The Value of Mapping Semantic Environments

You hear about it all the time: an accomplished designer joins a large company to lead their design efforts, only to leave disillusioned and frustrated after a relatively short stint. These are smart people and great designers. They’ve come into the situation with the best intentions and have put their credibility on the line. This is not the outcome they wanted.

When you talk to them, they’ll tell you corporate politics ground them down, or that there’s too much inertia in the company, or that design isn’t as valued in the organization as they thought it would be, or that they’ve lost executive support. These things may all be true, but they’re all symptoms of a deeper issue: the leaders (and their teams) haven’t mastered the organization’s semantic environments.

The semantic environment, as you may recall, is a concept formulated by media theorist Neil Postman to explain how communication takes place. Postman said communication is something that happens to people when they’re exposed to the right conditions, much as growth is something that happens to plants when they’re exposed to water, nutrients, and sunlight. The components that lead to the right conditions for communication to happen are:

  • a technical vocabulary; the words and phrases that have a special meaning in a particular situation,
  • tacit and implicit rules that define how people behave towards each other in the situation,
  • hierarchical differences between the actors in the situation, and
  • the goals they seek to accomplish by participating in the situation.

For example, a scientific researcher will use a particular way of communicating when conducting an experiment with a collaborator. There are rules that specify what’s acceptable communication (and not) within the context of scientific experiments. These rules and vocabulary allow participants to communicate with each other and their colleagues in meaningful ways within that context; relaxing the rules or the vocabulary may compromise their findings or make the process outright impossible. Having different semantic environments is useful, since different goals require different approaches. If the scientist is taking a moonlit stroll with her sweetheart, the technical vocabulary and rules that help her in the scientific environment may hinder her in the romantic one.

In organizations — especially the big ones — different groups function within different semantic environments. The marketing team uses different terminology, rules, and goals than the legal team. HR, product, IT, engineering, finance, and yes, design — all have different ways of communicating that help them do their jobs. The differences between these environments help people in the different functions accomplish their goals.

However, the differences between these semantic environments often go unacknowledged. People talk with their colleagues in other groups assuming they share the same goals, rules, and language. This leads to misunderstandings. The things designers value (elegance, simplicity, ease-of-use, etc.) may be completely different from those product teams value. Both say they’re looking to add value to the organization, but mean very different things by “value.” In one sense, they’re speaking the same language — “value” is a valid English word — but they’re operating within different semantic environments.

Clarifying the differences between semantic environments helps people work together more effectively. I once facilitated a workshop with a company’s sales team to map the semantic environments they were working in as they went through the sales process. Participants realized that one particular word (“monitor”) had different meanings during different stages of the process: it had positive connotations in one stage of the process, and negative connotations in another. This was causing problems for the sales team, and they hadn’t realized it until they saw the words up on the wall.

Enterprise designers talk about being team players. They talk about having empathy. These are fine aspirations to have but are difficult to achieve if team members are communicating with other teams without understanding they’re operating in different semantic environments.

One of the leader’s responsibilities is to create conditions that enable people in his or her team to do their best work. This requires that they foster a particular type of culture. But leaders must also ensure their teams can see beyond this culture so they can work effectively with people in other teams. Mapping their semantic environments is a very effective way of doing so.