-making (1979; 1995; 2006) has been particularly influential in considerations of sense-making and is oriented toward understanding how people identify and work through puzzling, plausible, or equivocal experiences and how organizing emerges through micro-level and collective communicative practices and improvisations. Weick (1995) characterizes sense-making as a process grounded in identity construction that is retrospective, enactive of environments, social, ongoing, and driven by plausibility rather than accuracy. Although much organizational communication research uses sense-making to depict individual meaning-making of work, identities, and complex situations, sense-making processes actually link microthrough macro-processes such that organizational culture, structure, and knowledge are made more resilient.
Weick (1979) acknowledges the importance of communication in enacting, selecting, and retaining multiple meanings through the use of both rules (i.e., past insights, procedures, scripts, and routines) and cycles (i.e., development of possible novel actions and interpretations) that are validated consensually. Organizational members constantly shape the collective memory so that they act not only in accordance with expectations but also in response to current circumstances.
Sense-making occasions arise when gaps between the present and desired future are confused, or difficult to close (Weick 1995). Sense-making starts with the individual: “First, someone notices something, in an ongoing flow of events, something in the form of a surprise, a discrepant set of cues” (p. 2). Over time, the individual and the collective are intermingled as sense-making, a social process, involves others in actively structuring events and developing accounts to explain surprises. In sense-making, members attempt to fill in gaps by complicating or enriching the ways they and other members represent their organizational realities. Over time, more people join in persuading others about the viability of certain interpretations and actions. Thus organizing and sense-making processes have political consequences because whoever makes sense of confusing experiences, frames the meanings of these experiences for others, and encourages others to join in this collective and iterative framing gains much power and control.
Second, initial sense-making phases focus on certain extracted cues in situations with multiple possibilities. The cues, details, or moments that are focused upon and noted as confusing or memorable are extracted from an ongoing stream of human activity and surroundings and then pondered for plausibilities. How organization members determine where, when, and how to focus their attention has implications for the ways cases, such as accusations of sexual harassment or determinations about courses of action in wildland firefighting, unfold and how scenarios for different stakeholders are constructed (Buzzanell 2004; Dougherty & Smythe 2004; Weick 1993).
Next, in the identification and framing of understandings, sense-making involves “language work . . . to refine and enrich the representations that people impose on territories to make sense of them” (Weick 1992, 173). To accomplish this framing, members use specific interactional contexts as well as past experiences as resources for meaning creation. For example, Murphy (2001) describes the flight attendant’s dilemma as “knowing when to reproduce their dominant everyday routines and when to break these routines, risking possible organizational and/or interpersonal sanctions” (p. 31). Relating the past with present assessments and future organizational and relational possibilities demands inventive individual and collective sense-making. Flight attendants not only operate within improvisation and constraint in their work – especially during emergency situations but also in their relationships with pilots who operate as authority figures with power.
Fourth, sense-making involves the crafting of narratives. These narratives are stories of conviction and integration insofar as sense-making involves challenges to people’s known identities, courage to withstand assaults on credibility (because sense-making centers on possibilities that upset the taken-for-granted ordering of sensemakers’ worlds), and facility with storytelling to pull others into identity craftings and sense-making processes. As such, organization members create preferred identities and meanings of work through humor (Tracy et al. 2006) as well as discursive strategies of comparison, logic, and support for identity reformulations (Larson & Pepper 2003). It is through the telling of new stories and new frameworks for encountering crisis situations that resilient organizing processes can emerge (Sellnow et al. 2002).
Finally, sense-making mandates the construction of collective knowledge. Weick and Roberts (1993) write that communication processes are essential in creating reminders for members to heed or attend to their environments and learn from previous actions. Collective knowledge is (re)constructed every time insiders teach newcomers the ropes and relearn know-how. Collective knowledge construction is enhanced through narrators’ candor about failures as well as successes, their narrative skills, and newcomers’ attentiveness to sense-making stories. When members share experiences in rich, detailed, and memorable ways, their capacities to recall knowledge through scripts and other means are enhanced.
- Buzzanell, P. M. (2004). Revisiting sexual harassment in academe: Using feminist ethical and sensemaking approaches to analyze macrodiscourses and micropractices of sexual harassment. In P. M. Buzzanell, H. Sterk, & L. H. Turner (eds.), Gender in applied communication contexts. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 25–46.
- Dougherty, D. S., & Smythe, M. J. (2004). Sensemaking, organizational culture, and sexual harassment. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 32, 293–317.
- Larson, G. S., & Pepper, G. L. (2003). Strategies for managing multiple organizational identifications: A case of competing identities. Management Communication Quarterly, 16, 528– 557.
- Murphy, A. G. (2001). The flight attendant dilemma: An analysis of communication and sense making during in-flight emergencies. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 29, 30–53.
- Sellnow, T. L., Seeger, M. W., & Ulmer, R. R. (2002). Chaos theory, informational needs, and natural disasters. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 30, 269–292.
- Tracy, S. J., Myers, K. K., & Scott, C. W. (2006). Cracking jokes and crafting selves: Sensemaking and identity management among human service workers. Communication Monographs, 73, 283–308.
- Weick, K. E. (1979). The social psychology of organizing, 2nd edn. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
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- Weick, K. E. (1993). The collapse of sensemaking in organizations: The Mann Gulch disaster. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38, 628–652.
- Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Weick, K. E. (2001). Making sense of the organization. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Weick, K. E. (2006). Faith, evidence, and action: Better guesses in an unknowable world. Organization Studies, 27, 1723–1736.
- Weick, K. E., & Roberts, K. (1993). Collective mind in organizations: Heedful interrelating on flight decks. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38, 357–381.