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Organizational sensemaking through enabling design services

Title: Organizational Sensemaking Through Enabling Design Services
Author: Magnus Eneberg
Affiliation: Department of Design Sciences, Lund University, Lund, Sweden
DOI:  10.3384/svid.2000-964X.12253
First published: 2012-12
Year: 2012
Pages: 53-59
Number of pages: 7
Language: English
Publisher: SVID, Swedish Industrial Design Foundation/Linköping University Electronic Press,Linköping University, Sweden
Publication type: Journal article
Journal: Swedish Design Research Journal
ISSN: 2000-964X

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It is argued that the focus of design is becoming increasingly intangible. At the same time as design consultants are expanding their offerings with new services aimed at enhancing innovation and the strategic process in client firms, studies indicate that industrial design consultancies have a problem getting commissioned and paid for the intangible parts of their service. One possible explanation is that design is regarded as providing a relieving service that delivers aesthetic competence at the end of a product development process. This indicates a problem in communicating the contribution of enabling design services to client firms.

The aim of this paper is to increase the understanding of enabling design services. This is done by comparing the characteristics of design thinking, its methods and processes with sensemaking theory as described by Weick (1995).


The seven properties of sensemaking have been compared with the three characteristics of design thinking to reveal similarities and differences and hence the contributions of an enabling design service. An enabling design service involves elements of learning and interaction to a greater extent than a relieving design service and thus would create a greater value since it generates new knowledge and competencies in the client firm. In contrast to relieving design services, the full potential of design is utilized in an enabling design service.

OD in contrast to design has had a history of treating deviations from an objective truth. Using a sensemaking perspective of OD moves the focus away from the search for an objective truth towards the existence of multiple perspectives. This view stresses that problems and the information used to solve them are not something that exists outside an organization but is co-created by the individuals inside the organization and the value network in which the organization participates.

Design on the other hand has had a focus on integrating dissimilar, often contradictory perspectives and contexts. The design consultant creates affordance when supporting an environment that allows the individual to perform actions and in this way facilitate the opportunity for different thought networks to merge and new competencies to be developed. In this context the design consultant would provide the client organization with a tool to enhance iteration between tacit and explicit knowledge, integrating hands with thought, and thus provide a common visual language that can facilitate intra- and inter organizational interaction.

Design education is argued to train students to become experimental and use an abductive mode of thinking with several explanatory hypothesis of the future. This could be contrasted to management education that often is characterized by an inductive or deductive mode of thinking. Since sensemaking takes place retrospectively (i.e. after an action has occurred), organizations would gain by using an abductive mode of thinking and hence the competencies of the design consultant in the OD process. By doing so, the ongoing flow of actions in the client organization is punctuated and the conditions created to present several fictional futures and contexts to be “tested” and meanings crystalized among the participants.

There is an obvious resemblance between the ontological and epistemological perspectives of organizational change theory influenced by sensemaking theory and the concept of design thinking. At the same time, they originate from dissimilar traditions and hence bring different methods and competencies to the table. In this paper some of the characteristics of design thinking have been discussed in a sensemaking context and hopefully this will contribute to the ongoing dialogue about the contribution of enabling design service in client organizations.


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