Collective Sensemaking

Collective Sensemaking is a conversational event where people intentionally come together for the purpose of using their varied perspectives and cognitive abilities to make sense of an issue or problem they are mutually facing.

Offset the Challenges of a Distributed Workforce

"Dr. Dixon’s approach to collective sensemaking drives how we teach knowledge management, facilitate communities of practice, and coach highly effective teams of leaders.  There is no better way to create competitive advantage in the 21st Century knowledge environment." -   Mike Hower, Chief Learning Officer, Strategic Knowledge Solutions, Inc.

Organizations are becoming more widely dispersed for many reasons, locating offices in different cities or countries, contracting much of their work, building virtual teams to work on projects, offering flex time, working from home offices, or working on a client’s premises.   

All of us have fully bought into the idea of the distributed workforce. It has too many benefits to turn back the clock to the world of co-location. Those benefits include meeting local customer needs and the use of scare human resources, not to mention the convenience and the savings in the cost of travel. Yet there are obvious deficits.

One of the greatest deficits of a distributed work force is that one part of the organization all to frequently takes action without reference to how that action may impact other parts of the organization or the whole. In addition as the workforce has become more distributed, we have become aware of a sharp decrease in employee engagement – employees unable or unwilling to be motivated by the organization’s mission. It is clear that by embracing this virtual world we have lost something that is needed to make organizations both humane and effective places to work.

But an organization’s  choices are not limited to either distributed or co-location. There is a way to offset the deficits of a distributed workforce without losing the benefits.

Common Knowledge Associates works with organizations to implement the Oscillation Principle. It is a regularly scheduled oscillation between virtual work and collective sensemaking. Collective Sensemaking, as described above, is a face-to-face conversation, intentionally held to make sense of the circumstances in which organizational members collectively find themselves. Taylor and Van Every’s (2000) definition make this point, “Sensemaking is a way station on the road to a consensually constructed, coordinated system of action.”   And a “consensually constructed, coordinated system” is what distributed organizations are sorely lacking. 

Description: bridging space over time -dual rhythm oscillation.png

This diagram from Maznevski & Chudoba (2000) illustrates high intensity periods of collective sensemaking and periods of virtual work in which the group interacts through less rich media, such as, email, phone calls, SMS or teleconference. The periods of collective sensemaking renew the trust and relationships, which are a precondition for the virtual collaboration and information exchange that follows. And, understandably, even virtual interactions are more productive when vital relationships have been renewed during collective sensemaking.  

The frequency of the oscillation and duration of the periods of collective sensemaking depend on two factors:

  • the interdependencies of the task, and
  • the complexity of the issues. 

For example:

  • A virtual product development team that is designing a product for an emerging market might need to come together for 2 days every two months. 
  • A team with less complex issues might come together every 3 months for one day.
  • A division engaged in a change initiative – one that requires employees to take into account the whole system so that changes planned for one part do not conflict with other parts - might bring everyone together to initiate the change for two days and then come together as a whole every six months, with individual departments meeting for a day once a month.

Common Knowledge Associates works with distributed organizations to develop an effective rhythm of oscillation and to design the collective sensemaking meetings.

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"Her approach to collective sensemaking drives how we teach knowledge management, facilitate communities of practice, and coach highly effective teams of leaders. There is no better way to create competitive advantage in the 21st Century knowledge environment."

Mike Hower
Chief Learning Officer, Strategic Knowledge Solutions, Inc.

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