Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What's My Deadline? A dialogue

Author: Do you have time to copy-edit this text (see attachment)?

Editor: What's my deadline?

Author: Well, I've already missed my deadline with the publisher, so a few days more or less won't matter I guess.

Editor: A few days more or less than what? I mean, I've got some time free at the end of the month.

Author: Oh, then nevermind. I don't think the publisher will wait til the end of the month.

Editor: You misunderstand. I meant: of course I have time well after it's too late. You haven't given me any indication of when you want the work done. I can't tell you whether I can squeeze it in if you don't tell me when it's too late. I can't respond to a request that has no time frame.

Author: Can you have it done by Friday?

Editor: Yes.

You would be suprised how often I have this kind of exchange. Many academics have a habit of waiting until their text is done before arranging to get feedback and then being open to hearing back, you know, "whenever" ... but, of course, also soon. It is motivated by misplaced politeness, I think. The author doesn't want to be a bother, so she is willing to accept that I do it when I "have time". On the other hand, since she's already late in getting the piece in to the journal or publisher, it would be nice if I could do it right away. "I need this done yesterday," she's essentially saying.

My take home point here is that you should always tell your reader when you want something back. They can then make a decision about whether they have time. You can't make a claim on someone's time whenever it opens up. As always, the best way to make sure you get feedback is to tell someone well advance that you plan to have something done by a particular date. Then get it done by that date and give it to them as agreed. They can have it back to you very quickly in such cases.

Monday, April 27, 2009


(Here's an attempt at epigram.)

It's important to know your limits. People who don't recognize their limits cannot move beyond them, except by accident. They can exceed them, but not move them. That can be dangerous. Far better to approach your limits consciously, with humility, and engage with them. Move the limit from within.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Heidegger (2): Gewirk und Gewerk

"Science sets upon the real." (Marting Heidegger)

As I said in my last post, I like the way Heidegger builds his metaphysics out of the stuff of ordinary experience. He also develops his philosophy of science in this way, letting notions like "object" and "theory" emerge from reflection about the operations and procedures that constitute scientific research. The consequence of this, I want to argue, is that metaphysical reflection is always reflection upon the basis of our existence in craft.

In "The Age of the World Picture", Heidegger says that research is the means by which nature and history (material and social reality) are "set in place" (127), which, of course, is also what he says technology does. Lovitt's always helpful footnotes lead us to "Science and Reflection", which can be found in the same collection. Here Heidegger says:

[Science] orders [the real] into place to the end that at any given time the real will exhibit itself as an interacting network [Ge-wirk], i.e., in surveyable series of related causes. The real thus becomes surveyable and capable of being followed out in its sequences. The real becomes secured in its objectness. (167-8)

Now, Lovitt points out that Ge-wirk is intended to evoke Gewirk (no hyphen) which means "web, texture, weaving" in ordinary German. This interpretation of objectness in terms of a web or network of relations is, of course, a precursor of contemporary actor-network theories of scientific research. But I want to suggest another association, namely, the German notion of Gewerk. This word means "trade", and once also meant "craft". That is, the "security of objects" (shades of Foucault!) depends upon the "craft of research". The craft dimension of research, then, is a metaphysical responsibility. You are keeping the real "in place".

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


"The essence of what we today call science is research. In what does the essence of research consist?" (Martin Heidegger)

I'm not sure why I suddenly decided I wanted to write about Heidegger. If nothing else, perhaps to encourage readers of this blog to read his essay called "The Age of World Picture", which can be found in the William Lovitt collection The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. The thing I want to draw attention to is his prescience about (or perhaps just sensitivity to) how science would develop in the twentieth century.

Modern science, he says, is an "ongoing activity", the activity of research. In German he calls it Betrieb, which can also mean business or enterprise or operation. In Being and Time this word is translated as "hustle". On this view, then, science is a hustle and bustle of equipment and procedures, conferences and publishers. "The scholar disappears," he tells us, and what gets written is determined by negotiations with peers and editors. Sound familiar?

The reason I suggest you read the essay is that Heidegger here, as in his major work, Being and Time, does an admirable job of building his metaphysics out of descriptions of workaday busy-ness. He argues that there is, nonetheless, a resoluteness, a determination, that gives us our ontological dignity even though we are "thrown" into it by forces we do not control. In the case of research, in fact, he argues that science is whatever is it (i.e., its being is layed out) according to a "ground plan" that arranges a domain of objects for us to study.

I'm sure I read him too simplemindedly at times, but I am convinced that we can understand this ground plan in straightforward terms. Work regularly. Write clearly. Enter into those negotiations honestly, with something on your mind and a position to defend. There is, to be sure, a kind of melancholy in Heidegger's remark about the end of scholarship. I feel that melancholy myself sometimes. But I also believe that, with a bit of effort, modern research can accomplish something that classical scholarship could not. I confess that I say that on faith. I don't know what that something might be.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Executive Sensemaking

Sensemaking scholars often emphasize the lowly, the small, and the local aspects of the organizing process. Studies tend to conclude that local tactics are more important than global strategy; that improvisation is more effective than planning; and, of course, that sensemaking, rather than decision-making, determines the fate of organizations. Such conclusions normally follow from a focus on micro-processes over macro-structures. Perhaps the most striking example can be found in Karl Weick’s analysis of premise controls, which culminates in what can well be called a 'modest' proposal, namely, that "the best organizational design [may be] to do away with top management" (Sensemaking in Organizations, p. 117)*. This idea was foreshadowed in earlier work, where he proposed that executives should consider "using tables of random numbers to make decisions" (Social Psychology of Organizing, p. 262). What these two suggestions have in common is the idea that top management (the locus of strategic decision-making) plays a marginal role in organizational life and that the less they try to intentionally affect the course of events the better it will be for everyone.

I've been thinking about this in relation to events at AIG Financial Products. Here it seems that top management played an important role in controlling premises (even through organizational design) and that this, not sensemaking at lower levels in the organization, was what caused the mess.

*This gave Martin Kilduff (1996) pause in his review.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Reading for Sensemaking

As I noted in my last post, it is possible to conduct a study of sensemaking on the empirical basis of a few secondary sources. Weick's original Mann Gulch study (1993) is based on a single source, namely, Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire, which he "consumed" in an armchair (Weick 2007, PDF). His study of the Tenerife disaster (Weick 1990) is based on the accident reports. Ryan Quinn and Monica Worline's (2008) study of the UA93 crash is based mainly on a book-length piece of journalism and the 9/11 Commission report. What sort of reading are such sources be subjected to in sensemaking research?

Weick's reading of Maclean is the classic exemplar of what I want to call "reading for sensemaking". According to Weick, one begins by "stripping away" the "elegant prose" of the source to provide a "simple review" of events (Weick 1993: 628). Quinn and Worline adopt a much more detailed procedure, but the aim is similar: they want to determine what happened on Flight 93 in order to assess the role of sensemaking processes in these events. They generate a time-line of events that, while of course interesting in its details, is largely freed of the "literary" feel that their sources adopt (the 9/11 Commission report has been both praised and criticized for its narrative force). In both cases, it is interesting to note that they steer clear of especially "critical" readings of their sources. They assume that their sources offer (when stripped of their elegance) an essentially objective account of the relevant events (or at least give the impression that they make this assumption; Weick isn't especially loyal to Maclean). In studying the sensemaking that went on during an event, we leave on the side, it seems, the struggle to make sense of the event after it is over.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The (Secondary) Sources of Sensemaking

What are we supposed to look at when we study sensemaking? What offers a good source of data for theorizing about sensemaking processes? Different researchers have different answers to these basic methodological questions. Many studies of organizational sensemaking are, of course, based on qualitative data from onsite observation or interviews. But the kind that interests me most is the "literary approach" to sensemaking, i.e., the kind of sensemaking research that Karl Weick primarily engages in. He calls it "armchair enthnography".

The basic idea is simple. If you want to study sensemaking in a particular kind of organization, find a good book on the subject and read it. Then "encode" your reading in terms of sensemaking. Here you might use Weick's "seven properties of sensemaking" as a guide, but don't, Weick emphasizes, feel as bound by these properties as you would if you were working with a more traditional theory. Just let them focus your attention; let them help you to "notice subtleties and patterns" (Weick 1995: 18) in your thinking. In actual fact, however, I'm not sure Weick begins with a particular kind of organization in mind and then looks for a good book on it. I think he reads a book that interests him and then resolves to make the best of it for research purposes at the next available opportunity.

Consider two examples that Weick brings together in his "Sensemaking as an Organizational Dimension of Global Change" (reprinted in Making Sense of the Organization, Blackwell, 2001, pp. 458-472): the Mann Gulch disaster in Montana and the Worker's Defense Committee (KOR) in Poland. The first has been central to Weick's thinking about sensemaking since around 1992, when Norman Maclean's book Young Men and Fire was published. In his 2007 contribution to the special section on "richness" in the AMJ, Weick explains that he happened to read Young Men and Fire for a book club discussion and, coincidentally, "had nothing to talk about" for a lecture he had been invited to hold. The book solved the problem. I don't know how he came to read about KOR, but here's what he says about his source: "Jonathan Schell has described [the unfolding of the relationships among the members of KOR]* in sufficient detail that we are able to encode them into resources for sensemaking" (Weick 2001, 466). As we learn in the bibliography, Schell had written what appears to be a forty-page introduction to Adam Michnik's Letters from Prison (Michnik was key figure in the KOR movement and the book is a collection of his essays). That is the basis of Weick's study of sensemaking in the Polish opposition movement.

Note that Weick's approach relies on these texts as secondary sources. Both books could, however, be construed as primary sources if read differently. Thus, Weick could have read Michnik's essays themselves and thereby had access to primary source material in his study of the Polish opposition. But because Weick is not an expert in this area he, rightly, relies on Schell's introduction alone. Schell is, at least presumably, an expert. Maclean's book, meanwhile, can only be a primary source of data on the work of Norman Maclean (a literary author). Indeed, I generally compare that book to Norman Mailer's A Fire on the Moon: both books tell us more about Norman than the "fire" they are ostensibly "about". (Though they do tell us a great deal about those fires, I will grant.) One of my questions, which I will take up in Friday's post, is: What sorts of critical principles guide our reading and "encoding" of these secondary sources when we use them to understand organizational sensemaking?

*I had a bit of trouble finding out how to make this substitution because Weick, as always, is a bit unclear in his writing. At first pass there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with this paragraph:

The democratic opposition movement in Poland, which started with the Worker's Defense Committee (KOR) in September 1976, is a dramatic example of heedful interrelating on a local scale that results in large changes on a national scale. Jonathan Schell (1987) has described the unfolding of these relationships in sufficient detail that we are able to encode them into resources for sensemaking.

But because I wanted to quote the second sentence alone, I needed to replace "these relationships" with a more informative label. So, look back to the first sentence; what "relationships" might Weick mean? I.e., how would I complete a phrase like "the unfolding of [the relationships among ...]"? Perhaps with "Polish workers", but Weick doesn't actually tell us that. (Polish doctors and lawyers and teachers have been involved as well, for all I know.) If he had said "the unfolding of such interrelating" there would have been no problem. Simply replace "such" with "[heedful]". But now another problem emerges: Schell has probably not read Weick. So what he was describing in detail was not, I presume, heedful interrelating. He was describing the relationships between members of KOR and their "unfolding". Encoding these relationships as resources for sensemaking is Weick's contribution. There is another possiblity, namely, that Weick is talking about the relationship between changes on a local scale and changes on a national scale. But this doesn't work either because Weick wants KOR to be an example of how sensemaking facilated a causal relationship between changes on these two scales. The national changes were the results of sensemaking, not resources for sensemaking. I'm nitpicking, of course. But that really is my job.

Friday, April 03, 2009


Sensemaking is "the ongoing retrospective development of plausible images that rationalize what people are doing" (Weick 2001: 460; 2005: 397). Since an organization is itself a group of people doing things together for a reason, sensemaking is of obvious importance for organization studies. What an organization organizes is the sense people make of what they are doing. This, of course, affects what they actually do, so an organization is also very much an ongoing coordination of actions.

Consider the day-to-day operations of a typical department in a modern firm. At the start of each day, members of this organization may show up at the same places (their offices) and begin, say, to make sense of their emails. They may answer some with great care and delete others without even reading them. They will file some for later, or, if they answer them right away, mentally note that they are engaging in "personal business" on "company time". This may be worth only a fleeting thought or a record in a logbook of some kind. Or it may simply be an occasion for a mildly guilty conscience. It all depends on the "images that rationalize what they are doing". These images are particular to particular organizations, and we therefore do well to study them when making sense of organizations, i.e., studying them as organization theorists.

I'm taking a (regularly scheduled) break from the regular blogging routine next week. When I get back I'm going to devote most of April to my thoughts about sensemaking. I'm going to two conferences this summer with papers that are relevant to this topic, so I want to see what I think.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Weick's Sentences (3)

Take a look at this sentence from Karl Weick's "The Experience of Theorizing" (2005):

While their conclusions could be called "findings," that label fits only in the sense that when investigators look for something like the deployment of retrospect, or the reconciliation of competing frames, or the responses to ambiguity, they are more or less surprised by what they "find" given what they were looking for. (410)

This is a great opportunity to consider the meaning of the words "in the sense that". Suppose I say that a particular country is only a democracy in the sense that people regularly go to the polls to cast ballots for candidates for various offices. What I am saying is that if you define "democracy" in a particular way you can call the country a democracy, but there are other senses of the word (such as "of the people, by the people, for the people") that would fit less easily. Weick is of course doing something similar.

But in my example the "sense in which" the country is a democracy is a familiar feature of democratic nations. I'm not sure that's the case in Weick's sentence. If that is not immediately clear, it may be because of the digression he makes in the middle of it by providing examples. Let's remove them and see what's going on:

While their conclusions could be called "findings," that label fits only in the sense that when investigators look for something they are more or less surprised by what they "find" given what they were looking for.

Or, to simplify still further:

Their conclusions are "findings" only in the sense that they are surprising.

But when did "being suprised" become a sense of "finding something"? Surely the conclusions that investigators reach are "findings" in the ordinary sense that they went looking for them and found them.

Leaving "in the sense that" on the side for a moment, consider the supporting proposition in this sentence:

When investigators look for something like the deployment of retrospect, or the reconciliation of competing frames, or the responses to ambiguity, they are more or less surprised by what they find given what they were looking for.

It's very hard to see what this means because he both specifies "what they were looking for" and leaves it open. We might say that there is a sense in which we know what they were looking for and a sense in which we don't. Does Weick really mean the following?

When investigators look for something like the deployment of retrospect, or the reconciliation of competing frames, or the responses to ambiguity, they are often surprised by what they find.

Or does he mean:

Investigators of sensemaking are more or less surprised by what they find depending on what they were looking for.

On Friday, I will begin a series of posts on the topic of sensemaking in general. I will start with what I find good and useful about this concept.