Friday, August 16, 2013

The context of context

Is context really king ? I remember reading that in one of Brian Solisblogposts. Only it wasn't really true. Context might be the new lie. I have been thinking about the context of context ever since having that intuition during a Google+ conversation in the Conversation Community. I have tried to put my thoughts together, and it has proven more difficult than expected. 

Social is about context. About context beeing king and about technology being a context enhancing engine (from an individual point of view) as well as a context leveraging engine (from a business point of view). And therefore, at first sight, about a need or an opportunity for people and institutions alike to master context and act in real time. 

Only, after thinking about it, social is not solely about context: by changing the depth of our personal context, technological (and social) evolution is making the changing nature of responsibility and decision making visible.

Context has context and context needs to be managed, which is why Responsible Context Management might just become an imperative management practice in the next few years. 

Let's take a trip

Making informed, conscious and autonomous decisions is one of the defining traits of what it means to be human. We make decisions all day long, unimportant or critical, barely conscious or deeply pondered. And the fact of the matter is that the very nature of those decisions has been altered by technology.

Let's move backwards a couple of centuries. Imagine you were intending to make a long journey to visit a relative. How would you make the final decision ? Most questions, I think, would have turned around the impact of that decision on oneself, or on one's close environment: How long will it take me ? What towns or locations will I cross ? Will it be dangerous ? What weather will I encounter ? What will happen to my family while I am away ? Will I be back ? ...

Fast forward. Would you be asking the same questions today ? Probably not. In fact, our awareness of the immediate context of our actions is such, our connexions to the persons in that context are such, that we have turned old questions into opportunities for conversations : what do you advise me to wear ? At what time do you want me to be there ? Should I stop and visit anything in the way to your home ? Can I bring the kids ?

The fact is that technology, human infrastructure, has expanded our personal context beyond anything we were intellectually prepared for. Hopefully, we are adapting, because the consequences of this expansion are deep.

Context, experience, impact and responsibility

Context is important because we make decisions in context. Contrary to animals, we react, but we also think, ponder, consider, project into the future, make assumptions, ..., before deciding. Our context includes our surroundings, our past learnings and our relationships. Technology has woundrously extended the reach of our surroundings, our past learnings and our relationships.

As a consequence, even if the questions we used to ask ourselves to decide in context are still there, the answers very quickly become obvious. And then, we make our decisions based on different types of questions : will I travel by car or plane ? is there a value in really moving, couldn't I just phone, text or skype ? What will be my carbon footprint ? Interestingly, we could say these questions today, as yesterday, are still questions about the value or the interest of the experience we will live and the impact of our actions on our relationships, surroundings and our future. 

Technology, apart from having wondrously expanded our context, has also totally transformed the meaning of experience and impact that now imply vastly different things to what they used to a mere century ago. 

In the first place, the experiences that we can live through our lives have expanded beyond what anyone could have dreamed of two centuries ago. Nothing describes it better than "the new normal" having become a catch phrase to describe almost anything that changes... 

Secondly, we are, as we were yesterday, aware of the impact of what we do. It's called responsibility : it's called being human. Only now we are also painfully aware of the complex and collective nature of that impact and therefore the complex and collective nature of that responsibility. What we do individually is part of what we do collectively and what we do collectively is a force for good or evil: the transformative power of our living-together is  terrible and implies a terrible responsibility. That bears on our subconscious and translates into different individual strategies that we choose to be able to cope with that new awareness : we choose to concentrate on different issues like managing our carbon footprint, engaging in responsible consumption, supporting whistle-blowing, voting on an election day, reading the Occupy Wall Street Blog or participating to a feel-good community in Google+.

Both our experience and our collective impact have been transformed by our evolution, and particularly by technology and our use of technology. Social technology, by connecting us, is making us collectively aware of it. Social technology has greatly contributed to the social acceleration that is making our context inescapably complex. Trying to find easy explanations or one-fits-all causality relationships between events is no longer available to us. In fact, it is becoming unethical to do so ("Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life", Hans Jonas).

Responsible Context Management

For us social technology practitioners, addressing the depths of context, understanding that, in a given context, a whole succession of contexts unfolds, has become an ethical imperative because of the potential impact.

I am thinking that this entails implementing a continuous feed-back loop between understanding and influencing context. Understanding and influencing context, at the corporate level, imply re-imaginging the links between such corporate processes as Learning and Development, People Engagement, Marketing and Sales. 

Most importantly, it gives an opportunity to focus formal training in the corporation not on skills and operations (which will be developed through social on the job learning), but on corporate responsibility. Real corporate responsibility.

I will write about that in a future post.

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