You may have heard the saying “There’s nothing common about common sense,” but what about when it comes to context? A lack of context has plagued the workplace, and especially tech teams, for a long time. The problems we’ve attempted to solve with initiatives such as DevOps (and DevSecOps), Shift Left, and Service Ownership, have been useful to some degree but ultimately worked as bandaids because they couldn’t address the context issue head-on.
So, that’s what we’re doing at OpenContext. We’re creating a tool for capturing the known context and uncovering the unknown context at any tech organization. Step one of building that tool was defining what “context” is and what it isn’t.
Okay, it has also been part of steps 5, 6, 7, 8, and so on and so forth. In reality, this team knows they’ve committed to continuously hunting down context for the foreseeable future so our users don’t have to. And you know what? It’s going to be a blast!
As much as we want to be conclusive with our definition of context, we also want to be inclusive when it comes to the voices and viewpoints that our current (and future) team members have (and will have). As well as our friends outside the team. As we continue to collect definitions of context, we’ll add them here periodically to serve as a living document that evolves.
The team provided their definitions, thoughts, and opinions for what is and is NOT context and what some examples might be. It’s always interesting to see how people respond in parallel ways that are slightly different. The context is in the nuances, just take a look for yourself.
I’ll go first and share my (Brian, Co-founder & CEO) responses and then share what the team had to say.
I’d define context as all the details around why something is important. The relationships between things and the impact they have on others. Here’s what everyone else had to say:
Alice (Co-founder & CTO): “All the relationship data required to make an informed decision.”
Audrey (Staff Software Engineer): “Situational awareness. The information needed to make the right decisions at the right moment.”
Beth (Co-founder & Head Spark): “Context is the Goldilocks of data. It should be just right for helping you make decisions, plan, and assess direction.”
Jim (Senior Software Engineer): “The things around the thing I'm doing or trying to do. The reasons behind decisions that may otherwise seem surprising, frustrating, or simply bad.”
Melissa (Marketing Director): “Context is the correct knowledge at the appropriate place at the opportune time.”
My background is In security, where we take a risk-based approach to managing vulnerabilities. A great example of context is how we weigh the impact of a vulnerability against the likelihood of it being exploited in an environment. This takes relevant information about both an environment and the severity of a vulnerability and creates a risk score based on the context of the environment.
Here are some great examples of context from the rest of the team’s viewpoint and experience:
Alice: “Clearly stating who owns what piece of infrastructure. Who owns what piece of code that was recently changed? A service has gone down, who do I need to talk to, what are the other dependent services and/or infrastructure?”
Audrey: “Well-written tooltips”
Beth: “My 10-year-old nephew explained context like this, ‘It's ok to make a Godzilla sound on the playground when people are crashing but not when you are at the table eating with adults.’”
Jim: “My favorite would be finding the historical context around art, including music. What made this artist respond this way? What did they know back then that was lost over time?”
Melissa: “The RACI chart. RACI stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed, and it is my favorite tool in the workplace as well as in life. I love teamwork but people are complicated by nature and without the context of who does what or who needs to know what, you run into rough patches. The RACI chart allows you to set and agree upon roles and empowers decision-making and collaboration.
I also have to give a shoutout to the creative brief. The entire point of it is to communicate the perfect level of context to inform the writers/designers/creatives about a project while leaving enough room for their own creative interpretations. There are many snarky tweets and memes about creative briefs, but a good creative brief is a work of art in its own right.”
Piggybacking off my favorite context example, if you were to create lists of security vulnerabilities/CVE without an assessment of the environment or a complete threat model of a service that would be an example of something lacking context.
Here are a few other examples and specifics into what is not context:
Alice: “When I think of something that isn’t context or contextualized, I think of someone saying ‘Cloud spend this year is $XXX.’ It's not context because you don't know the relationships of things that resulted in the dollar amount.”
Audrey: “Collections of similar but unrelated data, like Wikipedia category lists.”
Beth: “Talking about my dogs napping in the technical docs”
Jim: “I've been thinking lately about the idea of context collapse, which is (roughly, from what I understand) when some information from a small audience gets passed to a much wider audience without important context. This happens a lot on social media, and can often result in very bad takes or opinions from folks who mean well, but don't really know the overall context.”
Melissa: “Personal information that could cause conscious or unconscious biases (or worse) is not context. Respecting privacy is important and a lot of it depends on the circumstance and the context seeker or beholder. Context should be helpful, not harmful.”
If I had to describe “context” as a feeling, I’d say it’s Enlightened, Relevant, and Empowered.
Context makes others on the team feel…
Alice: “Appreciated, Understood, Surprise”
Audrey: “Clarity, Insight, Confidence”
Beth: “Enough, Exhale, Unblock”
Jim: “Soft, Calm, Grounded”
Melissa: “Eureka!, Empowered, Understood”
I love the Five Why's methodology for uncovering the root cause. Basically, you keep asking “why” until you understand how a situation came to be. It’s important that everyone is aware when using this method. It only works in environments of trust where the "accused" is comfortable with going that deep. Sometimes they feel like blame exercises, but it gets to the real reason.
If you want to understand the context around something, you can ask the following questions:
If coming up with your initial definitions for context was step one, the next step would be to build your strategy for achieving shared context in your organization. You’ll continue to layer in buckets of context as you see fit, but before you get there, you’ll want to decide how you go about capturing the information and sharing it with team members.
After all, when you keep context in your head and don’t share it, it’s just knowledge. And while “knowledge is power,” without context, it’s like leaving the lights on in a room. A whole lot of wasted energy.
If you’re interested in implementing shared context throughout your organization, learn more about OpenContext and schedule a demo of our tool:
Which definition of context resonated with you the most?
What adjectives would you use to describe the way context makes you feel?
And, my favorite question, what is your go-to question when you need more context?
Share your responses with us!
Editor’s Note: We don’t have comments on our blog because we’re a growing organization and our marketing person can’t dedicate much time to moderating them so share with us on Twitter with the hashtag #thisiscontext and tag @OpenContextInc.