Sensemaking in Organizations

In the Fall of 2010, I was taking a seminar in organizational behavior. It was a morning class, and in a much different format than I was used to. We read what, at the time, seemed like a ludicrous number of papers and then proposed questions we had about each to the professor. The professor then spent 15-20 minutes per paper summarizing and discussing the significance of each paper, answering our questions as he went along. It was a small and intimate class which made the moments that I dosed off that more embarrasing. It was a very interesting class, but the lecture-like format was not engaging enough at 9 in the morning when I had stayed up until 1-2 to read all of the required papers.

One day we read a paper that deeply impacted my perception f how research can be done and explained in organizational behavior. The paper was called "The collapse of sensemaking" by Karl Weick, an influential but controversial individual within the field. Van Mannan argued in the article I mentioned yesterday that the article I am about to describe was extremely powerful but never would have seen the light of day under Pfeffer's system. Pfeffer shot back that Weick was not formally rigorous enough which only stoked Van Maanan's dislike for Pfeffer.

The article is very, very different from what you typically see in academic literature. It is a narrative about the Mann Gulch disaster that holds some information to its chest in order to make the impacts of the revelation of Weick's theory that more convincing. The article has nearly 2500 citations according to Google Scholar. There are no formal hypotheses, no statistical anlayses, but it's also not quite a theory paper. It is a kind of paper that I have only seen Karl Weick write. I mentioned the argument between Pfeffer and Van Maannan to a professor at my institution about their discussion of Weick's style. I do not remember the specifics, but they were clear that his pursuits are only possible after tenure and that few besides him can write these narrative theoretic pieces.

The paper begins with a description of the Mann Gulch disaster. Weick relies on a book "Young Men and Fire" written by Normal Maclean who interviewed survivors of the event.  As a very brief summary, a group of young firefighters parachuted into a forest where a fire had been reported. Their role was to act quickly to prevent the fire from spreading by digging fire lines as well as repairs damage from a fire. The men unfortunately were unprepaired for a large active and fast moving fire. They found themselves in a position where fire was rapidly approaching and they needed to act fast to survive. 13 of the 16 men died that day. Of those that survived, two found a way through a rock crevice, the other survived by lighting a brush fire at his feet and lying down in the ashes. The actions of this last individual, Wagner Dodge, led Weick to begin his theorizing about the collapse of sensemaking within this group of men.

Sensemaking is the way in organizations act in ways to create order in their environment through their actions based on their purpose and culture. The theory of sensemaking apparently arose as an alternative to focusing just on the decision making process itself (as proposed by March of the Carnegie School). In other words, the organization's actions are in response to the way reality is perceived in order to maintain their perception of reality. Weick's primary argument is that the actions of the firefighters were in line with their incorrect perception of reality and when they were faced with a new reality, they were unable to 'make sense' of the situation. Their training became useless because they were no longer in a situation they could understand. Dodge was able to make sense of the situation when others could not and essentially set a fire line where he stood. This prevented the fire from coming as close to him as the ground was already burned. His command to the others to join him in the fire seemed to go against their identity as firefighters.

I don't want to get into the details of the paper as it is extremely dense and it is certainly worth a read. This paper is particularly important to me because of the way it is presented. It is intuitive and rigorous within the setting. Even though there is no data, you can tell that an extraordinary amount of thought went into the construction of the paper. I don't use sensemaking in my research and I'm not sure I agree with it in opposition to other concepts that it somewhat collides with (like the Carnegie School) but damn does WEick make a good argument.