Understanding modern teams and how they contribute to a company’s competitiveness will eventually take you to dealing with a lot of models and concepts, established in the early days of organizational psychology. It is remarkable how after all studies, discussions about their validity and practical implications, after constantly revising the theoretical frameworks we use – we are not closer to providing an answer which does not make use of the almighty “it depends”. Largely so due to the rapid change cycle of work processes, we can only try to get better by knowing the nature of our questions and ourselves. The following part of the dimensions series, published here, is the beginning of a very long discussion about what context was and how we view it today. Last but not least, please make sure to check out the other dimensions I took a look at.
Edward T. Hall’s writings on culture continue to fascinate: a few decades after publishing Beyond Culture, it still offers a compelling view of our values and how they are shaped. With examples taken from various aspects of life – personal, professional, psychological, it represents the best of the scientific spirit of social sciences (subjective, I know).
Context in organizations and other formations, according to Hall, is responsible for separating people from the outside world. It represents a hidden code, which distinguishes between people belonging to a club from all those outsiders, who are not sharing the same values and ways of communicating. This is primarily needed to battle “information overload”, says Hall, which comes from needing to apply the same due diligence to every piece of information from the outside world as it comes in contact with a member of the team. To save effort and be able to build upon existing knowledge, context takes over some of the filtering and decoding features. Language itself plays a major role in how this is carried out by different people.
High and low context
Edward Hall distinguishes between two types of context – high and low. High context (HC) is when a big part of the information is hard-coded – it is dependent on the organization, culture and the specific team. People coming into HC groups need a longer onboarding period, in order to get to know the specific contents of the HC. You can often see a problem when companies from a LC (low context) culture just transfer best practices to a HC environment and start launching new people into organizations. Internationalization is a poor excuse for the lack of proper time frames.
Context is a peculiar animal not only because the contents may vary, but because this information is transferred by a process, called “contexting a person” by Hall. Resemblances between this process, hazing and tribe induction are not completely out-of-place. We would like to think that the modern onboarding process takes care of the task in a more advanced way, but a lot of the “bad hires” articles you read have the lack of proper onboarding as a component. Coming back to “contexting”, you would think that the person doing it should have all the needed information and the tenure required to explain how and why the context applies. Alas, the already mentioned rapid change cycles let us focus mostly on functional knowledge, thus leaving a vacuüm of needed knowledge required to see through longer goal achievement runs.
Taking the finding that “contexting” depends upon the person doing it, it is safe to assume that in any given organization there are many people at different stages of the context, as they have spent different times in the team, internalized a different part of the information and let us not forget that information is in the physical context, too. So it is impossible to have everything only in a verbal form, from mouth to mouth – especially in today’s world of regulating the amendment to the regulation. So who are the people in charge of this context we keep talking about in your team?