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Context matters


The Sun project that took us to Japan was the development of a new Java certification exam. It's meant to be a beginning level exam for entry-level employees or new graduates who haven't yet worked as Java programmers to at least demonstrate a basic level of knowledge. For more than a month we (the American team) argued with our Japanese counterparts over the objectives of the exam.

We (the Americans) figured it would be a scaled-down, easier version of the current programmer exam, with an emphasis on the fundamentals of the Java language. Simple.

They (the Japanese), on the other hand, felt that some of our objectives were too technically detailed, but then they included all this other stuff they wanted to test people on. Things like understanding the difference between the three Java "editions" (micro, standard, and enterprise), how each of these editions make sense given a design goal, problems/tradeoffs with deployment of these various editions, basic UML, and on and on...

In other words, they wanted to test not just on the Java language, but also on the context in which Java is used.

And there was no talking them out of it. Although at first we (Americans) complained, we finally had to agree that these objectives make sense for this exam, where you want to know that the person holding the certification understands the Big Picture. And that seemed more valuable, for an entry-level person, than simply proving that they had memorized a basic level of facts about the language.

But then I remembered a book I read a few years back, The Geography of Thought, and it all started to click in for me. The book is amazing, and offers a ton of fascinating research and studies that prove that we DO think differently. My brain processes the world in ways different from that of my Japanese counterparts, and one of the those ways involves context.

To greatly oversimplify:
Context plays a more fundamental role for Asians than for westerners. Asians have a more difficult time thinking of an object as completely separate from its background.

Americans, on the other hand, focus on objects... things and categories more than relationships.

Asians think in verbs where we think in nouns. And these differences can have profound implications.

Continuing on from my post yesterday about Dan Pink's book, A Whole New Mind, a more holistic point of view is a perspective we're all going to need more of going forward. Context matters.

If you follow one of the trackbacks you'll land on this post on the Awasu blog that offers an insight on the whole thing-- that it's about giving a damn. That the Japanese are raised to give a damn about doing a job well, and that the aesthetic sensibility and attention to detail is simply one of the natural outcomes. Context matters.

And to respond to one of the comments, no, I don't think American design sucks. American Design is fabulous... the point is not comparing American to Japanese design, but rather comparing the context in which design exists in the two countries. American design is actually Design (capital "D"), done by Designers (and done well). In Japan, design is a stronger part of the culture whether its a tiny patch of grass an old woman crafts into a beautiful garden, or a city manhole cover, or a box lunch. It infuses everything. It's studied and practiced in a hundred different ways by a much greater range of the population than occurs here. Here, in the US, Design is practiced by Designers. There, in Japan (and many other countries as well... Sweeden comes to mind), design is practiced by both Designers and... designers. Regular people conducting their work or pesonal lives with an appreciation that most of us did not get (unless we either pursued studies of Design/Art, or were, say, raised by a designer or architect).

And one last point on this that also came from Dan Pink's book--while I'm heaping praise on the design/creative sensitivities of the Japanese, ironically this aspect of Japanese culture has been supressed in their education system over the last many decades while they set out to kick our ass in cars and electronics. But things are changing... here's a quote from the book;

"Japan, which rose from the ashes of World War II thanks to its intense emphasis on L-Directed [left-brain directed] Thinking, is now reconsidering the source of its national strength. Although Japanese students lead the world in math and science scores, many in Japan suspect that the nation's unrelenting focus on schoolbook academics might be an outdated approach. So the country is remaking its vaunted education system to foster greater creativity, artistry, and play. Little wonder. Japan's most lucrative export these days isn't autos or electronics. It's pop culture. Meanwhile, in response to the mind-melting academic pressures on Japanese youth, the Education Ministry has been pushing students to reflect on the meaning and mission of their lives, encouraging what it calls, "education of the heart."

Wow... think about that for a minute or two.

Then be sure to read Dan's book and if you're interested in the Asian vs. Western thinking research (the studies are really fascinating!), check out The Geography of Thought. And meanwhile, I'm searching for ideas on how I can improve my own skills in Thinking In Context. I always fancied myself pretty good at that, but the fact that it took sheer force of will on the part of the Japanese Sun folks before I understood why the context questions belonged on the exam makes me question that...

Posted by Kathy on May 1, 2005 | Permalink


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Wow, "Thinking In Context" is exactly what I set out to do with - Ideascape - . It helps people discover the meaning and context of ideas in ways they never imagined. With more great content from EVERYWHERE moving onto the Net, the act of discovering and creating something new increases exponentially. This is all getting sooooooooo exciting. I love it - Ideascaping. Thank you so much for giving me a better picture!


Posted by: Jim Wilde | May 2, 2005 5:26:28 AM

I also highly recommend reading this fascinating New York Times article by Thomas Friedman, It's a Flat World, After All (see also this month's Wired interview with Mr. Friedman). The article discusses globalization:

What China's leaders really want is that the next generation of underwear and airplane wings not just be ''made in China'' but also be ''designed in China.'' And that is where things are heading. So in 30 years we will have gone from ''sold in China'' to ''made in China'' to ''designed in China'' to ''dreamed up in China'' -- or from China as collaborator with the worldwide manufacturers on nothing to China as a low-cost, high-quality, hyperefficient collaborator with worldwide manufacturers on everything.

It's a fascinating article - check it out!

Posted by: Beth | May 2, 2005 8:01:13 AM

Excellent observation! I am from the Philippines and in my native dialect, we even start our sentences with verbs :-)

Totally agree adding the "Big Picture" in the exam objectives.

Posted by: Diong | May 2, 2005 8:26:18 AM

Kathy -

Welcome back - whatta rush! I could feel my joy and the spirit of adventure welling up inside me as I read through your piece. What a great antidote to world-weary practicality.

Posted by: Rich Berger | May 2, 2005 5:29:09 PM

Yay for highlighting this!

Context provides understanding, the 'why' of things. Too often, product developers, brand owners etc. only ask the 'how' or 'what'. But products and services are always consumed in context, and neglecting that more often than not results in bad design. IDEO are masters at unravelling context, saying that innovation begins with an eye.

I believe that those cultures strongly connected to nature/farming have a much better feel for the bigger system in which they're part of, because to ignore it would mean starvation.

As a mobile internet product designer, I used to say context is king, not content.

Walt Disney: Context is worth 50 I.Q. points

Posted by: Simon de Haast | Jun 1, 2005 12:59:33 AM

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