Contextual thinking in the age of information abundance

Life was once simple:  I am hungry. I have a club. I know how to use the club. There is an animal. Whack! Now I have dinner. Move forward several eons and now: I am hungry. I know how to drive a car. The car has gas in it. I want a steak. I know a restaurant that serves steak. The economy is bad. I may get laid off. I have minimal savings. There is leftover pizza in the fridge. I can eat the pizza a save money.

That present-day decision is made in the context of a large amount of data, filtered by my ability to understand and process the data, colored by my political opinion about the competency of the current government, and tempered by my subjective desires for a steak and my objective concern to have enough resources to live through what I conclude to be the dangerous economic period.

There is an abundance of information available to bear upon the contextual target, in my silly example, satisfying hunger.  All of that information can be processed for a lot of different reasons and to varying ends, but in the context of a meal the relationships among the data points that result in a meal choice are one thing while the relationships among them that bear upon who to vote for in the fall are quite different.

Therefore, with an abundance of information available — much of it right from the web — how do we capture or tabulate the information in a way to remember it, to see the various relationships, to look for meaning in the data to answer the particular question at hand — that is the chore.

“Contextual thinking” has been pushed in the corporate and academic worlds for sometime as an improved methodology for decision-making. What is contextual thinking? See a short explanation here:

ContextThinking is the accelerated development of skilled judgment or observation by looking at the story surrounding a fact to achieve understanding, evaluate viewpoints, and solve problems.

ContextThinking develops your awareness of the requirements, capabilities, standards, and timelines that you will need to make a better decision. ContextThinking uses Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Levels of Thinking to identify where you are in your life according to sound psychological principles.

ContextThinking also uses your ability to sense what is right for you, set controls that can be measured, and allows you to respond to pressures with the right answer at the right time.

“What is Context Thinking” Retrieved Feb. 26, 2009 from

It seems obvious that if you can enhance your awareness of the requirements, capabilities, standards, and timelines of the problem at hand, you can arrive at a better solution sooner, and one that transitions from theory, to design, to action more quickly. But exactly how you do that is the problem.

A large component of the problem is knowledge management. Gathering data from the myriad of available sources of information is only one phase of working toward a solution to a given problem. Managing that data in an analytical manner is a huge problem. We can pretty easily gather a lot of information and store it in any number of database systems, but languishing in the database, that data does not aid in decision-making.

I seem to be forever searching for solutions to this problem — this gathering, storage, retrieval and analysis of information — the effective analysis of multiple datapoints gathered from disparate sources. And understand this further complication:  I speak of “datapoints” primarily in the contextual of abstract thought in the form of laws as interpreted by the judicial system, not mathematical or scientifically measured data that can be digitized and ordered, plotted and charted for analysis.

My current experimentation can be found in the attempt to understand how to use two computerized tools:

Why is it important, if it is, to worry about this perceived problem of “contextual thinking in the age of information abundance?” Because it’s information overabundance with which we are faced. Effective contextual thinking must take place immersed in information:  information about the requirements, capabilities and standards necessary to solving any problem; and the contextual information affecting the timeline, the 4th component of contextual thinking, can be even more overwhelming.

If we don’t develop effective information management techniques at the personal level we will be devoured by information overload.

For a succinct discussion on contextual thinking, see Graham,  Joseph W.  ( January 2, 2009) Context Thinking Training for Executives.  Retrieved Feb. 26, 2009 from

The brain as an exercise regimen

This is pretty interesting. Read the whole article. Happened to bump across this contemporaneously with my experimentation with the PersonalBrain knowledge management software.

People have long envisaged the brain as being like a computer on standby, lying dormant until called upon to do a task, such as solving a Sudoku, reading a newspaper, or looking for a face in a crowd. Sokoloff’s experiment provided the first glimpse of a different truth: that the brain enjoys a rich private life. This amazing organ, which accounts for only 2 per cent of our body mass but devours 20 per cent of the calories we eat, fritters away much of that energy doing, as far as we can tell, absolutely nothing.

via The secret life of the brain – life – 05 November 2008 – New Scientist.

If I offload a lot of the brain work to the software will I gain weight?

Evernote — remember everything

Evernote: A very most special super program that gets rid of yellow stickies, or better, the grease pencil notes on the screen! Evernote’s site banner:


And it really does all of that. And does it well. I am terribly torn (read “confused”) at present between Evernote which I’ve been using, and a very different paradigm presented by PersonalBrain. I think I’ll be using both but I have to be careful about that.

I like EN so much I bought the premium membership, partly to help the product with my $40. They’re winning awards and have recent funding, but it’s still a start-up.

The Brain — PersonalBrain that is

PersonalBrain is a fascinating program designed as a morph, or perhaps a better term is amalgamation, of a note-taking, knowledge-basing, mind-mapping, diagramming system. Succinctly, it is billed as “TheBrain – Visual Information Management.”

For an educational and truly amazing example of the system, watch the videos where James Burke is showing a mind-bending use of the system to demonstrate connections of people and events going back in history for centuries. The intro

Special Web Event with Best Selling Author and Famous Historian James Burke

TheBrain proudly presents a special Web event with James Burke, British science historian and author of the Connections television series. This seminar will help you learn how to think innovatively, how to enhance the value of what you know by giving it context and relevance, and how dynamic structures like PersonalBrain are likely to be used in the near future to change many aspects of living, learning and working.

Burke’s knowledge web has thousands of “Thoughts” (as each piece of data is termed) with interrelationships that look like a million spiders on steroids must been weaving webs in a meth-induced frenzy! You gotta watch it.

From their site, you find these snippets

Helping People See Connections

Connections and relationships within your information make the difference between static content and actionable knowledge. For instance, sales personnel need to see how decision makers are connected to close a deal. Business managers need to see how brands and products fit into their industry landscape to make decisions. IT managers need to see relationships between their servers and applications to support user communities effectively. People need to understand the context of their information before taking action.

Containers Versus Links

Conventional file directory trees confine information to a strict hierarchical organization and are incapable of expressing the multi-layered relationships that exist in the real world.

These systems are incapable of expressing relationships the way you naturally think about them. TheBrain takes the opposite approach-it enables you to link information into a network of logical associations.

The Power of Association

TheBrain is an associative information organization system-any piece of information can be linked to any other piece. The power of TheBrain lies in the flexibility of these links. You can quickly create structures of information that reflect the way you think about your information. Each item triggers related items, bringing relevant information together as you need it.

There is a free personal version that for 30 days has all the features of their Pro system. I’m presently playing with it as an experiment to compare it with Evernote which is another powerful program that takes a different approach to information management.  I am presently using it and have written about it briefly.