A must-read paper! ‘Common Operating Picture as Collective Sensemaking’ by Wolbers and Boersma

The excellent researchers Jeroen Wolbers and Kees Boersma from Department of Organization Sciences, VU University Amsterdam, has published exciting work on how Common Operating Picture (‘Samlad lägesbild in Swedish’) could be understood as collective sensemaking (‘the Karl Weick version’).  What is exciting with this paper is that the authors have made impressive field work at a range of emergency response exercises and collected an impressive amount of micro-level data in form of conversations and observations. One could perhaps ask, why this is both exciting and impressive? The answer is that we often see papers on this topic (Common operating picture, COP) that gets stuck in overly complex theoretical arguments about if or if not COP is possible/meaningful/desireable. Wolbers an Boersma have in contrast provided beautiful accounts from the field and synthesised it into compelling and insightful analysis. Their study shows that Common Operating Picture is foremost about information sharing in what could be understood as trading zones, between different roles and between organizations. In these trading zones, information is never completely communicated or to a fully extent comprehended. Instead various forms of negotiations embody the infrastructure (my wording) for producing a common operating picture. The insights in the paper should be of particular interest for technology vendors in order for them to avoid too mechanistic approaches in dealing with this information management challenge.

This paper is vitalising the ongoing discussion regarding COPs and other researchers should follow their (Wolbers and Boersmas) lead into focusing on micro-level aspects of how professionals make sense of complex phenomena and how the underlying sense-making efforts is materialized in continuous conversations within and across organisational boundaries. More studies are needed to increase our understanding of how professionals craft and shape representations of response work and crisis phenomena. Wolbers and Boersma have with their paper challenged all of us to push forward on this topic.

Wolbers, J &  Boersma, K. (2013) The Common Operational Picture as Collective Sensemaking. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, Wiley, Oct 2013

Abstract: [Link] The common operational picture is used to overcome coordination and information management problems during emergency response. Increasingly, this approach is incor- porated in more advanced information systems.This is rooted in an ‘information ware- house’ perspective, which implies information can be collected, sorted and exchanged in an accessible and univocal form. In practice, however, professionals interpret similar information differently.Therefore, we focus on how emergency responders develop col- lective sensemaking from information.We employ a ‘trading zone’ perspective, in which information is negotiated, to study information management in an ethnographic study of disaster exercises in the Netherlands. Our analysis shows how professionals attribute different meanings to information that distorts the coordination process. We end by stressing the importance of actionable knowledge and reflexivity.

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