From education to employment

Making Sense of Sensemaking

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A review of ‘Sensemaking’ by Christian Madsbjerg, Abacus 2019

Christian Madsbjerg’s paperback Sensemaking (Abacus, 2019) is a good read for fascinating facts in some quiet, screen-free weekend, maybe in partnership with your favourite crime fiction and newspaper. Quite unsettling to discover in the book’s opening pages that a Ford CEO didn’t seem to have overseas executives advising him of cultural differences regarding customers’ vehicle procurement plans – so he hired a consultant, not kick their executive butts? Its chapters are certainly not short of interesting quotes, biographies, case studies and tips for folk concerned with organizations; but does it need a little tweaking (and index please) to help newcomers appreciate the practicality of its problem-solving theme?

The book’s eight chapters start with 1. Making Sense of the World, 2. Silicon Valley is a State of Mind, and 3. Culture – Not Individuals, and end with 8. What Are People For? Words are prime for consultant Christian; surprisingly, the book’s two-hundred pages lack a single diagram. Since readers sensemaking will operate within, say, the context of a small school, major hospital, or group of related council departments, I expected to find a few case studies, but also coherent ideas proposed as organizational theory: what organizations have in common, what identifies them as unique, plus transferable principles for inquiry suited to lay researchers, not just itinerant professional staff. Yes, there are numerous recommendations in the text, I’d like to see them brought neatly together as ‘an approach’.  A test. If Jenny Smith was asked to step in and manage a Sensemaking-type inquiry three weeks after its start, what should she expect to receive by way of its history, and how will she know (from some handed-over account of work to date) whether the participants had run their enquiry correctly – or miscalculated, or overlooked something important prior to number crunching?

Do Homo sapiens err? Reviewing a big scale calamity in high-tech North America, the mediocre performance of green technology battered by Siberian-style cold brought cities to a standstill in February 2021; critics (GWPF February 2021) wrote on how too much depended on a single network. Running out of heating fuel in Texas is like ‘starving to death in a grocery store. You can only do it on purpose’. Which is what a government ‘recklessly reliant’ on wind turbines chose to do. In Germany, a longstanding region of engineering excellence, part of that month iced over millions of solar panels and static wind turbines, leaving citizens ‘shivering in their lederhosen’.

The phenomenologist Martin Heidegger earns a mention, maybe not in sufficient depth. Having turned his mentor Husserl’s principles through 180 degrees, Heidegger appears to advocate less concern with thoughts when he suggested ‘the world is not characterized by the set of ideas individuals have inside their heads’ (p95); instead, he recommends we focus on social structures: the French wine in a glass, the tables, the waiters, and their customers, not just the drink. Go to the Parisian café! But this maxim (aligned with chapter three’s title) downplays awkward mental moments, as when a potential waiter worries about the job offer during interview, or, equally awkward, a week later, when the waiter becomes anxious while arriving at church on his very special day. ‘I do’ or ‘I do, don’t I’? So, the unique ideas in our heads seem worth exploring, even if Heidegger, Popper, and unfathomable Wittgenstein didn’t overly concern themselves with the social world’s considerable ever-fluctuating variety. Given our knowledge of French eateries and other organizations is rather scant, their social milieu may hide opaque issues worth investigating, perhaps assisted by well-structured, sense-making processes. In fact, the distinctive descriptions we hold inside our heads seem so vital to one’s personal identity that I may have misunderstood the author’s message regarding the French café!  

Regrettably, I admit unresolved difficulty in understanding the ‘how to’ of author’s mission, described as both ‘an ancient practice of cultural inquiry’ as well as ‘an intellectual adventure story grounded in the tenets of twentieth century philosophy’ (xxi), and, on the back cover, a defence of the humanities-based education via engagement with culture, language, and history. Massive life-consuming themes. But – for students whose appetite is still not yet satiated – in the book’s Foreword (x) Sensemaking is also about ‘critical thinking’ – a topic which can pop up occasionally as a subject in its own right (e.g. Critical Thinking by Richard Paul, or The New Critical Thinking by Jack Lyons & Barry Ward). Less densely packed theory and more precision in explaining the logic of Sensemaking’s approach would have been welcome.

By Neil Richardson

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