Friday, 23 December 2011

No context, no meaning.

The phrase in the title is borrowed from Gregory Bateson, a researcher in cybernetics and social sciences, who has had a lot of impact on theories and research on relationships.

Context is a basic concept in communication science, and many other fields. By context we can mean very many different things. We can talk about time and place, a certain situation, the context of national, organisational or family cultures, personal lifestories, relationships and so on. One could propably say that its a subjective framework defined by personal experiences and interpretations. At the same time multiple contexts are provoked: our individual contexts, the shared ones, and the broader universal ones are present at once. Sometimes we are conscious about them, sometimes not.

Context is a very useful term and can be used to make sense how and why we act in a certain way in certain situations. Every communicative act can be understood and interpreted by exploring the context where the communicative act takes place. In other words, our actions get their meaning through context. For example a phrase ”I like you” can be interpreted very differently in different places and in different relationships.

In order to create better, more appropriate and more productive patterns of communication, we need to clarify the contexts where those patterns emerge. If we want to create innovative forms of collaboration, we need to coordinate our understandings of different contexts and the connections between them. In that sense managers and leaders have an important role to coordinate the contexts of individuals, groups and make the connections to organisational contexts.

If we ignore contexts we can miss a lot of beauty around us. I want to share with you a short film that has left a mark in me. 

The story related to the film can be read here.

Merry Christmas to all of you! And may year 2012 bring you flourishing contexts!


  1. I really like this post Eerika, including YouTube clip that really is so surprising. It reminds me of a favorite street performer in San Francisco who hides in plain sight behind a small branch and scares people who do not take notice of him.

    In the domain of leadership, I have always felt that a key factor for any individual, team, or organization to achieve excellence is to understand the external and internal environments within which they operate. This is context.

    There are many methodologies for exploring the external context (SWOT, etc.) but few that provide structure for scanning the internal. Here are four sequential steps I use, perhaps they can be useful to others:

    Be Present & Observe – Be engaged and connect at all levels of the organization. Watch and listen for the things that prompt shifts in behavior, unexpected work-arounds, surprise reactions, adaptations, etc. Especially observe body language, as well as what is unspoken, between the lines.

    Listen for Stories – Invite people to tell their stories to establish all of the various pictures of what is happening in the workplace. The story of "we are all overwhelmed" can exist beside the story of "we are all invigorated by the challenge."

    Identify Themes – Consolidate common threads to build a deeper understanding of needs and aspirations, as well as categories of similar barriers and resources that may be needed.

    Distill Challenges/Opportunities – From the themes, establish a list of the emerging interventions or solutions that may address the most urgent challenges/opportunities.

  2. Thanks Jesse!

    And sorry for the delayed reply. I like the list of methodologies you wrote down here. The interesting question for me is how to help and support people to develop these sort of abilities of making sense of the internal contexts. How to help organisation members to become aware of all the existing and emerging stories and realities and coordinate their actions?

    I'm trying to dig deeper to this topic in my dissertation, so let's see how it goes. :)

    Would be lovely to continue this wonderful topic! How this resonates with you, Jesse?