Friday, August 6, 2010

The Importance of Context

This week I have been taking the time to reflect on the importance of context as I prepare to deliver a keynote on the art of conversation next week. It forced me to consider what research was being done in this space and what group based research looked like in terms of researching communities. This is where most context is derived from. A community or social setting. It certainly presents an opportunity to critically reflect on the nature of learning and information use in larger scale communities and also the resultant diffusion of information and whether the context eradicates meaning or enhances it. Again, this word; "context" takes it’s place. Context for me is starting to become the key to the consideration of validity and use of information and knowledge particularly for modern day knowledge workers.

SO WHAT? This is the question that comes to mind and my challenge is to acknowledge that context is rarely thought of in the process and procedural ecology that is work. Managers would claim that it is however, there are many "war" stories, with evidence, that would state otherwise and this presents an opportunity to reflect on the types of context that we come across in our working lives

Here are the context’s worth considering as an information or learning professional:
  • Context as context of use: - what? Or where?
  • Context relating to problem
  • Context relating to individual situation
  • Context relating to state of mind
  • Context relating to social identity

Usage studies dominated a lot of my learning here and I was surprised, but not delighted that it was usually conducted by practitioners and not academics. It immediately places a context of “non-rigor” around the research and forces me to over analyse the findings and methodology on the basis of trust! Why do I have this context? Because in my experience, the nature of workplace research conducted by non-academics includes the boundary of time in the majority of cases and this forces them to reach conclusions that still have a "further research may reveal differences" clause in them. It erodes my trust in using the findings as part of what I do. It also impacts how I see context in terms of communities.

Trust. It would appear that this aspect in the literature is key and critical. Of course context is playing it’s role, but the community requires a level of trust to ensure that the sharing and use of information and learning is consistent with the ideals of that community. It is clear to me that the distinction between a community of practice and community of interest is again poignant in understanding information usage and the way they share knowledge and learn together. Communities of practice focus on the usage as it relates to a problem or task, whereas communities of interest focus on the use of information and learning for networking and motivational reasons.

One overriding sense I had here was that there was a diverse range of perspectives that could be applied here. In other words seen through a lens of an expert this could look particularly different. Examples are:

  • Marketing - Client group/market segment = Similar Needs/Wants
  • Cognitivism – similar knowledge structures, similar ASK
  • Sense-Making – similar situationality, similar gaps
  • Social Constructivists – similar social context –shared beliefs, ideas & social practices

One thing is for sure, a critical reflection on context will always force you to consider the humility with which you approach the design of information and education. You cannot be perfect and someones context will always be different to your intended learning outcomes, so the importance of context cannot be underestimated as it should keep us grounded in our profession.

Here is a piece of reading I recommend and reference:

Olsson, Michael (2004) 'Understanding Users: Context, Communication and Construction'. ALIA 2004 Biennial Conference Gold Coast Convention & Exhibition Centre, Queensland, Australia, 21 -24 September 2004. Available at alia2004/ pdfs/ olsson.m.paper.pdf

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