Sensemaking. A plea for a conversation between organisation theory and hermeneutics

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The article has a threefold purpose: To introduce an important new doctoral study in organisation theory; to provide a critical overview of core aspects of the dissertation and to develop these further; and to stimulate a conversation between sensemaking theory and hermeneutics.

The dissertation in question is Christiaan Maasdorp’s “Narrativity and organisation: an investigation in sensemaking theory” for which he was awarded a PhD degree by Stellenbosch University in 2018. Sensemaking is a key concept in organisation theory which was introduced and developed by Karl Weick. His pioneering work made him a well-known figure among a wide group of followers. Maasdorp recognises the importance of his contribution, but argues that Weick’s theory also contains serious defects and that hermeneutics, and more especially the work of Paul Ricoeur, has much to offer to rectify these shortcomings.

Maasdorp’s study represents the first sustained attempt to initiate a conversation between hermeneutics and organisation theory. The never-ending quest for understanding and for interpretation is a core pursuit and a generic competency required in many fields which - apart from classical expressions in philosophy and theology - encompasses historiography, jurisprudence, literature and many more fields. Surprisingly, Weick developed his theory (apart from a few cursory references) without any serious engagement with hermeneutics. The present article discusses the need for this long overdue interdisciplinary interaction in three stages. The first part provides an overview of Weick’s concept of sensemaking and its development within organisation theory. The second analyses Maasdorp’s critique of Weick’s approach and his proposed remedy based on Ricoeur’s insights, and more specifically on the latter’s concept of a narrative identity. The concluding part offers an own contribution by exploring aspects of Ricoeur’s philosophy which Maasdorp does not exploit sufficiently.

Weick’s efforts to provide an alternative to existing approaches in organisation theory (culminating in his Sensemaking in organizations of 1995) are premised on a shift from institution to process. In the formulation of Maasdorp, “Weick focuses on enactment by organisational actors whilst institutionalism focuses on the sedimentation of rationalislation”. This leads Weick to explore the (by now well-known) seven features of the sensemaking process: It is retrospective because it makes sense of what already has happened (any form of forecasting therefore has little value if it does not take this retrospective dimension into account); it is enactive of sensible environments in the sense that we partly produce the environments we are facing; it is social because sensemaking is never a monologue, but proceeds from interaction with others; it is ongoing and iterative, as part of an open system which never reaches final closure; it is focused on clues extracted from the overflow of data and proceeds from frames imposed on this data; it is driven by plausibility rather than accuracy because decisions cannot be deferred until all possible information is gathered and processed; and it is grounded in identity construction in so far as the identity of the organisation is essentially formed by the sensemaking process and by the decisions and actions resulting from this process.

The issue of identity provides the starting point for Maasdorp’s critique of Weick. His main objection is that Weick does not develop a strong enough theoretical framework to explain the core features of organisations. He relies too strongly on social psychology and interpretative sociology and therefore remains caught up in a positivist paradigm. Part of the problem is that Weick’s theory developed through various phases. What started as a theory of enactment to explain the interaction within organisations shifted to the cognitive and interpretive aspects of organisation and finally concentrated on the non-rational elements of the organising process. Weick also does not distinguish clearly enough between sensemaking as a theory, as an observable phenomenon in organisations, and as a set of behaviours.

The result, according to Maasdorp, is that Weick’s approach lacks the necessary continuity and backbone to serve as a consistent and predictable theory. This pertains especially to his concept of identity in organisations, which Maasdorp regards as the Achilles heel of his theory. Although Weick’s use of the ESR string (Enactment - Selection - Retention) creates the impression of a syntagmatic sequence, it represents in reality a paradigmatic exchange of elements which stand in a synchronic relationship to one another.

Maasdorp argues that Ricoeur offers a more convincing alternative. The latter’s concept of a narrative identity provides a more solid foundation and more promising possibilities for exactly what Weick has in mind. Weick certainly acknowledges the value of “stories” in the context of organisations and sees them as one of the “vocabularies” which decision-makers may use to make sense of a situation. The reference to the “use” of stories, however, reveals their secondary function in Weick’s estimation. The narrative dimension does not represent a core formative element – neither of the process itself nor of the identity which results from this process. In Maasdorp’s words: “We know much about stories in organisations, but little about the story of organisation and even less about organisation as story.

Ricoeur’s elaboration of the threefold role of mimesis in the formation of identity provides not only a more robust theoretical framework but also a better explanation of the narrative structure of identity itself (which can also be applied to organisations). Identity expresses itself in narrative form and enables the meaningful interpretation of reality and of time. Incidental and contingent events become meaningful when they are strung together according to their own logic (of muthos, fable, plot) and thus become significant. “Time becomes human to the extent that it is organized after the matter of a narrative; narrative, in turn, is meaningful to the extent that it portrays the features of temporal experience” (Ricoeur 1984:3).

Maasdorp makes a persuasive case as far as his main argument is concerned, and his proposal for an alternative approach merits serious consideration. Just as importantly, he demonstrates the need for – and the advantages of - an interdisciplinary dialogue of this kind between organisation theory and hermeneutics. In an attempt to take this conversation a step further, the final part of the article discusses further possibilities inherent in the approach of Ricoeur. Of special importance – in addition to the nature of identity – is the issue of change in organisations. In this regard Ricoeur’s ideas about the “re-figuration” and “re-description” of reality call for further exploration. The power of narrative vests not only in the ability to provide continuity amidst change, but also to effect change. The mediating potential of narrative, the Umweg which presupposes a distancing from and even a stepping out of reality in order to gain a new perspective on and an alternative configuration of that reality, holds considerable potential for change on the individual level, but also on the level of organisations.

Keywords: hermeneutics; narrative identity; organisation theory; redescription of reality; Ricoeur; sensemaking; Weick


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Om sin te maak. Pleidooi vir ’n gesprek tussen organisasiekunde en hermeneutiek

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