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Professional Practice in L&D: Sensemaking and Sensegiving

27th October 2016 | Mark Loon

How L&D Can Enhance Sensemaking and Sensegiving Competencies

Professional Practice in Learning and Development (9780749477424)

A volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment means that many executives are unable to use any past reference points in their decision making. The VUCA environment means that many executives are not able to use their valuable past experience as a guide for action as the future is no longer a trajectory of the past. 

Sensemaking capabilities are now more crucial than ever before. Sensemaking is not just making sense of experience, or being a specific form of reasoning (e.g. deductive, inductive and abductive), it also not just about critical thinking, the use of analogy and metaphors – it is all of them. It is about being able to piece together different disparate information, knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know, using logic and rationality together with creativity and design thinking, and using different senses including intuition. Sensemaking recognizes that people do not naturally use just mode of thinking or just one sense, but we use everything that nature has afforded to us and we piece things together to make sense of the environment around us. 

Sensegiving follows from sensemaking. It is interpreting what we understand to different audiences. It is also about communicating using different styles (e.g. factual, storytelling) and underlying intentions (e.g. to persuade, inform) whist considering the recipients own sensemaking capabilities. Sensemaking and sensegiving competencies in management are crucial in developing dynamic capabilities and organizational ambidexterity due to the degree of complex and prolonged uncertainty and ambiguity during many change initiatives. 

L&D professionals play a crucial role in developing these competencies through cultivating metacognition and, encouraging systems thinking. Metacognition not only helps learners to more effectively monitor their thoughts but also to control their thinking – being aware of potential biases, knowing when to ask and seek more information and adopting multiple perspectives. Metacognition can cultivated through reflective learning, which can be supported through coaching and mentoring processes as staff are guided through the practice of considering and learning from their past actions, behaviors and emotions in identifying and teasing out lessons. 

Systems thinking enable learners to synthesize seemingly unrelated factors to understand the systemic and underlying behaviors and motives that shape events. Systems thinking is not about making staff into processing machines, not that it could be done anyway, but it is about adopting a broader and more inclusive way of thinking and visualizing in developing mental models. These mental models are canvasses for sensemaking, to be shared with others in the process of sensegiving. Systems thinking can be fostered by encouraging staff to learn from one another, for example, colleagues’ work in other departments (including external partners) and how this impacts their own. These learning events should be held on a regular basis as both a social (informal) and work-related (formal) events. L&D can further complement face-to-face events by providing infrastructure for communities of practice to take place (e.g. in the physical or virtual world), while coaches and mentors can help reinforce staff’s learning from another and external parties. 

From the 3 articles, I have demonstrated how learning and development activities are crucial for firms in the new turbulent world of change. It is therefore crucial that firms’ L&D practice are up to the challenge to help support and even lead the organization in developing its people, processes and systems.

About the author: Dr. Mark Loon is a faculty member at the University of Worcester. He has published in various academic journals such as the Journal of Managerial Psychology, as well as practitioner reports and books such as with the CIPD. He is currently the Chair of the British Standards Institute's Human Capital Standard Sub-Committee on developing International HRM Standards and the Deputy Vice Chair of the Programmes and Qualifications committee within the University Forum on Human Resource Development. Prior to academia, he was in management consulting, working for firms such as Cap Gemini, Ernst & Young and KPMG.

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