Sensemaking, the core skill of the 21st Century….

Mar 7 · 4 min read

In the 1970s Karl Weick[1] an American organisational theorist introduced the concept of “sensemaking” into organisational studies.

He explored how people try to make sense of organisations, and organisations themselves try to make sense of their environment.

In this sensemaking, Weick paid attention to questions of ambiguity and uncertainty and how we frame and act in the unknown and give meaning to our collective experience.

This shift in how we think about decision making has rapidly become the central skill required to navigate the 21st Century

As the rate of technological, social, environmental and economic change accelerates we need to build plausible maps of the shifting world, testing these maps through observation, listening, conducting conversations, capturing diverse perspectives, harnessing the collective intelligence, interpreting data and then repeatedly refining these maps retesting our assumptions again and again over time.

By having a better grasp of what we perceive to be occurring we are better placed to respond and navigate change through a clearer vision, context, and perspective.

In 1961 at the age of 33 US Fighter Pilot John Boyd[2] gave a series of briefings on a strategic tool that he had developed called the OODA Loop[3] — Observe, Orient, Decide & Act that could be used in a military strategy to make decisions in environments of extreme uncertainty.

Boyd suggested that all intelligent organisms and organisations undergo a continuous cycle of interaction with their environment that he broke down into four interrelated overlapping processes. The tool not only revolutionised military strategy but provided a universal framework for decision making in environments of high uncertainty.

We are entering a period of accelerating change and uncertainty as we move through Industry 4.0.

Recently, Israel History Professor Yuval Harari made some observations in UK Wired Magazine on the role of teaching and learning in this emerging environment.

The following is a quote from the article:

“In such a world, the last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. They already have too much of it. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world”[4].

Tim O’Reilly, technology entrepreneur and the author of WTF?: What’s the Future and Why it’s Up to Us? takes a similar approach in how he refines his understanding of the interplay between technology and humanity.

He calls this approach “map making[5]”, a skill dating back to Ancient Greece[6].

Map making requires us to understand the underlying assumptions and narratives that we as humans and communities shape.

For example, through this framework, he raises some central questions and concerns around the long term sustainability of certain digital network platform business models and the adoption of algorithms that may not always be aligned with our human needs and aspirations.

By doing so he challenges and questions the prevailing narrative and providing opportunities for reimagining these approaches.

Andrew Moore who is the Dean of Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science recently spoke[9] about the emerging shift in computer science where the combination of AI/Machine Learning, ubiquitous internet & sensors come together. The mashing of computer science, engineering, and robotics.

These new machines are increasingly likely to have the capacity to sense & scan, contextualise and respond to the environments they inhabit. AI/machine learning at the edge of the network and the internet of things are good examples.

Sensemaking extends far beyond digital or technology.

Christian Madsbjerg in his book “Sensemaking — The Power of the Humanities in the Age of Algorithms[7]” explores sensemaking from a deeper human perspective.

Harvard Business Review is quoted as saying on reviewing the book:

“Madsberg argues that unless companies take pains to understand the human beings represented in their data sets, they risk losing touch with the markets they’re serving. He says the deep cultural knowledge business need comes not from numbers-driven market research but from a humanities-driven study of texts, languages, and people.”

In closing, we will leave you with a quote from the Greek Philosopher Socrates:

“The more I know, the more I realise I know nothing” [8]…..

More than ever we require the empathy, cognitive flexibility, and curiosity to embrace seeing the world from a range of alternative perspectives and the humility to recognise that the more we learn the more we begin to realise how little we really know of the complex systems we all inhabit….











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Supporting people, organisations and communities navigate, thrive and prosper in Industry 4.0

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