How We Understand: Adding Meaning and Value to Information

Innovation Figure 5d
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:

Processes that Add Meaning to Information: Valuable ‘End-Products’ of these Processes: Some Tools Supporting these Processes:
Drawing on examples from personal experience
Combining/integrating with other personal knowledge
Training: Critical/Analytical Thinking
Desktop search tools (for combining)
Simplifying (without over-simplifying)
Synopses Blogs/diaries
Mindmaps/concept maps
Applications (real and potential)
Tests of learning/understanding
Training: Creative thinking
Self-tests & exercises
Systems thinking
Systems diagrams
Visualizations & graphics
Ecolanguage (animated visualizations)
Single frames
Mapping/systems thinking tools
Reading/hearing/internalizing stories
Narrating/memorizing/retelling stories
Vicarious experiences
Experience-lesson connections
Strong memories
Story personalization
Storytelling templates/models (myths, fables etc.)
Storybooks/periodicals (e.g. New Yorker)
Training: Listening/storytelling skills
Inferring significance
Inferring consequences
Deciding on resultant actions
Action plans
Analytical report templates (structured thinking etc.)
Restating (“in other words”)
Alternative perspectives
Shoe-were-on-the-other-foot POV
Observing first-hand
Reviewable detailed recordings/transcripts
Observations (objective and subjective)
Recording tools
Cameras/SVP tools
Cultural anthropology tools
Others’ experiences/additional information
Others’ interpretations/perspectives/ideas/POV
Collective wisdom
All P2P communication tools (telephone etc.)
Conversation tools (talking stick etc.)
Collaboration tools (wikis, whiteboards etc.)
Collaboration methods (Open Space etc.)
Wisdom of Crowds/surveying tools
Directories/people-finders/social network maps

(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:

  • inability to explain or convey information due to limitations of language
  • inability to articulate events or ideas clearly
  • unreadiness of our audience
  • inattention of our audience
  • incompatibility of our mental frames and filters with those of others

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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8 Responses to How We Understand: Adding Meaning and Value to Information

  1. Danielle says:

    I am really enjoying learning from your blog. Thanks a lot!

  2. Mariella says:

    If I am able to really “understand” X, good enough as to be able to pass the information to others, it means I have enough previous metaphores that allowed me to make sense of X, so, that means I also know what is the previous, needed information, required to produce sense… ¿How do I know if the other person will be able to make some kind of sense?….. I find useful Dilts 6 logic levels (from Gregory Bateson´s logic levels) of understanding 1.- enviroment (answers to where,when and with whom) 2.- behaviour (what)3.- resources or capacities (how) 4.- beliefs and values ( for what and why) 5.-Identity (Who) 6.- Trascendance or spirituallity.– In #1 person is affected by the environment and in #6 the person is able to affect environment. This 6 stages are constantly interacting in our different cognitive processes….. While I am understanding something as well as in the passing/receiving information process. The kind of answer I get from my interlocutor will tell about the efectivity of my communication. ¿Was I able to produce understanding?

  3. My father once said to me, “We may comprehend death, but we will never understand it.”

  4. This might be there, but another process is noticing, which is the trigger for sensemaking. Related to this is mindfulness which Weick talks about as a way of noticing. I talk about noticing a bit here:

  5. Keith says:

    Thanks – a good and useful post. I look forward to the next version. The topic reminds me of a previous attempt to capture the nuances of understanding. Perhaps you remember Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which introduced the concept of “grok”. In the American Heritage dictionary it is defined as “to understand profoundly through intuition or empathy.” A made up word, but a useful one.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks everyone. It’s interesting that several readers have told me that noticing/paying attention/mindfulness was missing from the first column of my table. If as Bohm says “giving simple attention…is the primary creative act” then it may also be the most important meaning-adding process, and art, as one of the corresponding ‘end-products’, could be the most important means by which we come to understand, in the (non-anglophone) sense of grasping, stretching-toward, and coming-together. Grok that?

  7. Graham says:

    I think your table gives a very valuable view on knowledge and learning.Given your past focus on learning and organizations and mention of David Bohm, I’m surprised that dialogue and discussion aren’t explicitly in the table. I’m sure this concept is included in conversing/consulting and in collaborating, but I think that Senge’s exploration of the differences between dialogue and discussion in his work would be relevant here and worth highlighting.

  8. Jim Rait says:

    Great list to think on!When I read a newspaper or magazine then it is my context… what’s on my mind; what my subconscious is stewing on that makes what I read relevant and connect with me.

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