This post is part of #WorkingOutLoud as Sae and I work together on the new Learning Science Guidebook. Last week i shared a post on Information, knowledge, and sense-making, as a note to Sae [it may be worth reading that note before you read this piece]. In this post, i include her response as well as my own evolving thinking. Please note that the work shared here is ‘behind the scenes’ – it’s a dynamic conversation and we are capturing our divergent thinking as well as shared narrative. Errors are my own.
The note that i shared began by considering the well-known data → information → knowledge framework. In it, ‘data’ are the raw facts, ‘information’ is data in formation (that is, assembled and organised in relative context), and ‘knowledge’ reflects internalised understanding of that information. Often ‘wisdom’ is added to the top, as an extrapolation of knowledge with, perhaps, broader philosophical principles and the ability to generalise knowledge to new contexts.
That classic taxonomy seems to already implicitly incorporate ‘meaning.’ In fact, if we look to Information Processing Theory for a bit of theoretical help, we can conceptualise ‘knowledge’ as information that’s already been mentally contextualised against other internalised information and given meaning from our mental scripts (which are more formally called schemata, in case find yourself playing a trivia games with academics). In other words, once information transforms into knowledge, it’s already passed through the sense making cognitive processes. So, we don’t need ‘meaning’ as a separate bubble on our framework, as Julian represented it in his note.
But…that classic interpretation is unsatisfying from a Social Age perspective because meaning is often – if not always, as a practical matter – co-created. And someone’s personal interpretation and value-laden understanding can be changed (or at least challenged) by social influences and externally crafted narratives, that is, by co-created meaning. An individual’s internalised meaning is affected by collective sense making and vice versa, and those interactions happen iteratively, with knowledge evolving and new narratives of meaning emerging over time.
This can be a rapid process, which is influenced by a series of nested contexts – something that we will be exploring further next week!
In my own work i describe how there is always a tension between individual ‘meaning’ (which i validate by my own rules, and which i totally own – although which is shaped by my personal context and worldview), and co-created meaning (which i can contribute to, but do not own, nor do i own the mechanisms of validation – and which is shaped by our common cultural norms and pressures).
Or to put it another way: co-created meaning is not simply additive of the individual perspectives. It’s a new narrative, containing both consensus, absence and potentially opposition.
Mental Scripts and Individual Meaning Making
Psychological studies, often classified under Schema Theory, have conclusively demonstrated how powerful mental schemata are when it comes to perceiving new information, building understanding, encoding knowledge, and transferring learning into practice. New information, such as the content of an organisational learning programme, is much more likely to be attended to, absorbed, and effectively understood if it aligns with someone’s schemata. Alternatively, information that falls outside of those mental frames may be ignored, confused, misinterpreted, or simply forgotten.
Or to put it another way: what we know may blind us to potential alternatives. Our sense of constructed reality is not simply a view from the window – it’s the very mechanics of the eyes that we see with, and the brain that sits behind them. It’s not passive: it’s structural.
This is something i have explored previously in work on experimentation, innovation and change, which considers how ‘what we know’ can constrain ‘what we may come to know’. May even prevent us from conceiving of the new.
Mental Scripts and Socially Constructed Meaning
The equivalent of ‘mental scripts’ exists collectively too, although they’re usually called ‘paradigms.’ Thomas Kuhn’s classical work on the philosophy of science is a model for understanding paradigms, and although Kuhn was writing about scientific movements, his model translates nicely to collective sense-making in the Social Age. We’ll draw from it here and expand it to our more generalised purposes.
Kuhn envisioned a cyclical, four stage process for collective sense making:
Local narratives without social coherence: At first, the social collective lacks a shared vocabulary, set of assumptions, or established processes. They’re missing a coherent dominant narrative (or, if you prefer, a collective ‘schema’ or ‘paradigm’). As a result, individuals develop very different background assumptions and interpretations, and without a common lexicon, they struggle to communicate clearly. Individuals or small groups end up pursuing their own ideas, explanations, and methods. It’s a noisy, undisciplined formational stage – with everyone fumbling independently towards meaning.
Julian would argue that a Socially Dynamic Organisation will actively encourage and sustain this divergence, even though it’s less tidy and hard to read.
A shared narrative coalesces – a paradigm is created: As local narratives coalesce around shared understanding and ground rules – around shared meaning – a paradigm is formed. And that framework gives the individuals within it the necessary context, vocabularies, and tools to function. People can finally work together and build upon one another’s contributions. Where progress in the first stage is sporadic and limited, the collective can advance ideas and products much more effectively in this stable stage.
Again, this is something Julian has been exploring in the context of Change as a Social Movement, to understand how the ‘mood’ changes, how the protest becomes a riot, how the idea becomes a belief, how waves of consensus coalesce around a new Dominant Narrative, and fracture the old ones.
Subversion, challenge, crisis, and change: Paradigms, like mental schema, are the lenses we use to view the world. We can’t create knowledge or meaning without these frames; they’re essential. But they also pose a risk. If the structure of a paradigm or schema is flawed, then it will cause us to ignore relevant information, make bad assumptions, or distort how we see the world. Initially, when flaws in our schemata or paradigms start to show, we tend to disregard those contradictions or move to silence the aberrant voices. In part, this is why innovation and change are so difficult in organisations: When new ideas challenge the dominant narrative, those ideas are rejected and minimised because of our established frames of understanding. Only when an unavoidable anomaly arises – one that challenges the paradigm in a way that can’t be derided or ignored – does that framework begin to change.
One way we can express this it to consider that there is a cost of difference: a cost paid in risk, reputation, power, or pride. All cultures have boundaries of shared belief, even clever and creative cool tech ones with pool tables and pinball machines. It’s always possible to have an idea that may cause you to be derided or excluded, irrespective of the value of the idea. Again we touch upon the notion that there is a space of creative divergence, and space of creative fracture. A place where the coherence of the shared belief, or shared meaning, is threatened, but perhaps without a new coherent alternative taking it’s place.
i’ve started to see this as a valley: we can see the value on the other side, but to get to it will require us to individually and collectively abandon power and certainty, without a clear sense of what will come in return. So we may pause. Staring across at the beautiful view, but unwilling to walk to it.
Paradigm Shift. Uncovering a flaw in our mental models or issuing an edict for organisational change aren’t enough to catalyse a paradigm shift. Even in the face of contradicting facts or an obvious need to adapt, the dominant narrative resists alteration. This often happens in established organisations and communities, where the entrenched codification of knowledge proves too powerful to overcome. Other times, the collective narrative will adapt, evolving to accept the new narratives or organisational changes.
And in the most notable cases, there will be a revolution – a radical change in the dominant narrative through which we understand, communicate about, and imbue meaning. When that happens, the old paradigm is abandoned and another replaces it. One lens of seeing the world is tossed away, and a new one is accepted. (And then we look at the old model and wonder why people ever believed it in the first place!)
This is relevant in all sorts of contexts within Organisations: at a very simple level, it relates to culture, and change. And how they are achieved through either structural (formal and hard aspects) or social (belief and consensus – belonging and consent) mechanisms. Or, perhaps ideally, both.
But formal and structural work may only deliver a scaffolding: paradigm shift must be socially created and co-created.
It’s relevant to behaviours (which are highly socially moderated), which leads to relevance in innovation (which requires a deliberate fracturing of frames, or Dominant Narratives, as well as synthesis of new frames and beliefs).
Lenses for Learning
Schemata and paradigms are the internal and socially constructed frames through which we understand the world. They enable sense making and meaning making. So, to return to the knowledge taxonomy from the beginning of this discussion: We need to represent not only the internal sense making inherent within ‘knowledge’ but also the collective sense making, which is shown as ‘meaning’ in the illustration.
From a Learning Science perspective, there are also implications. For instance, good educators use explicit techniques to help learners build accurate mental schemata. These have a proven track record of improving learning efficiency, retention, and transfer. A simple example is to use advance organisers, such as concept maps, at the beginning of a learning journey to show how new ideas and their components fit together.
Another implication is that effective learning necessarily includes a social component. This learning science tenet traces back to famed Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, working roughly a century ago. (His notion of the interplay between individual and collective understanding is sometimes referred to as the Vygotsky Space, and perhaps we’ll dissect it in a future discussion.) The gist of Vygotsky’s work is that we travel through both individual and social spaces in both public and private contexts, and by moving through these iteratively, we build knowledge, capability, and actionable meaning.
Consequently, two takeaways for practitioners are that, first, a learning programme focused on individuals – without leaving space for the co-creation of understanding – will be ineffective at best. We need coaching, apprenticeships, discussions, communities of practice, collaborative projects, or other social interactions to learn deeply and effectively. Second, for an organisational learning programme to succeed, it needs to fit with – or, if necessary, seek to change – the collective paradigm.
If we ignore the lenses through which people make meaning, whether individual schemata or collective paradigms, then it becomes difficult or impossible to foster learning, and by extension, to improve performance or kindle organisational change.