Mapping out meaning


Photo: istock

(Update: In paragraph 2, it was Véronique Perret, not Isabelle Huault, who cited the example of a geological map. They co-teach a course in epistemology in my Executive Doctor of Business Administration course.)

Maps are such familiar tools that most of us don’t even think twice about using them. Whether driving across the country, finding our way to tourist attractions in a strange city or navigating the maze of a subway system, we usually manage to get from Point A to Point B. But have you ever thought about the process that goes into conveying meaning through maps and how this is achieved?

First, you need to determine the purpose. In his book, Telling About Society, Howard S. Becker describes the consternation of tourists in San Francisco when they discover that the pleasant walk back to the hotel they identified on the map is actually marred by some serious hills.  The hills are absent from the maps, he notes, because the maps were developed for motorists who don’t really care about hills. Similarly, you would find it difficult to navigate the streets of Paris using a geological map of the ground under the buildings. (Thanks to Véronique Perret, Université de Paris Dauphine, for this example.)

Once you know what you want to achieve, you need to select the information that is most relevant. Hills are relevant for pedestrians, less so for drivers. The same principle applies to organizational communications. When you want people to achieve an objective, giving them just the information they need and removing the background noise (the geological map) can help them find their way. Too often, organizations drown people in seas of unnecessary information, especially when technical experts are involved in drafting.

Translate the items into meaningful language or symbols…for the group that will be using the map, not for you. Landmarks on a tourist map are often sketched in significant detail so that tourists will recognize them when they stumble on them. Conventions about how to draw different types of roads on roadmaps tell drivers how big the road is and if there is a toll to pay. Translation is often a problem between communities of experts and laypeople. Experts often forget that they have spent years learning the language and symbols of their profession and fail to translate information into terms that society can understand. People in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (USA) are (in)famous for giving directions by referring to landmarks that no longer exist and have been gone for years. This is fine for locals who are bathed in the culture and history of the city, but a nightmare for newcomers.

Arrange the information to be effective. Some of our most familiar maps try to mimic geography, but at a smaller scale. The Transport for London tube map, on the other hand, only has a very basic correspondence to the layout of the city. The Underground lines are highly simplified, with equal distances shown between stops.  Think about what the entry point into information should be for the average user when you want to convey a specific meaning. Should the information be arranged in a cause-and-effect sequence? Do you need to give an overview and then gradually go into more and more detail? Or is some other order more appropriate?

Interpret the information. In the case of most maps, it is up to the user to do the interpretation. Before setting out on a journey, the driver will look at the map and choose a route because it is the fastest route or because it is the cheapest (i.e. no tolls) or because it is scenic. In the case of conveying meaning in a business context, we may want to do the interpretation for the audience, or at least share our interpretation. That might include a CEO explaining the stakes of a new stage of organizational development or a boss rallying the team to change behaviours in order to meet new objectives. In academic papers, scholars are expected to provided an extensive interpretation of their research data. However, that does not prevent others from disagreeing and launching a debate about the true meaning of the research findings.

I’ll be discussing these and related points in more depth on 15 March in Brussels at the Congress organized by the European Society of Association Executives (ESAE) and open free-of-charge to everyone working with associations. I hope to see many of you there!



3 responses to “Mapping out meaning

  1. As an update, I was invited to write an article for Association Meetings International magazine on the basis of the ESAE presentation. The result is the cover article of the June issue of AMI magazine that can be viewed here: article is on pages 16-17, but it you are using the numerical navigation at the top, you need to enter 18-19 because of the cover. If you want to print a copy to read offline, click on the MENU button at the bottom of the screen and follow the directions.If anyone has any comments after reading, feel free to add them here.

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