The Art of Context

This past weekend I saw an art exhibit, you can read more about it on my Stephanie Barnes Art blog, but what struck me about it was the value of context, or knowledge to the understanding of the paintings. The paintings are abstract blocks of colour, meant to elicit emotions and a reaction, to me they have a meditative quality to them. They have value in the colours that they use, the textures, and the shapes. Seeing the exhibit revived me.

I walked through the exhibit first on my own, but then joined a guided tour, where I learned more about the artists, and what was going on at the time, why they painted the paintings they way they did, what had come before, and what came after: context. Learning about the context added more meaning to the artworks my second time through the exhibit.

It strikes me that this is the same with knowledge management. We can look at the end result of a process or project or activity and know if it was successful or not, but we don’t necessarily know what worked and what didn’t until we start asking the questions: what worked? what didn’t work? why? what is worth repeating? what is not worth repeating? It’s the context that adds the value and the meaning to the outcome.

I think the same can be said of a discussion that I went to last night at the Royal Ontario Museum called, The Game Changer Series: Linking Art & Science. It asked the question “What do North American Black flies and visual culture of South Asia have in common?”. I went because of the work I have been doing on Creativity-Innovation-KM, but also because I was curious about what the links actually were.

The discussion was very interesting, I learned about South Asian photography and Black Flies in the Arctic. On the face of it I couldn’t see any linkages going into the evening, at least not without making my head hurt, a lot, and I am someone who likes to make connections. But there actually are quite a few connections, we went way over our allotted time in discussing the linkages and could have kept going, except for the threat of Security throwing us out.

There are common areas in research methods and documentation, technology, cultural impact of changes wrought by both things. One of the things that I found most striking was the documentary ability of photography in both cases. There are a lot of numbers in dealing with Black Flies (e.g. how many, where, temperatures, biting/non-biting), but the impact of the changes in Black Fly population becomes very obvious and real when a picture of a Snowy Owl savaged by Black Flies (on page 2 of the linked PDF) is shown, suddenly it’s not just numbers in a chart. Similarly, the documenting of culture through the use of photography, and what is communicated through how it was used to bring meaning to family, religion, geography, and other cultural changes.

Again, it was the context that added the value and illustrated the areas of overlap in what initially seemed like two disparate areas of study.

Context is what adds value and makes knowledge knowledge, that’s why we need to capture it either in documentation or databases, or through person to person connections in Communities of Practice, mentoring, or other tacit knowledge transfer activities.

Content isn’t king, context is!

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