What Is Sensemaking?

Meg Higa
Meg Higa
Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget was one of the most influential modern theorists.
Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget was one of the most influential modern theorists.

Sensemaking is a theory proposing that humans instinctively organize daily data and experience into a meaningful framework. This concept, dating back hundreds of years, attempts to explain how human beings make sense of reality, but distinctively remember the past and plan the future. One of the most influential modern theorists was the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. In more modern times, with the processing power of digital computers approaching the theoretical capacity for artificial intelligence, sensemaking has become a practical paradigm for information science.

The principles and practices of sensemaking draw from a wide range of disciplines including philosophy, social psychology, and literary arts. Through much of the 20th century, Jean Piaget’s studies and theories on the cognitive development of human children influenced this notion that the knowledge base used by humans to interact with their environment was a process of construction. In the mid-1970s, research was performed to investigate Piaget’s ideas. Specifically, researchers investigated whether graphical cues such as pointers and icons might enable users to better interface with digital computers. Since then, sensemaking has become a robust methodology for organizing and studying the deluge of digital data derived from the vast global network of computers.

One variation of the theory is that sensemaking is a deliberate cognitive process in reaction to either ambiguity of an event or dissonance of the event compared to known reality. It was described as a “cognitive gap” that humans are compelled to fill. This has been one of the principles driving applications in organizational studies, including business competition and military operations. In both cases, the reality of any given situation is fluid and can’t be known without the constant feedback of data. In business, processes are implemented for the management of fast-paced market knowledge which can originate from anyone in the company.

Modern warfare is increasingly tactical, with the success of an operation sometimes dependent on the split-second decision of a single individual. Military theorists have applied sensemaking as an important platform to facilitate this. By networking combatants and commanders to collectively share and collate information, everyone is afforded the best possible situational awareness in an inherently fast-changing environment.

Although sensemaking is an evolving theory, there are several agreed principles. Identity and subjective perspective are unavoidable; attention and subsequent opportunity for immediate retrospection is necessary. It is social, a continuous refining process. What is extracted and incorporated into a person’s sense of reality are considered cues that give greater weight or supportive links to the plausibility of truth.

The construct of sense, the forming of a mental model, is analogous to a narrative. As primitive humans tried to comprehend their environment and lives by recounting the day as a campfire story, this remains an essentially true human nature. For example, one apparent narrative is that people love. Human behavior without context makes no sense, but inserted into an evolving understanding of the complex narrative arc of love, some human behaviors are not only explainable, but become predictable.

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    • Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget was one of the most influential modern theorists.
      Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget was one of the most influential modern theorists.