Personal Toolkit: The metaphor drawer

This article appears in the issue October 2005 [Volume 14, Issue 9]


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Last time I suggested a metaphor for how our conversations reflect and refract the knowledge of others. This time, I want to expand on the idea of metaphors as a category of personal knowledge management (PKM) tools. We all use metaphors. Just try getting through a day without one. The word's Greek roots literally mean to "carry across" as we juxtapose one thing with another.

There are many useful metaphors in KM already. The more metaphors we keep sharpened in our toolkits the better, really. My favorite metaphor is knowledge as energy. Energy, as you may remember from grade school science classes, is "the ability to do work." Energy comes in different forms, such as potential and kinetic. And as I mentioned in my previous column, knowledge--as light--is focused when we act as apertures, imprinting the light as it passes through us. You could even say that knowledge, like light, is simultaneously particle and wave.

While metaphors have been recognized for thousands of years for their potential in learning, they have largely been dismissed as Baroque linguistic embellishments that blur effective communication (except as used by licensed poets adhering to strict guidelines). The assumption is that science and business require precision, not the artful ambiguity inevitable when we compare apples to oranges or reorganizations.

Metaphor is, in fact, how we deal with complex concepts, situations, actions and interactions. As such, it is not an artifact of language, but of cognition--part of a process of pattern recognition.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson demonstrated that metaphors play a more fundamental role. "Metaphors not only affect the way we communicate ideas, but actually structure our perceptions and understandings from the beginning," they write in their 1980 book, "Metaphors We Live By."

Gareth Morgan, in his1986 "Images of Organizations," showed how metaphors affect organizational beliefs and behaviors by changing collective perceptions. It matters whether you see yourself as part of an intricate machine or an insect colony. "Metaphor is the genetic code of management," he says in one essay. "It is the force that produces all the surface detail."

A tool for innovation, design and conversation

To be useful in organizations, metaphors don't have to have the same kind of correspondence reality as maps or models. In fact, it's better if they don't. Tihamér von Ghyczy of the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business warns that metaphors are typically misused or wasted when they are taken too literally.

"We tend to look for reassuring parallels in business metaphors instead of troubling differences--clear models to follow rather than cloudy metaphors to explore." He writes in a 2003 Harvard Business Review essay, "In fact, using metaphors to generate new strategic perspectives begins to work only when the metaphors themselves don't work, or at least don't seem to."

In "The Fruitful Flaws of Strategy Metaphors," Von Ghyczy contrasts "rhetorical" metaphors used to constrain our thinking and get us all on the same page with "cognitive" metaphors that stimulate us to think outside the box.

"The greatest value of a good cognitive metaphor--as it makes no pretense of offering any definitive answers--lies in the richness and rigor of the debate it engenders," he explains.

Dan Saffer explores the best and worst ways to use metaphors in the design of interactive systems--ways that would certainly apply to KM systems--in his master's thesis, "The Role of Metaphor in Interaction Design," submitted in May to the Carnegie Mellon School of Design (cmu.edu). "Metaphors can provide cues to users how to understand products: to orient and personify. In short, interaction designers can use metaphor to change behavior. It is not hyperbole to suggest that without metaphor, interaction design today would be severely limited, especially in the digital realm," he writes.

"To not provide metaphors seems to be an abdication of the designer's responsibility," he adds. "Metaphor's power to transform is too powerful a tool to ignore."

Saffer quotes Gary Shank and Conrad Gleber saying, "The human mind cannot tolerate a meaning vacuum; we have no choice but to leave our familiar preconceptions and engage in meaning exploration."

As such, metaphors have a social, as well as cognitive function. Because the associations and implications that metaphors trigger in the receiver cannot be completely controlled by the sender, they bring us together to negotiate meaning rather than fighting over different interpretations--or worse, assuming clarity and agreement where none exists.

Explicit definitions are low-bandwidth and put people in a passive mode. Metaphors, because they "unpack" so much imagery, operate in a much higher bandwidth. Ambiguity can simulate or even demand an active mode of engagement and learning. That's why I often think that those interested in conveying knowledge across distances should be writing lines of poetry, not code.

The key thing (for PKM) is that a metaphor does not automatically emerge in a conversation; someone has to offer it. To keep the conversation going, knowledge workers should always keep a supply sharpened in their personal toolkits.


Steve Barth writes and speaks frequently about KM, e-mail barth.km@global-insight.com. For more on personal knowledge management, see his Web site Global-insight.


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