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Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm

3.62  ·  Rating details ·  428 ratings  ·  60 reviews
Based on his work at some of the world's largest companies, including Ford, Adidas, and Chanel, Christian Madsbjerg's Sensemaking is a provocative stand against the tyranny of big data and scientism, and an urgent, overdue defense of human intelligence.

Humans have become subservient to algorithms. Every day brings a new Moneyball fix--a math whiz who will crack open an in
Hardcover, 240 pages
Published March 21st 2017 by Hachette Books
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Sep 03, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
The book's subject deeply interested me - claiming a place for Humanities in the midst of an increasingly data driven and technology led world. However, the book did not live up to its promise. It follows the typical cookie cutter model of writing - popular for many years with American publishers - there is a one line premise to your book, which you elaborate to some 200 odd pages by citing stories and examples to support your case, while also refuting what you are writing against.

Overall the b
Laurent Franckx
Mar 04, 2018 rated it did not like it
What a disappointment.
I had started reading the book with the expectation that it would be a serious discussion of a really deep problem: how important is context in our age of big data? Indeed, one of the most controversial promises of big data is that it claims to be able to make accurate predictions without knowledge of the context - see for instance
On the other hand, some critics claim that without accurate information on the context, big data makes t
Sep 28, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Data scientists, leaders of analytics team, business analysts, marketers, people with arts degrees
Shelves: society, statistics
This was an interesting experience - I agreed with so many of the points, and yet was also annoyed by the tone of a lot of this book.

Quite a continental philosophy approach, which has its benefits but can also border on the woo-woo. I 100% agree about the importance of context and understanding rich, or "thick", data but I also think there are data users and thinkers doing great jobs of that already. I think I felt personally affronted at the idea that all data trained folks were so narrow-mind
May Ling
Jun 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: business, future
The message that there is more to algorithms than math is compelling. I agree with the author that there is something missing in the field of human decision making when math and statistics are used in a manner that is divorced from inference and understanding of the numbers.

I'm not sure that this is the absolute strongest argument that could be made. Thick and Thin data are a bit of a sad attempt to say analysis that is good versus stuff could be done by a 10 year old.

Still, this work dovetail
Martin Olesen
Apr 17, 2018 rated it it was ok
The point of not using big data and algorithms senselessly is important, but it's the only real point of the book. The author could have saved both the readers and himself a lot of time by conveying the same message in a blog post instead of reiterating it again and again for 200+ pages. ...more
Jan Daker
Apr 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Anyone in business should consider this book an imperative read, however, if you are low on emotional intelligence the gist will be lost.
We are in a data driven world. Madsbjerg gives example after example of the power of connecting humanities to algorithms. Whether it's in stock purchasing, training leaders or even in hostage negotiation, adding in the human element wins.
You will even learn what phenomenology means!
Note: at the beginning of the book, he used several examples from companies he w
Alejandro Teruel
This is a book that argues in favor of applying a humanist perspective based on phenomenology to make sense of the complex problems of the world, and against relying on STEM-based approaches. Madsbjerg trots out specious and hoary arguments against such approaches. In his introduction he indicates that:
This is a book about people. More specifically, this is a book about culture and the pendulum shifts of our age. Today we are so focused on STEM-based knowledge -theories from science, technology,
Sep 29, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: giveaways
I honestly had high hopes for this book just based on the description. The last humanities class I have taken was back in high school. I have since gotten a Masters degree and work at a Liberal Arts college where I questioned whether humanities classes or majors were a good idea since data shows that STEM fields generally lead to higher paying jobs, or just jobs in general related to the material studied. With increasing student debt, I also questioned why or even how students were able to have ...more
Sarah Boon
May 17, 2017 rated it it was ok
I picked up this book expecting it to be a defiant defense of the humanities in a world hooked on science. Instead it used some made up words (sensemaking being one of them) to show how we can understand the world - nothing different than what humanities and social scientists have known, and shown us, all along.
The book is likely meant for a business audience who know nothing about the humanities and social sciences and think the new words the author has coined fit right into their HR jargon. B
Aug 27, 2017 rated it liked it
Sensemaking attempts to make Heidegger digestible and relevant for modern decision-makers. The central argument is that context is everything when it comes to understanding and predicting collective human behavior. Our cultures - religion, norms, values - determine our behavior. Our independent will is largely an illusion. This view sets the stage for an argument that literature, history, sociology etc are vastly more important domains for understanding context and human actions than are "data a ...more
Jun 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
Refreshing to see a book promoting a sensible approach towards integrating data driven approaches to problem solving along with narrative/story driven methods as opposed to idolizing big data and machine learning as some sort of ultimate destination, which sadly is not exactly uncommon these days. In the age of measurement and algorithms it is taken for granted that objective facts must always be valued over subjective feelings and intuitions. The human element is often seen as an obstacle towar ...more
May 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm is a noble attempt and pushback at showing how thinking and practices dominated by skills grounded in the broad humanities allows one to understand the context and uses of what is commonly known as "big data".

Madsbjerg, a Danish business consultant, does a fine job of showing how the liberal arts is helping corporations like Ford and notable architects, derive meaning from all its gathered data about consumer habits. He strongl
Nikos Karamalegkos
Jun 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Sensemaking is an interesting and thought-provoking book, which pinpoints the pivotal role of human sciences in driving not only optimal individual but also enterprise-wide performance. Mr. Madsbjerg describes vividly case studies that validate the conviction that human sciences can cultivate the essential perspective to solve business problems, and at the same time depicts the inefficiency of the “silicon valley state of mind” to confront and make sense of the non-linear changes of our times. T ...more
Tathagat Varma
Sep 30, 2019 rated it liked it
While doing my masters in Computer Science, I had not a single course on the softer mushy human and social sciences. So, while we learnt formal logic and how to write a compiler, or even design an expert system, unfortunately, we didn't learn almost anything about people, the human beings! Little much has changed in those thirty years. Even today, I continue to find armies of tech graduates year after year with practically no knowledge or appreciation of #humanities. And in the tech bubble that ...more
Cliff Chew
Oct 18, 2018 rated it liked it
I have mixed feelings for this book.

Initially, I thought this book was going to explain how humanities and liberal arts can complement our new world of algorithms, machine learning and artificial intelligence, which would be really useful for my work. So I was quite disappointed when this was not what the book was trying to do.

This said, the book did cover some interesting topics on culture and sociology that still end up being a rather insightful and meaningful read. I particularly like how t
Fanny Vassilatos
Oct 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
Full review/key learnings on my website

In Sensemaking, Madsbjerg advocates for educating corporate decision-makers about the subtleties of the humanities and social sciences to future-proof progress for the greater good.

The premise of this book is about the unbalance in the world of business between STEM-based knowledge and the humanities. The author argues that if we bring more social sciences to decision-making, we can work with thick data —data infused with meaning by keeping it embedded in i
Jun 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
Fascinating guy, but it took me a while to get into this book, and I was a bit frustrated by how the arguments didn’t seem to land as decisively as I was hoping for. They just kind of flowed on to the next and the next without good strong punctuation between them (at least that’s how I felt).
But the content is undeniably relevant for the big data obsessed world we live in at the moment. What resonated with me the most is how our education systems are churning out people with precisely all the sk
Ramakalyan Ayyagari
Mar 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
The initial part, well almost 75% of the book, was not so exciting to me (interestingly, I pre-ordered this book and bought it). First, as a control theorist I am fully aware of all the technical matter behind the narration. Secondly, after having a heavy dose from Nassim Taleb (Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan), the issues addressed here were largely repetitive. However, it is the last two chapters - one on navigation (although this has the flavour of Blink by Malcolm Gladwell) and the l ...more
Sep 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing

Brilliant book on decision-making in a data driven age. Sensemaking is about understanding human culture and the context in which it operates. It revolves around holistic thinking. See between the lines of data; understand not just what people buy but what these people buy.

Sensemaking is a relevant skill in the age of big data, and could be a competitive advantage in the age of AI. Humans can comprehend "thick data" better, that is the context of the data.

Important concepts for entrepreneurs:

Sep 24, 2020 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Good concepts, but too vague to really be useful. Richly illustrated with story after story after story, but lacking the clarity and crystallization to bring together what it all really means. Worse, that seems to be deliberate- the book talks a great deal about just getting into the midst of things and intuitively figuring things out by immersion. The book itself operates similarly- using stories for the reader to immerse him/herself in as a means to understand the concepts, rather than clearly ...more
John Kaye
Apr 01, 2018 rated it liked it
Tim Harford said last year "Sensemaking...looks interesting", which is why it ended up on my pile. And the early parts are, but even at 200 pages this book is too long, and the second half seems to be padding with examples that often feel made to fit. The underlying premise is, indeed, sens-ible, and having read more about Heidegger and Husserl in the last year or so, and thanks here to Sarah Bakewell, I feel that the originals. however hard, are worth much more time than these management-speak ...more
Alex Stefan
Apr 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
Surprisingly good read, especially since his other book didn't manage to impress me. Coming from an applied anthropologist, the presence of phenomenologists, philosophers and academic theories is a great touch and I will definitely recommend it to students, especially if they are interested in consulting and/or market research. Shows how to frame problems in order to understand them, which is the only thing that matters, in the end. And I'm a bit biased, but he calls bs on design thinking, which ...more
May 02, 2018 rated it liked it
I read Madsbjerg's _Moment of Clarity_ some years ago and thought _Sensemaking_ would provide a slightly more hands-on depiction of applied ethnographic techniques. This book was more practical, but still slightly short on detail and long on polemic.

The book's central thesis is valuable. There are a lot of things that can't meaningfully be quantified or directly compared, and any kind of successful entrepreneurial process needs to account for the qualia of human experience. Doing so requires int
Oct 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
Fantastic perspective on how to incorporate technology into already successful human interaction. The concept of valuing whole scenarios, existence based upon context instead of cognition, is important in shaping a balanced take on this new, big data era. We can think ourselves to death if we don't simply ask "does this make sense." The formal structure of the Sensemaking approach seems to work and is valuable to aspiring coaches and consultants. ...more
Apr 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this book and found it to be somewhat of a valuable antidote to our currently fashionable worship of numbers. Madsjberg touches on a number of subtopics -- the importance of cultural knowledge, neuroplasticity, and what learning looks like from an observational standpoint, for example -- and his supporting anecdotes are useful and sometimes fascinating (George Soros and German culture was a favorite.). My gripe is that sometimes his subpoints came across as repetitive. A closer reread ...more
Ruth Pearce
May 26, 2019 rated it liked it
I enjoyed the early part of this book tremendously. The discussions about how big data only makes sense in context and the difficulty of making good decisions in business when you are removed from the environment in which that decision needs to be made were common sense but still fascinating. However, as the book progressed I found it became a little repetitive and I felt that the author moved away from evidence-based discussion to personal opinion.
I enjoyed how Madsbjerg brought in the different philosophers/philosophies that informed these ideas; an exquisite defense of non-linear reasoning, and being human in general (phenomenology!).
Another great companion to A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink.
"What are people for? Algorithms can do many things, but they will never actually give a damn. People are for caring."
Ernesto Espinoza
Feb 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Insightful, inspiring and written from the heart. The author gives us a most significant lesson for the 21st century: not technology but the humanities are the future. In an AI world, our art, sense of care and purpose will drive our will and economy. It does it now without noticing it. I truly recommend this book.
Mike Clinton
Jan 13, 2020 rated it liked it
This was an enjoyable read that offered some compelling points and evidence about the continuing value of the humanities as a way of creating human sense in a world threatened by the specter a hegemonic STEM culture. It was really written for a different audience, though, and I probably read the whole book only out of a sense of sympathy and because it was easy to do so.
Jakub Lupták
Mar 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
An intriguing case for humanities - slightly suffers from somewhat overstated examples and in repeatedly promoting sensemaking as the ultimate answer falls for the same problems it highlights in other, somewhat arbitrary, ‘mindsets’
But overall a worthwhile read and resonates with certain of my gut feelings on big data.
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Christian Madsbjerg is a founder of ReD Associates and the Director of its New York office. ReD is a strategy consulting company based in the human sciences and employs anthropologists, sociologists, art historians, and philosophers. Christian studied philosophy and political science in Copenhagen and London. He lives in New York City.

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