One of my presentations at next month’s KM World & Intranets conference is about adding meaning and value to information. This article reflects some of my early thinking on this subject.
The word ‘understand’, which does not appear to have a precise counterpart in any other language, literally means “comprehend (=grasp) and appreciate(=be able to evaluate) sufficiently to pass on to others”. It is about instructions and the passing on of those instructions down the hierarchy. In English, then, there is a sense that “Do you understand?” means more than “Do you comprehend?” — it means “Do you know what you must therefore do and tell others to do?” I’ll avoid the temptation to infer how this reflects on both the exaggerated importance of hierarchy, and the sometimes perverse purpose of the education system, in anglophone nations.
Most other languages use the term comprehend (=grasp) instead, though most have a second word equivalent to the French entendre (=stretch toward) to convey a nuance of the learning process that English seems to ignore. The ‘understanding’ process in other languages, then, is not just a means for passing on instructions, but rather a means of coming together, a meeting of minds, for no necessary purpose than the sheer joy of communicating, sharing thoughts powerfully and effectively. It was of course an anglophone, GB Shaw, who said “The biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred”. To us anglophones, I guess, the only way we know if our communication was ‘understood’ is if it was effectively conveyed on and carried out by our subordinates. No wonder there’s no precise English translation for joie de vivre!
So how do we ‘understand’? By what process do we ‘grasp’ and ‘stretch toward’ each other to gain meaning and value from the information we convey? And what tools and devices can we employ to do so more effectively?
To answer these questions I went through a cross section of my library, and websites about learning, comprehension and communication, and compiled the following table of processes, results of those processes, and supporting tools that can be used to enhance understanding. It’s strictly a subjective sampling, but I think you’ll find it interesting:
(You may have noticed that newspapers and other news media and ‘feeds’ don’t make my table at all. That reflects my bias, I suppose, that this information is meaning- and context-free, and hence for the most part has no value at all.)
I’m still thinking about all this, so if I’m missing any important processes, tools or end-products that help add meaning to information, please let me know and I’ll add them.
This adding-of-meaning is mitigated by a lot of endemic dysfunctional information behaviours that we are all prone to (arising from information politics, information unawareness, faulty sense-making and poor information-sharing reward systems), and specifically the five hurdles to effective communication that tend to impede meaning from being conveyed:
Collectively, all the ‘end-products’ in the middle column of the table above constitute our ‘understanding’ of the information and the issue behind it. These end-products allow us to ‘make sense’ of the information we read, see and hear. The more extensive and effective the processes followed (from the first column), therefore, the greater will be our understanding.
Our preference for, and the amount of value we get from, the different ‘end-products’ varies greatly by individual, and is a function of how we learn — some learn best by reading, others by synthesizing, listening, visualizing, observing, or doing hands-on. No one process, tool or end-product ‘fits all’.
As information professionals, and as educators, we need, I think, to develop a greater appreciation of how we come to understand (and sometimes misunderstand) information. If we want our co-workers, and those we love, to be more understanding and more effective learners, we need to study the processes that they use (and fail to use, or use badly) to process information. We need to appreciate the learning/understanding ‘end-products’ that they value, and help them become more adept at using the tools that support the mental processes that underlie these end-products. We need to work with them, one-on-one, to help them improve their information processes, and hence produce more valuable information ‘end-products’, for their own comprehension and for conveying it to others. We need to become more adept as using these tools ourselves, and, as information intermediaries, we need to use these tools more extensively to enhance and add value to the content we manage before we disseminate it to others. And we need to develop new and better information processing tools — tools that add meaning and value to information, rather than just shuffling it around in its ‘raw’ state.
Currently, we spend the lion’s share of our time acquiring, storing, compiling, organizing, and disseminating information, with little or no thought of how the ‘listener’ will use it. If we can get away from our ‘content’ role and start devoting more of our time in a ‘context’ role — observing and teaching people how to use the content effectively in the context of their own jobs and lives — we might just find that our value to the organizations we serve and the people we love will go up immeasurably.
Postscript: The final version of the table above will include hotlinks to web pages on each of the tools in the right column. When I’ve done that, I’ll repost this article to include these links.
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