Enacted sensemaking in crisis situations
Weick, K. E. (1988), Enacted Sensemaking in Crisis Situations. Journal of Management Studies, 25: 305–317
In this fourth Season 4 episode, we will be discussing another classic from the Journal of Management Studies (JMS) entitled “Enacted Sensemaking in Crisis Situations” (1988) by Karl Weick. The podcast team had the pleasure to be joined by our guest Thomas Roulet for this discussion!
The paper by Karl Weick was published in 1988 on a special issue focused on Industrial Crisis Management: Learning from Organizational Failures. More specifically, it is part of a body of studies that have shown that what may at a first glance appear to be a technological failure may actually present stronger elements under the surface. In other words, these works show that the central mechanisms behind failure and incidents is given by the interaction between humans and technology (and not by technology in itself). In particular, in this work Weick looks at the case of the Bophal Disaster, a gas leak incident that took place in 1984 in India. The author explores this case by focusing greater attention to cognition and action; more specifically, to the process of sensemaking, viewed as a process of social construction that occurs when discrepant cues interrupt individuals’ ongoing activities.
The central idea of this paper is given by enactment which suggests that “when people act, they bring events and structures into existence and set them in motion.” In the context of crisis, these are enacted rather than encountered by individuals, who create conditions which shape their subsequent actions when handling such events. In this sense, action comes before cognition and is central to understanding how crises unfold. More specifically, Weick explores the link of enactment with commitment, capacity, and expectations. All these influence the ability of individuals to understand the context which they are part of and to act upon it.
The importance of the paper lies, among others, in its contribution to a greater general understanding of crisis management. Also, as a broader consequence to the literature in organization studies, it has influenced works on the ways in which crises unfold, on how actors make sense of crises after they happen, on studies of organizational change, and more generally the very burgeoning literature on sensemaking and cognition in organizations.
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