The Right Context for the Right Moment

September 01, 2020 Written by Jake Miller

Before we tackle this idea of context, let’s start off with a bit of context.

For several years, at the beginning of the digital marketing boom, the phrase ‘send the right message, at the right time’ became prevalent. In essence, it meant to send the right email, or right text message in response to an action by a customer. That message evolved into “get the right data at the right time,” and more recently with the advent of big data, “get the right insights at the right time.”

The evolution to notice is that we are trying to get more from our data. 

These generic statements sound good, and do have practical applications, but I wanted to take a step back and ask, what do these clichés actually mean? What is ‘the right data,’ and what is ‘the right time’? 

I think when we say “right data, right time,” we mean something more than simply metrics that trip alarms. I interpret this as a problem of context.

What is context?

Context, like time, is ubiquitous. We take it for granted. But the power of context is so important because it establishes a shared view of the world to which you and your collaborators can orient. 

When we are speaking with others, we draw on our past experiences, information gathered, as well as physical cues like facial expressions, and body language. Context is crucial to problem solving. All of these inputs draw on a complex and dynamic system for us humans to orient, make decisions, and act. (3)

The intuitive constituents of context are time, location, data points, relationships, past experience, organizational structures, and power structures, but context is even more nuanced still with two types to be considered: contextual and procedural. Contextual knowledge is information identified as relevant to a task or goal, while proceduralized context are the parts of contextual knowledge structure used to  orient to a locus. (1) Both are functions we invoke thousands of times a day.

In a digital world, there is so much information to be consumed (and shared) as context. Enterprises increasingly depend upon data, information, and the means to communicate and manipulate these resources. (3)

And, we are trying to figure out what to do with it. Common intuition is to apply statistical analysis, or discover anomalies. But these are just a means to an end, and in reality, just more information to be consumed.

What should we do with this information? Use it as context.

Personal Context

Image 1 The Right Context

Every individual has their own mental model of the world. The model is chock full of hundreds of thousands of variables – dynamic and ever changing. 

Your context is almost certainly different from someone else. In some cases, the information to construct the context may not even be available – limited by the tools used to collect it. The digital platform you use may be limiting the availability of context.

Context is a multi-party affair, and you aren’t always a participant in it’s collection.

Your customer will experience changes internally day-to-day. Their workflow, the information they consume, their company’s priorities, all of that is going to change and you aren’t going to have all of that information as context to empathize for your customer, and respond quickly to their changing needs. 

How do you gain access to this context? A multi-sided platform with tools to facilitate it would help.

The Right Moment

The distinction between the ‘right time’ and ‘right moment’ is time and depth of contextual knowledge. The right time referring to a subset of context, typically demographic information and location, and in my experience occurs at present clock time (e.g. I’ve opened an email welcoming me, I’ve entered a geo-fence) . The right moment, however, is a range of time identified as having a contextual significance, past, present, or future, being better suited for collaborative situations.

Time and context are inextricably linked. In today’s enterprise, real-time is becoming more and more important. 

Real-time is often misunderstood. Real-time is perceived very differently by managers throughout an organization and that experience of time is different between participants in collaborative settings.

Real-time can be thought about two different ways. First, as clock time, according to the traditional understanding of time in Western Civilization. Or, second, as sense time, meaning in the moment that is being experienced, past, present or future and not bound to clock time. E.g. I got lost in my research and time got away.

In fact, in a 2019 study, 12% defined real-time as less than a minute, 27% less than an hour, and 17% less than a day. In some cases (9%), they define real time as “a context-dependent phenomenon.”(2)

Time should not be thought of as merely a time series for processing. I believe modeling experience in time is novel and something I will cover another time.

Applying Context in Digital Applications

In today’s world, we take information from our customers, talk through their goals, write it down somewhere and then eventually, hopefully, it makes it back to a CRM or stored as a document that we share with other folks. 

Those documents contain important information, but the experience and exchange you just had with the people in the meeting established a super important context that is likely to be lost. Meeting notes that can be reviewed later are a great idea – but those are structured in context of the meeting and not in the broader context of the customer relationship.

When all of the information has been translated into internal account records and notes fields it becomes anemic. All meaning is lost.

This information can’t just be shared with you; it has to be shared with your customer, or other collaborators, too. Because the goal isn’t simply to align once or once a quarter. The goal is to establish what context will be important during the course of your relationship. 

Context goes well beyond variables – and there are different fidelities that matter. It is helpful to know that Erin was the buyer champion, but the majority of goals were actually defined while collaborating with Stephanie, her front-line manager. The front-line manager will likely have more context into the day-to-day needs of her team. 

As you are working with your customers and colleagues, consider that changing context, how you would capture that in more consumable way so that changes on your side, or theirs, is transparent, but more importantly put into context so the richer, deeper, more productive conversations can be had, rather than spending the time establishing the shared story.

Context must be shared. There must be basic shared understanding of information between all parties involved to depict, and then interpret their situation. This means everyone participating in the collaboration is working with the same understanding.

The relationship you built with your customer, the shared context you’ve developed with that customer will most likely at some point in time need to be understood by someone else in your organization. Maybe it is the implementation person, your sales team who wants to extend additional offerings to solve new problems, or the CEO simply wanting to check in on the relationship. 

Conclusion

Given my thoughts on data and time, I propose we adopt the phrase ‘the right context for the right moment.’

The world needs a platform specifically designed to inherently address these challenges. Formalization of context and its application to business tools could greatly improve our relationships and productivity.

Looking further ahead in our technological evolution, I believe that the way we structure and persist context today will be foundational to artificial intelligence applications in the future – an important idea, but something I will also cover another time.

References

  1. Brézillon, Patrick & Zaraté, Pascale. (2008). Group Decision Making: A Context-Oriented View. Journal of Decision Systems.
  2. Rydén, Pernille & Sawy, Omar. (2018). How Managers Perceive Real-Time Management: Thinking Fast & Flow. California Management Review. 61.
  3. Whitaker, Randall. (1996). Managing Context in Enterprise Knowledge Processes. European Management Journal. 14.
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