One of the things I’ve been contemplating recently is the role of language within a network like Hive NYC. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how common language might actually be considered part of the network’s infrastructure, and how that infrastructure can support achieving a host of collective impact goals. Infrastructure is a notion that I’ve previously used to describe Hive, and I think that it’s apt when it comes to issues of common language’s role in coordinated action.
This has been in the back of my mind for a while, but came to the forefront as Hive Research Lab recently released a number of interim briefs relating to our research within the network, as well as through a number of Hive events that we were involved in – the February meet-up focusing on leveling up project ideas and the recent event on “Unpacking Spread and Scale” with Cynthia Coburn from Northwestern University. In each of these examples, language, and specifically well operationalized and meaning-laden language, played a key role.
In the case of the first “networked innovation” interim brief, we worked with Hive NYC HQ to figure out how ideas we shared in the brief could be infused into a network meet-up focused on issues of innovation. Part of the goal of that meet-up was to help members “level up” their projects through creating scaffolds for articulating their value from number of different perspectives and to contextualize the problems they were solving and for whom. We explicitly used some of the conceptual frameworks from our brief to create activities. Specifically, we talked through how examining different “dimensions” of an innovation — such as value-add, novelty, form, complexity –might allow that innovation to be better understood and described. One positive outcome of this meeting was that people were able to better understand this concept of innovation from the perspective of network facilitators, researchers, and funders. In a context where language around innovation is regularly used in conversations, requests for proposals and community calls, the meeting was a means to give more depth to a communally valued idea in a way that cut across stakeholders.
Similarly, the recent event Cynthia Coburn ran relating to spread and scale was centrally focused on sharing and clearly defining language relating to these issues of organizational reach (you can see a similar talk she gave at the 2014 Digital Media and Learning conference here). A lot of what Cynthia shared was founded on clearly defined constructs which were then built up into a larger dynamic framework. As small example, she describes spread as the means to achieving scale, which describes as a state. In this case spread is the verb that leads to scale, a noun. As she shared her broader framework and the meanings associated with various concepts, I saw Hive members actively use newly introduced language as a means to sort through dilemmas they’re encountering in their work. Having meaningful language was a tool to engage in problem-solving.
An important point that Cynthia alluded to in her talk that’s also good to highlight here is that particular definitions for words are of course contextual and that the idea is not to convince people that a given word must be defined in a give way absolutely. It’s just useful to know that within a given context language is meant by a particular actor in a particular way. This is what allows meaning to emerge when people then ground that language in their experiences, and share across them. On a similar note, part of the conversation around common language also needs to address how common language is negotiated and agreed upon, by whom, and for what purposes. Words and their definitions of course carry values and assumptions, and language can end up silencing and marginalizing, even inadvertently.
In a network like Hive, made up of individuals with diverse backgrounds both culturally as well as professionally, it’s easy for discourse to simply to be experienced as jargon or buzzwords. Innovation. Pathways. Spread. Etc. These words mean nothing if we don’t work out their meaning together. And unless that happens, we fail to truly reach towards collective impact because we talk past each other in a modern tower of Babel. But when we say what we mean and mean what we say through shared language, then we can actually accomplish something in relation to shared goals. I’m only coming to realize now how much of our role at Hive Research Lab is about that. By engaging in basic research on the network, we work out well defined language that actually describes phenomenon in the real world, and by sharing this language we can do a small part in helping the network take steps towards achieving shared vision. We can play a role in co-creating a common linguistic infrastructure for collective problem solving.