December 2, 2008

Context Matters

Mark McGuinness would like you to test your perception. Take a moment to read his post, Are You Trapped in Black-and-White Thinking, and then tell me which square is darker. He uses this test to illustrate his concern about our tendency to think concretely in black and white terms -- no ambiguities, no shades of gray. In his view, this rigid approach cuts off creativity at the knees.

Spending a little time thinking about the restrictive lenses we use in daily life and how they affect our ability to think creatively is definitely a useful exercise. However, I'd also like to draw your attention to another aspect of this black/white test: Context Matters. When we saw the square surrounded by dark squares, we assumed it was lighter than it was. Equally, when we saw the square surrounded by light squares, we assumed it was darker than it was. In each case, however, the squares in question were exactly the same color. It was the immediate context of those squares that led us to perceive them differently. But, when we look at both of those squares in the context of the entire board, we get a much clearer sense of their true color.

Without getting carried away by this optical illusion, it is helpful to think about the value of context in knowledge management where there isn't always an objectively right answer. There is a lesson here for folks who think super-search is the ultimate answer to knowledge management challenges or who believe that extracting explicit knowledge and warehousing it in a KM repository is the best solution. With each of these approaches you run the risk of losing valuable context that can help the user make sound judgments about the content in question. In the language of law firm knowledge management, model document X may be the perfect precedent in situation Y and a complete disaster in situation Z. The only way you are going to know for sure is by looking at document X in context.

As you think about your approach to content, think about whether you're doing a good job of providing the context necessary to allow users to make wise decisions about the content they choose to use. Context matters.

[Thanks to ProBlogger, Darren Rowse, for pointing out Mark McGuinness' post.]

4 comments:

Mark McGuinness said...

Thanks. Maybe one of the problems with digital knowledge management is that it's digital - a very black/white on/off medium. Maybe commentary like yours and the social media conversation can offer clarifying context?

Mary Abraham said...

Mark -

You're right about the dangers of digital media. The ability to pinpoint content and extract it is both helpful and harmful. Because of this, I'm particularly grateful for social media, which give us an opportunity to add commentary and, thereby, add context. We're not going to be able to put the search genie back in the bottle (thank you Google), but with social media we can ameliorate some of the negative aspects of finding content out of context. Further, just as my blog post grew out of yours, the focus shifts from static content to social media conversations and becomes both relevant and necessary.

- Mary

- Mary

Samuel Driessen said...

Ah, this is really good, Mary. I fully agree with you. I've had an interesting discussion with John Tropea on this topic (following one of his posts). Dave Snowden has interesting stuff on this too. I agree with Mark that digital KM or IT often doesn't fully understand what information and knowledge is. No context, no real understanding and sense-making!

Mary Abraham said...

Thanks, Samuel. John and Dave have looked at this issue before. As they say, there is nothing new under the sun. However, I thought Mark's black/white test provided a powerful visual of the importance of context. It's a useful reminder.

- Mary