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

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