photo of hand holding magnifying glass over country road in HRExaminer article From The Vault: Questions by John Sumser published 2015-09-08

A lot of what seems to be my job involves helping people see things that were invisible before the conversation. I call that ‘creating context.’ – John Sumser

Sometimes, I think my job is to provide context. My work is built on a foundation of strong beliefs, loosely held. In other words, I try to find frameworks that help make sense of things. I’ll take a stance because it forces a certain range of questioning and thinking. I hunt for and deliver questions.

The nicest thing you can say to me, by far, is ‘you make me think.” Well, I suppose that’s second to “Our conversation helped me rethink the problem I was facing. It was less of an issue when I saw it in a new light.” Okay, I can work with “Oh my god, you’re so good looking.”

Anyhow, a lot of what seems to be my job involves helping people see things that were invisible before the conversation. I call that ‘creating context.’ Information needs a structure in which it makes sense. Today, for instance, I’m giving an hour long webinar on Backyard marketing for traction in the downturn…refocusing the context.

Context is the stuff that hooks two things together. While 140 characters can be stuffed to the gilswith bits of information, the message istself can only privide limited context. Hashtags (the convention of using # infront ogf a key word as an indicator of subject matter) get things in the right file drwaer. It’s the connection between things that’s hardest to sustain in an text messageenvironent.

These days, my digital communication have  a shortage of context. I have about 500 DMs in my Twitter inbox. In general, I can’t remember what any of them are about. The context for communication in Twitter is the flow. If you’re lucky, a note referring to an earlier tweet arrives close enough in time to make up for the lack of immediate context.

Without direct and immediate participation in the flow, 140 characters decay into meaningless very quickly. The half life of an @ message (a reply) is something like fifteen minutes from the time of the original post. Often replies aren’t even created until the following day. The @ message arrives, nice and cheerful, with no way to orient it to anything else.

For instance, I got a lovely little tweet yesterday that said “Your post was really useful”. I appreciated the sentiment but couldn’t figure out which post was being discussed. I knew (because that lovely tweet came abut 6 hours before I saw it) that it was extremely unlikely that the author would remember either. Asking would just embarrass everyone.

In email and longer conversations, we grab on to things that help us remember… a joke, a face, copies of the correspondence. In Twitter, it’s harder to maintain the illusion. Status messages are just that. Even the really informative ones (like most of mine, obviously)  refer to an instant in time. The information rots quickly when the context isn’t there to give it shelf life.

Like most people in our trans-formative economy, my job is changing. In my Twitter experiments, I’m trying to create a drumbeat of information that helps other things hang together. It’s pretty clear that we need to learn to ask better questions. I hope to make that easier. Question are the foundation of context.

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HRExaminer Radio: Episode #110: Cathy Missildine

Join John Sumser as he speaks with Cathy Missildine, SPHR, Chief Performance Officer at Intellectual Capital Consulting.