Sensemaking in extreme conditions for enhancing resilience: Literature Review

By | April 27, 2021

Here, I want to explore themes of resilience and sensemaking together in extreme conditions. For now, I have considered the systemic shock of the global pandemic as an increase in volatility, complexity, and uncertainty of operating conditions, from the perspective of the informal urban food system in Nairobi, Kenya. Therefore I have deliberately excluded literature that considers resilience of engineering systems exclusively or that which requires complex technology for sensemaking (eg. Lundberg, Törnqvist, & Nadjm–Tehrani, 2012; van der Merwe, Biggs, & Preiser, 2020).

As reviewed earlier, I found Weick et al’s (2005) framing for organizational sensemaking conceptually relevant and a continued source of inspiration (Weick, 2011; Wadford, 2011) although constrained by their emphasis on words and language i.e. textual, rather than visual approaches to collaborative or organizational sensemaking as I consider my domain of exploration.

One could say I am forced by the nature of my chosen operating environment and participant profiles – as described more fully in my previous review – to take a human factors approach to the theme of sensemaking for resilience in extreme conditions. Here, I have taken the definition of human factors (also known as ergonomics, which is how I’d been introduced to it in my engineering degree and my product design studies, more than 30 years ago) from the International Ergonomics Association website (IEA, 2021):

Ergonomics (or human factors) is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.

As an industrial and production engineer (1989, Bangalore University) with a full year of the National Institute of Design’s Advanced Entry programme in Product Design (March 1990), ergonomics was the foundation on which we thought about toolmaking for human needs. Therefore it makes sense right now to keep this frame of reference in mind as I proceed to select and review the literature today. This lens allows me to focus on social and human aspects such as communities, collaboration, relationships, and participatory approaches among other things.

The system mentioned in the definition of ergonomics is the informal industrial ecosystem within which the suppliers and sellers of fresh vegetables to Nairobi’s informal settlements (aka slums) operate, and taking a systemic approach implies the need to consider the group as a whole (Bhan & Gajera, 2018) rather than the individual micro-enterprise or sole trader. Over the years, I have most certainly been applying theory, principles, data and methods to design to optimize human well-being and overall system performance.

In the closely interdependent value webs of the informal trade ecosystems (forthcoming) of eastern Africa, enhancing resilience must be seen as a systemic exercise, rather than than one focused on individuals. My reflections on pivoting methodology to the Scandinavian tradition of participatory design approaches explicate this in greater detail. However, more review and analysis still remains to be done in this area.

Kilskar, Danielsen, & Johnsen (2020) present the results of a comprehensive qualitative literature review conducted to establish more knowledge on sensemaking in the context of safety-critical situations and on the relation between the concepts of sensemaking and resilience. While their latter topic is directly relevant to my review, I need to explore whether the acute intensity of the systemic shock on Nairobi’s informal fresh produce ecosystem brought about by the pandemic can be compared to safety-critical situations.

Introducing the central publication, Weick & Sutcliffe (2007), Kilskar et al (2020) highlight their statement that literature on sensemaking and resilience are closely related as both focus on how managers deal with ambiguity and extreme shocks in the environment. This synthesis is critical and important for my attempts to contextualize the vegetable vendors’ situation within the literature of resilience and sensemaking in extreme conditions, since the methodology selected to address their issues already considers them as ‘experts of their own experience’ (Gregory, 2013) and thus one can extend that to imply they are essentially the managers of their own enterprise and its supply networks, regardless of its size.

“…none of these processes can be understood in isolation from the more general human, technological, and organizational context of which they are part.” ~ Kilskar, Danielsen, & Johnsen (2020)

Emergencies and accidents, such as the maritime related domain motivation of Kilskar et al’s qualitative review (2020) are time bound situational contexts, although the issues of stress and fear borne upon sensemaking still apply during the first shock of the pandemic’s arrival and its impacts on operating conditions.

One can also think about the extreme conditions resulting from the systemic shock of the Covid-19 pandemic as a transboundary crisis, which Boin (2019) introduces concisely:

Modern societies rely on complex technological systems that are deeply intertwined with other complex systems that stretch across geographical, judicial and administrative borders. When threats emanate from this transboundary space, national governments are often surprised and discover that existing crisis management arrangements do not suffice.

While the informal trader, gig worker, or street vendor is the least likely to have any say in transboundary crisis management and more likely to experience the systemic shock in terms of their own daily life and incomes, it is undeniable that the global pandemic is a transboundary crisis at massive scale. The policy responses which are the focus of Boin’s study are those which can directly impact their wellbeing from multiple angles ranging from health and sanitation services through to economic support and flexible solutions to their particular needs.

We argue that the time has come for scholars of public administration to pay more extensive and systematic attention to the challenges of building a resilient society. ~ Boin & Lodge, 2016

The informal economy has borne the impact of the global systemic shock of the pandemic invisible to transboundary policymaking for the most part (India, 2020), barring a few jurisdictions where the scale and economic importance of the informal economy was explicitly recognized (South Africa 2020, and much later, China 2021). That is perhaps a future article – the pandemic was as much a transboundary crisis for the most vulnerable populations as it might have been for jurisdictions, its impact cutting across different aspects of daily life and work, even as the shock from far away might affect the hyper local conditions.

However, it is when one considers the global pandemic as a natural disaster – coming out of the blue and leaving devastation in its wake – that one finds it resonating with the worldview of the ladies who dominate sourcing and sales of fresh produce within the informal urban food system in Nairobi, Kenya. Considering them as micro-enterprises (B2B) or sole traders (B2C), although categorized as informal sector, leads to two papers that highlight different aspects of sensemaking and resilience in extreme conditions.

Harries, McEwen, & Wragg (2018) narrowly bound the limitations of their study, given the uneven nature of the risk of flooding to small business owners in the UK. However, their deep analysis of narratives to elicit emotional responses by which to analyze business owners’ approach to resilience enhancement and/or adjustments against future shock are valuable insights given the comparable nature of the micro-enterprises, and similar intertwinement between business and personal, at least in terms of identity in context of the sensemaking lens, per Harries et al 2018. Given that they introduce their paper with noting the lack of literature, I believe their findings will become more relevant to mine as my data analysis continues.

Research into the resilient responses of small business to external shocks and crises is rare (Bullough et al, 2014; Herbane, 2013; Sullivan-Taylor and Branicki, 2011), enquiries into this topic having seen a brief blossoming in the early 1980s before being overtaken by resilience research that focused on internal systems and, post 9/11, the resilience of business models and supply chains (Linnenluecke, 2017). In this study, we argue that the subject of how small businesses respond to external shocks needs revisiting and that attention should be paid to the influence of risk perception. Commentators agree that risk perception is important and that dangers are perceived differently, but do not usually interrogate the reasons for this (e.g. Bullough et al, 2014). We propose the sensemaking approach for investigating this question. ~ Harries, McEwen, & Wragg, 2018

One factor that greatly influenced my own work last year was the impact of systemic shock on being innovative, as a micro-entrepreneur, and on consequent transformations of practices as a response, in order to enhance resilience and boost recovery. Beyond the pandemic, east African food systems also had to cope with climate change related shocks such as the infamous locust swarms that devoured harvests, and changing rain fall patterns. Acute and chronic shocks is a theme I must cover in greater detail in another blogpost.

From the commercial perspective however, Olcott & Oliver (2014) introduce concepts that directly reflect the interpersonal nature of the informal trade ecosystem – social capital and trust, and the role played by these intangible factors in the rapid response of the ecosystem in context of the whole systems shock of the March 2011 earthquake in east Japan. Their findings serve to provide analytical lens when considering the data from the wholesaler (B2B) participatory sessions which considered the participants as part of one economic unit rather than individual micro-entreprenuers i.e. the vegetable vendors who were the other end of the informal urban fresh produce ecosystem.

Major events such as earthquakes reveal the complex and interconnected nature of supply chains and highlight the significance of the robustness and reliability of supply as key dimensions of competitiveness. (Olcott & Oliver, 2014).

The question of whether competitiveness becomes the framework for evaluation or the adaptive capacity of the value web to continue supplies of fresh vegetables under extreme conditions offers lessons on resilience from the informal sector remains open – the essential nature of Nairobi’s informal urban food ecosystem is vastly different from that of the automotive manufacturing sector looked at by Olcott & Oliver (2014). However, the significance of robustness and reliability of supply cannot be denied and becomes even more important in this case.

The sociological perspective, in contrast, emphasizes the benefits that accrue when parties enjoy social as well as purely economic relations—benefits which include higher trust, easier exchange of resources, reduced monitoring costs,and more intense exchange of information. These are especially valuable in contexts that require the combination and synthesis of diverse, often tacit, sources of knowledge, such as innovation and new product development.15 Social capital also facilitates the exchange of products and services whose precise nature is difficult to define and/or price. ~ Olcott & Oliver, 2014

I can already see that much closer reading and note taking will be required of this paper in order to frame my theoretical lens for data analysis, as their combination of sensemaking, resilience, and recovery from a natural disaster that impacted operating conditions across the entire supply chain network are of direct relevance, albeit in the formal economic context and of knowledge intensive industries. Issues of trust, cooperation, social capital, and navigating the lack thereof under extreme conditions are challenges faced by all types of organizations active in cooperatively sourcing and supplying time sensitive and essential goods.

In just the matter of tomatoes alone, the degree and level of sophisticated thinking around timing and volume and source of supply as well as product quality, as a response to the changes in operating conditions and cash flows is worth deeper study, given the informal trade ecosystem operates without cold chain facilities and without state or government support. Tisch & Galbreath (2018) mention social relationships in rural communities as instrumental to building organizational resilience. The supply of fresh produce to cities is clearly a rural-urban linkage issue as much as it is an informal trade ecosystem one.

My hunch is that there are lessons here on robustness and reliability, as well as elements of adaptive capacity, yet to be discovered and contextualized. For now, this review is sufficient to set the direction of analysis and synthesis of the rich dataset.


Boin, A., & Lodge, M. (2016). Designing resilient institutions for transboundary crisis management: A time for public administration. Public Administration, 94(2), 289-298

Boin, A. (2019). The transboundary crisis: Why we are unprepared and the road ahead. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 27(1), 94-99.

Gregory, J. (2003). Scandinavian approaches to participatory design. International Journal of Engineering Education, 19(1), 62-74

Harries, T., McEwen, L., & Wragg, A. (2018). Why it takes an ‘ontological shock’ to prompt increases in small firm resilience: Sensemaking, emotions and flood risk. International Small Business Journal, 36(6), 712-733.

International Ergonomics Association. Human Factors/Ergonomics (HF/E). Website retrieved 20 April 2021

Kilskar, S. S., Danielsen, B. E., & Johnsen, S. O. (2020). Sensemaking in Critical Situations and in Relation to Resilience—A Review. ASCE-ASME J Risk and Uncert in Engrg Sys Part B Mech Engrg, 6(1).

Lundberg, J., Törnqvist, E., & Nadjm–Tehrani, S. (2012). Resilience in sensemaking and control of emergency response. International Journal of Emergency Management, 8(2), 99-122

Olcott, G., & Oliver, N. (2014). Social capital, sensemaking, and recovery: Japanese companies and the 2011 earthquake. California Management Review, 56(2), 5-22

Tisch, D., & Galbreath, J. (2018). Building organizational resilience through sensemaking: The case of climate change and extreme weather events. Business Strategy and the Environment, 27(8), 1197-1208

van der Merwe, S. E., Biggs, R., & Preiser, R. (2020). Sensemaking as an approach for resilience assessment in an Essential Service Organization. Environment Systems and Decisions, 40(1), 84-106.

Weick, K. E., and Sutcliffe, K. M., (2007). Managing the Unexpected – Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty, Wiley, San Francisco, CA

Waddock, S.. 2015. Reflections: Intellectual shamans, sensemaking, and memes in large system change. Journal of Change Management, 15(4), 259-273.

Weick, K. E., 2011. Reflections: Change agents as change poets–On reconnecting flux and hunches. Journal of Change Management, 11(1), 7-20.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *