The Challenges of Understanding and Action

2015-07-15 00.16.56-2There is an activity that we all engage in throughout our waking hours—and likely some sleeping hours as well—yet we mostly pay little or no attention to it: the effort to understand what is happening in our lives and in the world at large and what action, if any, to take in response. That this activity is so broad and deep, with an enormous number of aspects, probably explains why it is overlooked. But we ignore it at our peril, especially now when our shared knowledge has eroded, and with it our beliefs and values, and our ability to take joint action has seriously diminished.

 

Paying attention, however, has its challenges, not the least of which is what I call fundamental context: the general situation that every person in the world faces, regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, economic level, nationality, and intelligence. The fact is, the universe is immensely large and complex, and our ability as humans to comprehend it is very limited, and therefore requires constant and innovative effort.

In addition, understanding has both an individual and a social dimension. Each person must do it with help from society, and society must do it with input from every person. Both dimensions are rooted in culture—which has been defined in many ways but which I view as the means by which we collect and maintain our shared knowledge, and then use this knowledge to construct the conceptual schema that we employ to understand experience and take action.

Finally, it is not clear what we can do to change things, given the shortcomings in our current understanding of the world and our attempts to act in response, both personally and as a society. I am sure, though, that publishing can play a critical role in the effort to understand and take action, contributing to both its individual and social dimensions.

© Martin Wilcox

Martin.Wilcox@live.com

Publishing in Context

Publishing in Context

Using Content Developed for Your Website to Leverage Your Publishing

Martin 2012

Martin

If you are a subject-matter expert who wants to use your knowledge to benefit others, you probably have a website about the products and services that you provide. It is important that a significant part of the content that you create for your site, if not its core, is an expert framework. Not only will this framework help visitors to the site quickly gain an overall understanding of what you have to offer, it will greatly facilitate your subsequent writing and publishing—of books, articles, and blog pieces.

 

An expert framework can take many forms, but it must include several essential elements:

(a) a description of  the context of your work (for instance, if you are a management consultant, you should describe the business environment and the challenges faced by organizations and the people that manage them);

(b) a portrayal of how the knowledge discipline that you have studied, worked within, and mastered can be applied to this environment;

(c) a statement of the aspects of this discipline that you have focused on and have experience in;

(d) a presentation of the ways that you can help people respond to the challenges, ideally organized in a way that specifies the relationships among them; and

(e) a clear set of terms and their definitions that you use in your work.

This framework can be incorporated into the site throughout, but an overview of it should be placed on an orienting page, preferably the homepage, with hyperlinks to pages that go into greater depth about each of its elements.

Putting together an expert framework accomplishes much of the content development aspect of creating a website, but judging from many websites today, it is frequently overlooked. This is understandable in view of the technical expertise it takes to set up a good-looking and effectively interactive site. Much of the focus is on design, with the owner of the site left to supply the content with little guidance, or with help from people who prefer to focus on content that is more oriented to marketing and communication than to knowledge. Design is an undeniably important issue, but knowledge (made accessible and understandable for a defined audience, and therefore transformed into content) must be seriously addressed as well.

Furthermore, this work can be leveraged to make your other publishing more effective. Many of the problems that subject-matter experts face in writing books and articles come when they try to do essential conceptual work at the same time that they are writing and working out the structure of a publication. They are conflating content development with publication development. The conceptual challenges overwhelm the writing, creating tremendous pressure. Having already developed an expert framework, in which the essential concepts have been established, can relieve much of this and provide resource material for the writing.

© Martin Wilcox

Martin.Wilcox@live.com

Publishing in Context

Publishing in Context

The Need for Conceptual Thinking

© Martin Wilcox

Martin.Wilcox@live.com

 

Today in the United States we are in the midst of a crisis of thinking. The problem is not, as some might assert, that we’re thinking too little; it’s that we’re not thinking conceptually.

Let me describe conceptual thinking and give an example of where its absence is having an adverse effect.

Definition
Conceptual thinking generates ideas that explain and organize experience, helping people understand what is happening and thereby take appropriate action in response. It can be disruptive because it challenges the established ideas that have been used to organize experience, but it is absolutely essential because the established ideas that frame our experience become less and less effective over time and must be replaced.

Conceptual thinking is characterized by four essential qualities. It is purposeful—that is, it defines the reason and usefulness of ideas: who they help, why, and how. It is contextual—that is, it acknowledges the environment it operates in, which means it must be anchored in facts. It is generative—that is, it promotes the creation of related ideas. And it synthesizes—that is, it brings together relevant elements into clear systematic relationships.

It is important to note that conceptual thinking occurs at two interactive levels: as a specific individual challenge and as part of a general social activity.

At the individual level, the challenge is for each person to make sense of his or her life. Many of the issues are of course personal (What do I value? What should I do with my life?) but, because we live with other people, most of the issues are social (What motivates the people I interact with? How should I treat them?). Conceptual thinking on the individual level is inevitably social.

On the general level it is social by definition—because it contributes to the knowledge sharing, and thus to the communal understanding and values, that is the basis of culture.

Example
People have a strong sense of the need for conceptual thinking but in attempting it they often take shortcuts, not working things through and paying attention to its essential qualities. They rely on stereotypes or received concepts. They feel that big ideas are required, but what they often come up with are broad ideas that ignore purpose and context, resulting in ideas that are simplistic rather than simple.

Consider education. In the United States, we have been struggling with the need to improve it for decades. The public discussion about how to do this, however, has seldom considered purpose and context.

What is the purpose of education? Is it to train people for jobs, or is it to prepare them to play a productive role in society, with an understanding of values, history, and the power and limits of our shared knowledge? These are not mutually exclusive, but which is the most fundamental? Conceptual thinking would help answer this. Unfortunately, people discussing education at best make occasional references to a purpose, but even then it’s not thought through and certainly never generally accepted.

And what about context? Is the context for education business or society? Business, because it is part of society, can be helped by education but it can’t be the primary focus for it. If the context of education is fundamentally society, then a range of social issues are relevant and must be addressed: poverty, opportunity, responsibility, and health, to name only a few.

Instead of addressing the fundamental issues of purpose and context, the discussion about education has been characterized by a multitude of technical approaches that are put forward as broad solutions—open classrooms, year-round schools, magnet schools, immersion, and, most recently, standardized testing to increase teacher accountability, not to mention privatization. Many of these suggestions would no doubt have a place in a high-quality education system. But without a shared understanding of purpose and context, we spend a lot of energy dealing with questionable ideas. Privatization, for instance, because it would be financially out of reach of many, if not most, students, would not likely be seen as a viable approach; it wouldn’t benefit society in general.

Conclusion
People have been addressing the need for more effective thinking for a long time. There has been a great deal of effort devoted to promoting what is termed critical thinking. And this is worthwhile. But this movement often seemed to make conceptual thinking a mere aspect of critical thinking. I believe the two are distinct. Essentially, the former generates ideas and the latter evaluates them. In addition, critical thinking has tended to have an individual focus, not emphasizing the necessary social aspect of thought.

All the work that has been done notwithstanding, most of the thinking that is being done today in the United States is neither conceptual nor critical. It is enumerative and mercenary, reshuffling existing ideas in the hope that some combination of them will provide a competitive economic value. Such thinking consumes a lot of resources, effort, and intelligence but it is formulaic, which is probably why so many people think computers could do it better.

And things can go wrong in other ways. We can see a different kind of response to the felt need for conceptual thinking in the repeated calls for innovation. This recognizes the necessity for ideas that change the way we do things, but it tends to put conceptualizing into a largely money-making frame.

I believe the lack of conceptual thinking is a major factor contributing to the mediocrity that characterizes so much of American leadership and management—where a great deal of time, intelligence, and money is used up by a focus on a narrowing world, while companies, government, the environment, and society wither. If we don’t start thinking conceptually, the problems we face today will almost certainly overwhelm us.

Scheduling Projects for 2016

Martin Wilcox 2012

Martin Wilcox 2012

We are scheduling our work commitments for 2016. While this is a fluid process and we always welcome new work, it is helpful for us to be able to predict our workflow. If you have a project in mind and would like to discuss it further, feel free to contact us.

If you are considering a new project but are not sure where you are in the process, we can help you determine your present publishing stage. We don’t charge for the initial conversations about your work.