Tag: Rise of SenseMaking


SenseMaking / The Karl Weick Question


Hello Humantific readers. As long standing SenseMaking for ChangeMaking practitioners we are often asked this question: How does 21st century SenseMaking practice differ from Karl Weick’s SenseMaking?

Many of our clients and readers know Weick’s work well. Often the question behind the question is: How does that literature, that theory, those constructions fit with what we do at Humantific?

Widely recognized as an important American organizational psychologist and theorist, Karl E. Weick is among the pioneers of the contemporary SenseMaking movement. The author of several important books including SenseMaking in Organizations, his work connects across numerous knowledge communities of practice.

While acknowledging and appreciating Karl Weick, we think it is important to recognize that his work represents only one of several avenues that lead into what is now 21st century SenseMaking. Weick’s avenue is one that happens to have a particular texture, tone, and focus. Other avenues with different textures and tones also exist.

To place Weick in perspective we appreciate this cross-community picture:

In 1989 Richard Saul Wurman published Information Anxiety pointing out “the tsunami of data and information” already crashing on our collective shores and the need to gear up to better digest and make sense of that tsunami.

Six years later in a parallel universe Karl E. Weick published his landmark SenseMaking in Organizations.

Unfortunately, Karl did not know of Richard. The information SenseMaking consciousness and professional precisions that Wurman wrote about in 1989 are completely absent from Weick’s 1995 perspective as is any deeper information architecture/design historical recognition. Of course, it is not so unusual, even today to see one knowledge community not being aware of work going on in another community.

Weick’s work never-the-less contains many insight gems – and for those studying the broad subject of SenseMaking, I would highly recommend reading his many still relevant perspectives. Wurman’s classic, updated Information Anxiety 2 remains required reading at Humantific. In the years since those two books were published interest in SenseMaking has continued to rise, and rise and rise.

Writing in SenseMaking in Organizations in 1995, Weick’s view as an organizational scholar is not exactly aligned with what we do in everyday SenseMaking consulting practice, but there is nothing particularly contradictory there. Today, what SenseMaking has already become significantly extends the pioneering perspectives of Wurman and Weick that were, in themselves, built on the shoulders of many others who came before them. (See Note “Others” below.)

Here are five reasons why 21st century SenseMaking practice differs from Weick’s SenseMaking.

1. More Than Organizations 

Weick was/is focused at the altitude of organizations. As an organizational psychologist writing in 1995, he viewed organizations as complex learning systems. He often referred to organizations being equivalent to level eight on Kenneth Boulding’s (1956) nine level Scale of System Complexity. As important as this altitude view is in the community it is only part of where SenseMaking is focused today. At an even broader altitude, Societal SenseMakers are interested in the application of SenseMaking in less structured society, where different mechanisms come into play. Today both altitudes are extremely activated.

2. More Than Emergence 

Weick saw organizations as “interpretation systems” focused internally and externally. In Weick’s SenseMaking picture, internal organizational actors engage in collective SenseMaking, primarily through discussion, and without any specialized tools or knowledge. As an observer of organizational interpretation, Weick paints a picture of 200% emergence, 100% on the process side and 100% on the content side in a continuous cycle.

The notion of professional SenseMakers – as specialized intermediary enabling actors – does not appear in Weick’s SenseMaking picture. Today SenseMaking is not only a naturally occurring organizational or societal function that everyone participates in, it is also one being addressed by a significant, growing, and rapidly changing industry of professional enablers of organized SenseMaking – sometimes called “Distributed SenseMaking”.

In 21st century organizational and societal contexts where change is now constant, there is not always time for the machinations of 200% emergence. In many organizations, 200% emergence represents the existing conditions that organizational leaders seek to overcome and improve upon. The function of professional SenseMaking in general is to provide frameworks or scaffolds that serve as cognitive accelerators. Unless they intend to conduct an academic study, what organizational leaders are most often seeking are the tools and methods of enabling sensemaking acceleration. While not appearing in Weick’s work, many tools, frameworks and SenseMaking acceleration models now exist in practice. The insights and ideas being generated might be 100% emergent but for professional SenseMakers much has already been learned and the process is not 100% emergent in every application.

3. More Than Words

Weick saw dialogue primarily as words, so was not focused on visualization as an enabler and accelerator of SenseMaking. His work was not about exploring how visualization enhances SenseMaking. In his later 2005 writings, Weick sought to make SenseMaking more action-oriented, but still described it as “turning circumstances into a situation that is comprehended explicitly in words.” To Visual SenseMakers today, this orientation and omission contradicts his stated SenseMaking intentions. A key aspect of SenseMaking today is the deliberate construction of balance between words and visuals in recognition of the diverse manner in which humans digest information. This is a large part of what professional SenseMakers operating in organizations are actively engaged in. Not present in Weick’s work, knowledge of how to create that balance is now foundational to all forms of Visual SenseMaking practice.

4. More Than Data

In Weick’s organizational SenseMaking universe, “Operational researchers and other staff personnel perform computations on environmental data and weigh alternatives before proceeding.” Today, making sense of data is only one part of SenseMaking. Those involved in transformation/changemaking by design have already moved beyond data visualization and are enabling collective SenseMaking of the complex challenge/opportunity space, the human activities in the space, the abstract ideas in the space, etc – not just the data or information in that arena.

In the context of an increasingly complex world, SenseMaking has been broadened, repurposed, and reframed to better sync with the activities already underway in transformation practice. This represents significant change for those involved in next generation design practice, transformation practice – whatever you want to call that.

Part of the challenge in studying Weick is that in his writing on the subject of SenseMaking he did not walk the walk as Wurman did. Much of Weick’s writing is jargon-filled, academic, and somewhat impenetrable. Weick was primarily focused on his own scholarly academic tribal audience.

In addition, Weick’s writing on the subject rarely contained visualization. For every 2000 words, you might see one small visual model. The protocols that he was writing to were those of academia, not of diverse cognition.

In contrast, Wurman was interested in directing his insights at the general public. His explanations signaled knowledge of cognitive balancing. Missing from Weick’s work, today this kind of awareness is considered in practice to be part of Visual SenseMaking 101.

5. More Than Learning 

Weick was/is more attuned to organizational learning as a form of action and less oriented towards design, transformation, problem solving or changemaking modes and methods. His three-part process of Scanning, (Data Collection), Interpretation (Data Given Meaning), and Learning (Action Taken) maps primarily to the front-end of transformation process. He makes no methodical connection to the remainder of the transformation cycle. Today SenseMakers with deep innovation methods knowledge are more directly placing SenseMaking in a ChangeMaking methodological context.

Connections are being made not just between interpretation and learning, but between understanding, directly informing ChangeMaking as a form of enlightened deliberate action. Today savy organizations are working on making more robust connections between ongoing SenseMaking and ongoing ChangeMaking. This is Level 10 SenseMaking connected directly to a sharable ChangeMaking cocreation process.

Theoretical Foundations / Forward Motions

Today SenseMaking sits at the intersections of multiple realms of knowledge, underpinned by numerous interconnected theoretical foundations that one can certainly study including: information theory, learning theory, organizational development theory, organizational psychology, knowledge creation theory, cognitive theory, communication theory, systems theory, emergence theory, complexity theory, chaos theory, design theory, innovation theory, social network theory, problem solving theory, anticipatory science theory, futurology & foresight theory, behavioral change theory, transformation by design, etc.

In spite of the zillions of related theories, a lot of great thinking, and considerable research, there is not one solid, encompassing theoretical foundation for what SenseMaking is becoming. Needless to say, we are, at Humantific, interested in participating in the reformulation of what SenseMaking is evolving into. Like so many other realms of knowledge, we recognize SenseMaking as a pattern, a knowledge arena in forward motion.

If you look closely underneath the Design Thinking revolution, we believe you will find that it primarily involves the scaling up of SenseMaking. Inward and outward directed human-centered research has all become part of SenseMaking. For some of us, the scaling up of SenseMaking is the revolution within the Design Thinking and ChangeMaking revolutions.

In 2011 The Institute of the Future in California identified SenseMaking among Future Work Skills 2020. Since then many other organizations have taken interest and have begun capacity building in one form or another. In the global marketplace there continues to be significant interest in onboarding Future Work Skills 2020.

For all the natural born SenseMakers out there, and those who strive to become involved, this is all good news! At Humantific we are delighted to be part of the ever evolving Visual SenseMaking community.

Big thanks to Karl Weick and Richard Wurman for their many contributions.

Hope this is helpful.


Note to Readers: Other Visual SenseMakers

Those studying this subject might be interested to note that Visual SenseMaking in the context of organizations and societies has a very long history.

Fifty or so years prior to the Wurman and Weick publications referenced above numerous societal SenseMaking works were published by Otto Neurath & Isotype, circa 1937-1945. Isotype created an entire SenseMaking visual language toolkit that remains influential still today.

Twenty eight years earlier Willard C. Brinton published Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts in 1917.

Many 19th Century Atlases contained Societal SenseMaking in the form of hand drawn diagrams.

One hundred thirty years prior to Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts, and two hundred+ years prior to Wurman and Weick, William Playfair published the landmark Commercial and Political Atlas in 1786.


Humantific: Isotype Building Bridges
Humantific: The Inclusion Factor: Isotype
Humantific: Before During and After Isotype


Humantific at Big Data Conference in Paris

Humantific CoFounder Elizabeth Pastor will speak on the subject of SenseMaking for ChangeMaking at the VisionPlus 13 Conference in Paris June 18-20, 2009.

Being organized by the International Institute of Information Design (IIIID) and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) the conference focus is Data Designed For Decisions / Enhancing social, economic and environmental progress.

For more information about the conference go here:
Data Designed For Decisions


From the conference materials: “Data is collected for all areas of life. It is available in abundance – the question is, how can it be used effectively? How can it help people understand, and how does understanding help people to take action?

Experts from around the world will investigate the effects of selection, visualization, interpretation and communication of statistical data, and how it can be effectively used to:

• help understand complex issues,
• make data relevant at a personal level,
• close the gap between objective measurement and perception,
• take decisions based on evidence.

Speakers will be from such diverse disciplines as information design, visualization, social sciences, cognitive science, earth sciences, the media, development planning, economics and statistics.

The goal of the conference is to provide a platform for exchanging different views, methods and approaches. Participants should expect to leave with new insights into their own subject, unexpected alliances, and visions for the future.”

Humantific has many friends in the IIID community and appreciate its high standards and rigor.

Some History:

In 1999 VanPatter and Pastor presented Conceptual Idea Modeling at Vision Plus 6 in Vienna. In 1998 Pastor presented her graduate thesis, Conecta Learning System at Vision Plus 5 in Schwarzenberg.

For more information about IIID go here:
International Institute for Information Design


The Rise of Visual SenseMaking 



Humantific at VizThink in San Jose

Humantific CoFounder Elizabeth Pastor will be facilitating a session at the upcoming VizThink 09 Conference in San Jose, California on February 22-25.

At Humantific, Visual SenseMaking is a hybrid activity integral to ChangeMaking that combines visual design thinking, challenge framing and advanced strategic problem solving.

Elizabeth teaches Visual SenseMaking in Humantific’s Complexity Navigation Program that combines skill-building in Strategic CoCreation, Design Research and Visual SenseMaking.

In that program business executives learn a five dimensional model of SenseMaking that includes:

1. understanding the opportunity space

2. understanding the humans in the opportunity space

3. understanding the information in the opportunity space

4. understanding the opportunity owners

5. understanding the project team.

It is an incredibly useful innovation toolkit for all 21st century change making leaders.


Visual SenseMaking For Leaders
The Complexity Navigation Program / Health Care Innovation

NOTE: The next Visual SenseMaking Workhops will be held in the spring in New York and Madrid.

To express interest in registering send an email to:
programs (at) humantific (dot) com


Humantific at Design Next in India

Humantific CoFounder, Elizabeth Pastor will be giving a talk on SenseMaking for ChangeMaking at the Design Next / Inspiring Transformation Conference in Pune, India December 1-3 2008.

From the conference program: “The Value of Design: There is more to design than simply about “look and feel”. Design is about creating strategic solutions to business problems. The speakers in this section will describe the importance of design in todays economy and will talk about the increasingly crucial role of design in competitiveness of companies in the global economy.”

Of course to answer the question about the value of “design” one has to be able to decipher and explain which “design” one is referring to. Elizabeth will be talking about the value of Design 3.0 / Transformation Design.

Find more details on the conference in Pune see here:

Also see Reflections on the 2007 Leadership by Design Summit in Bangalore.


Early Ballot Poorly Designed

Today we saw the US election ballot being sent out to early voters here in New York state and what a SenseMaking nightmare it is folks. It looks like the Board of Elections in New York did not learn anything from that last US election.  What happened to the much ballyhooed “Design for Democracy” work done by the AIGA here in Manhattan? Was there no uptake right here in New York state?

Imagine senior citizens trying to figure out this ballot! It lists Obama/Biden in two different columns and McCain/Palin in three different columns with no explanation as to why. The entire multi-year election process comes down to these tiny little ovals on a ballot form! The creators of this document have evidently decided that the needs of the processing machine are more important than the cognitive needs of the humans attempting to fill out this form. When there is so much invested in this election process and so much at stake it boggles the mind to see this important instrument done so poorly. With a little SenseMaking brainpower this could have been designed so much more effectively for everyone of voting age. Keep your fingers crossed that next week voters across the country can figure out the myriad of ballots awaiting them. Honestly our government must start doing a much better job with democracy related instruments if democracy is to survive. In its present form this early ballot instrument is unfortunately not representative of a leading nation. Come on folks we can do better than this!

PS: We are interested in all other US election 2008 ballots so feel free to send your scans to research (at) humantific (dot) com 


Humantific Book

Humantific CoFounders, Elizabeth Pastor and GK VanPatter are at work writing
SenseMaking for ChangeMaking, Making Innovation and Change Happen, a new book focused on the SenseMaking revolution underway in the innovation enabling arena. Pioneers of the modern, Visual SenseMaking movement VanPatter and Pastor made their first conference presentation on the role of Visual SenseMaking in innovation acceleration in 1999 at Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, New York. The new book opens a window into ten years of lessons learned in practice working with organizations in the context of change and innovation initiatives, as well as sharing the emerging state of Visual SenseMaking for ChangeMaking today. If you would like to get on the Humantific book list send an email to projects (at) humantific (dot) com.

Update: 2012. Yes this book is still being worked on in between client projects. Yes we are a little behind schedule!


Visual SenseMaking for Leaders

Humantific will hold its first OPEN Visual SenseMaking for Leaders Workshop in October, 2008 in New York. Previously only available as part of the Complexity Navigation Program (seen in the photos above) this new condensed Introduction to Visual SenseMaking is designed as a one day session for business leaders who have to explain complex ideas, stories, strategies, products, services, change initiatives, etc, to diverse audiences; investors, partners, employees, customers, etc. Participants are introduced to the power of visual thinking and learn some basic methods for making visual sense of complex situations. This one day workshop is ideally suited to business executives, team leaders, project managers who want to tap into Visual SenseMaking as part of their design thinking toolbox. Space is limited. If you would like more info about this or any Humantific learning program send an email to programs (at) humantific (dot) com.