Sensing: The Elephant in the Room of Management Learning

In this post, authors Alina Bas, Marta Sinclair and Viktor Dörfler reflect on their research paper, “Sensing: The elephant in the room of management learning,” published in Management Learning. “Sensing,” as they explain in the opening of their paper, “is indispensable for constructing knowledge and should be employed on par with the intellect, particularly in today’s complex and uncertain context. Yet, we have observed learners’ reluctance to engage with sensing and attempted to understand the reasons for it.”

What motivated you to pursue this research?

Alina Bas: In private conversations with executive clients and participants of small corporate workshops, I often hear that they rely on sensing the ‘right’ solution, and only retroactively choose data to support it. But many of them would not admit to it publicly. I wanted to have a more open conversation with analytically educated professionals about sensing as a legitimate practice. Sensing is widely used at work, but is perceived as less legitimate or objective than intellectual analysis. In management it remains a polarizing topic. The idea is not new, but admitting to it, and acknowledging its value is cutting edge. A few years ago, I taught a class on intuiting and sensing; half the class was appalled that such a topic is covered as part of an MBA program, the other half was delighted and asked to spend more time on it. Through this research, we wanted to understand why sensing remains an elephant in the room rather than a welcomed guest.

The elephant in the room

Were there any specific events that influenced your decision to pursue this research?

Marta Sinclair: As founder of Intuition in Organizations, I have been striving to close the gap between research and practice for years. Although our knowledge has progressed considerably, one of the biggest challenges remains that very little of the research is translated into practical tools that would help with developing intuition and turning it into a valuable organizational resource. There is a wealth of practical know-how, coming from experienced practitioners who have developed effective training tools but not enough scientific evidence to explain them. And sensing is a big part of it. Although it is fundamental to human functioning, it is the least known aspect of adult learning. Just look at our education, people are taught logic and analysis – but sensing, and until recently even emotions do not feature in our curriculum. It is no wonder that highly skilled analytical thinkers are taken aback when asked to sense. They need help so they can tap into all of their knowledge.

In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?

Viktor Dörfler: Methodologically our study is provocative, and we thank the reviewers for engaging with this unusual submission. We used ad hoc classroom observations and practitioner experience as a starting point, which prompted our thinking and discussion, that in turn led to strong theorizing. There are a few papers in Management Learning that set precedent for this type of methodological approach (e.g. Pyrko et al., 2019; Spanellis et al., 2021); we departed from the previous work by problematizing the phenomenon of reluctance to engage with sensing. We see this approach as a particular type of theorizing that unpacks the problem rather than obtains a solution. We adopted “phenomenal theorizing” as a suitable conceptual framing for the study. This approach focuses on the phenomenon directly, without being limited by an adopted theoretical lens, and this allows for obtaining insights that could otherwise be bracketed out by the lens.

Sources:

Pyrko, I., Dörfler, V., & Eden, C. 2019. Communities of practice in landscapes of practice. Management Learning, 50(4): 482-499. DOI: 10.1177/1350507619860854

Spanellis, A., Pyrko, I., & Dörfler, V. 2021. Gamifying situated learning in organisations. Management Learning: 13505076211038812. DOI: 10.1177/13505076211038812

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Alina Bas, Marta Sinclair and Viktor Dörfler

Alina Bas is a researcher and Executive Coach. She is currently working towards her PhD at U. of Strathclyde Business School (SBS). Dr. Marta Sinclair is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Business and Innovation at Griffith University. Dr. Viktor Dörfler is a Senior Lecturer in Information & Knowledge Management at the Department of Management Science, University of Strathclyde Business School.

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Larry Prusak

This is a fine paper and certainly true to my own experiences. Keep up the fine research though you are fighting heavy head winds from MBA land

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