Educate October 2018

Book Review: Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm.


Written By: Sharon Brown

He had me at the subtitle: “The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm.” Anyone who recognizes the importance of human context in big data has my interest and Christian Madsbjerg makes a strong case for the humanities in his 2017 book “Sensemaking.”

Madsbjerg is the founder of ReD Associates, a strategy consulting company. He advises corporations on business problems using organizational sensemaking.

Oxford defines sensemaking as ‘the process of making sense of or giving meaning to something.’ In Madsbjerg’s organizational realm, it’s a “deep cultural inquiry.” Meaning that if his team is tasked with understanding why an American product isn’t selling in China, they get on a plane and move there for a few months. They learn what they need to know directly from their interactions with the people and their culture.

Madsbjerg says that the human factor is the most important factor. Unfortunately, the human factor in data is often ignored, missed or dismissed. He uses and respects data, sure, but he also employs critical thinking. His team includes people from different backgrounds in the humanities – so they studied critical thinking from different angles. True to their roots they believe that to truly understand any culture one must read their most important books, understand the language and learn firsthand how the people live.

To be curious and broadly educated doesn’t just make you good at trivia night. It informs decision making, Madsbjerg says, and helps you recognize patterns that may have otherwise been hidden from your (limited) view. It also helps your bottom line. Consider this: In the introduction, Madsbjerg mentions a 2008 WSJ study on global compensation. Engineers and other STEM grads make more right out of school. But the most successful 90th percentile earners – they make more than 90 percent of all earners – have degrees in political science, philosophy, drama and history. These are our CEOs, presidents, and politicians, like Carly Fiorina (medieval history and philosophy), Michael Eisner (English and theatre) and Mitt Romney (English).

Sensemaking includes plenty of stories and anecdotes. In the section on economics and successful traders I learned that George Soros (philosophy major) describes his ability to be “inside the markets” as a source of his success. Extensive reading and his background in the humanities allow him to make sense of the markets in a way that others cannot.

The chapter on creativity was my favorite part of Sensemaking. He points out that ideas always come to us, from outside of us. We never say, “I made an idea,” it’s always “an idea came to me,” or “I had an idea.” I like that. It’s true, and it lends weight to insights and intuitions. Madsbjerg says that these flashes of insight come from depth of knowledge. So they’re magical as well as scholarly.

I also love this quote from Wolfgang Kohler describing “The three Bs of creativity – the bus, the bath and the bed.” Cheers to places where our minds are open and receptive to ideas and connections.

Sensemaking is unique. It’s easy to read but demanding in that it makes you think. It mostly made sense to me and I recommend giving it a try, even if this isn’t a genre you usually read… or, as Madsbjerg might say, precisely if this isn’tyour usual. Read widely, be curious and sharpen your senses.

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