Sensemaking and the power of the humanities

What is Sensemaking?

Christian Madsbjerg, in Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm, describes sensemaking as an interaction with fellow humans in the real world.

“Sensemaking is practical wisdom grounded in the humanities. We can think of sense making as the exact opposite of algorithmic thinking: it is entirely situated in the concrete, while algorithmic thinking exists in a no-man’s land of information stripped of its specificity. Algorithmic thinking can go wide — processing trillions of terabytes of data per second — but only sense making can go deep.” —Christian Madsbjerg, Sensemaking, p. 6

Why Sensemaking?

“Too many of the top cadre of leadership I have met are isolated in their worldview. They have lost touch with the humanity of their customers and their constituents and, as a result, they mistake numerical representations and models for real life. Their days are sliced and diced into tiny segments, so they feel they don’t have time to wander around in the mess of real-world data. Instead, they jump into a problem-solving process and a conclusion without understanding the actual question.” —Christian Madsbjerg, Sensemaking, p. xiv

Is Design Thinking actually sensemaking?

There is a great section on “Design Thinking: The Anatomy of a Bullshit Tornado”. It describes the lack of depth in the approach that has enamoured Silicon Valley and is promoted by companies such as IDEO. Madsbjerg has first-hand knowledge dealing with these people. He describes several key weaknesses of this approach.

  • Innovation without any social context — “Unless we truly know what matters to … [people] … we cannot really understand anything at all about the objects … that they use.”
  • Ignorance is bliss — “[IDEO] might appear innovative to the world of designers, but how will they have any resonance without knowledge of the actual social contexts in which these products and services will be used?”
  • Get under the skin of consumers — “The proponents of design thinking defend their ideology by saying they spend time with people … [but] … The time they spend with people is quite limited.”
  • Remove all the pain — “Design thinking’s ultimate goal is to identify all of life’s pains and eliminate them through a nirvana of better design.”
  • The return of the B-school parking lot — “Throwing around concepts like ‘the four P’s’ and ‘five forces’ reassures everyone that pragmatism and reason are really at the heart of the work [which they clearly are not].
    —Christian Madsbjerg, Sensemaking, pp. 135 – 139

It’s not just design thinking but the entire engine that drives the world of technology that needs to understand people, not just algorithms. “In a ‘Silicon Valley’ state of mind, sense making has never  been more lacking or more urgently needed.” This reinforces my focus on the sensemaking framework of personal knowledge mastery as a critical discipline for the network era.

How Intelligence Emerges

Madsbjerg describes a five stage process of how human intelligence emerges, based on work by Hubert Dreyfus.

  1. Novice: rules-based
  2. Advanced Beginner: pattern recognition, rules-based + experience
  3. Competence: hierarchical and rational decision making
  4. Proficiency: understands the situation in its entirety
  5. Expertise: unconscious, intuitive, and connected understanding

What are people for?

“Sensemaking invited us to ‘play what’s not there’: to start seeking out space in between the rules. When we really want to achieve an insight, we have to dig into the context, immerse ourselves more fully in a world. In order to do this, however, first we have to look more closely at our relationship to data — both thick [contextual] and thin [factual]. How do we ‘know’ what we know? And what type of knowledge gives us confidence to bet big on killer market hunches?” —Christian Madsbjerg, Sensemaking, p. 61

Sensemaking is not about becoming better machines. It’s about getting connected to our common humanity. This is human talent.


Madsbjerg concludes, “What are people for? Algorithms can do many things, but they will never actually give a damn. People are for caring.”

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