Context is King

Lost with too many maps. Photo by Andrew Neel on

Context is king. Without the right information about context to connect with others and orient our work then we will fail to be effective. We can be as equally lost with too little information or too much. A digitally connected world was meant to be one with better experiences, information and connection. We need to take care that digital systems are not breaking or overwhelming the context that is essential to effective work.


We need the right contextual information to be able to work effectively. Knowing a task is not always enough. Better performance means we need to understand the rationale for that task, what success looks like and any incidental information required to make sure that we have the capabilities required to succeed and learn to do better. We also need to share enough context with others to be able to communicate effectively and coordinate our work.

As systems become more digital there is a risk that shared context may be breaking down. Lean digital communications don’t always supply the context. Not everything fits in a chat, an API or a field in a system. We don’t just need to move the critical information around in our digital world, we need to move enough context to enable work to be effective.

I’ve had two deliveries to my home in the last week that went awry due to lack of shared context. One was meant to be an installation, but the team that arrived had the goods but had been told only to deliver. In the other a driver arrived with no idea what he was delivering, no idea why or what was meant to happen, or even the right equipment or resources to get it off his truck.

Both of the conversations were frustrating for the delivery team and for me as we had to share missing context, negotiate the misunderstandings and try to solve puzzling issues of misalignment. In each of these cases, the delivery team who arrived at my house with boxes in a truck was at the end of a long digital logistic chain, but their only information was a sparse delivery slip. Neither of these teams worked for the organisation that had arranged their services or promised me something. I suspect both teams don’t even work as employees of the logistic company. The context that these two deliveries needed to meet the experience that had been promised by others had been lost somewhere along the chain.

We can also have situations of too much context confusing people. For example, pilots of the F-35 jets have complained about the complexity of the heads-up displays and the amount of information that is displayed in a narrow field of view. Task and tool switching brings its own challenges of new contexts, performance impacts and fatigue. This excess of context can be critical to performance in high-stress high-performance environments. We don’t want people in a digital workplace sifting through lots of emails to find the right employee communication for a context.

Create a Shared Context

We can design better logistic chains to share more context on delivery but this is symptomatic of how in many contexts our digital systems and the overload of other information is actually cutting down shared context. In the interests of efficiency many digital systems restrict information flows to only the essential information. What is essential may not always be enough. In other contexts, the overflow of information may mean everyone has a partial view of what is going on.

This experience of lack of shared context is surprisingly common in and around our digital workplace today:

  • what drove the last argument you had? There’s a pretty good chance it was a misunderstanding because people didn’t share the same context you had of an issue. In a world where there are lots of information sources and algorithms tailor what we see, we can’t always expect people know the same things or see them in the same light.
  • why did your last project fail to deliver as expected? most likely due lack of a shared context between the team doing the work, the stakeholders of the project and those who would use it
  • why did your product underperform expectations? lack of shared understanding in the product, marketing and sales teams of the customer need and variations in design to suit other contexts
  • why is a team disengaged? usually it starts with they don’t understand the context of the work they are doing and aren’t able to connect with leaders operating in very different contexts
  • why is distributed working challenging? without activity to specifically share context between distributed teams, there are lots of misalignments, miscommunications and misunderstandings.

We need to consider what context is required to make work effective and to share more context than the minimum as we do so. One of the advantages of community platforms and collaboration platforms is the ability to connect people and share context on their work, their goals and their information. This is particularly powerful when these platforms allow people to pull the extra context that they need to be effective as required, rather than have it pushed to them. Embracing the potential of communities in Yammer can help people to connect, share context and solve the day to day issues that a lean digital context creates.

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