I love metaphors. They, along with analogies, serve many purposes in learning as evidenced by a quick scan of the #lrnchat transcript on analogies earlier this year. Metaphors aren’t only for learning, of course. We use them all the time, often without even realizing we do so. “He stabbed me in the back,” for example. The guy who works hard but accomplishes little is, “spinning his wheels.” Feeling blue, breaking a heart, and having a short fuse are more examples.
Complex things can also be described using conceptual metaphors, which is one of their more valuable uses in learning. I think of social networks as such, where people as the nodes on the network and relationships are the connections between them (although you might argue this as merely descriptive). The World Wide Web (WWW) is a another example: the collection of interlinked hypertext documents on the Internet is a spider web, connections between nodes are the spider’s silks, the nodes themselves are the places the silks cross, and so on. We then speak of programs that automatically search the internet as “spiders” that crawl the web. Surfing the web is a mixed metaphor of sorts.
Value of Conceptual Metaphors
For me, conceptual metaphors do two significant things:
- They can quickly bring others to a common understanding of complex things such as concepts, systems, and processes.
- They can also help us identify what’s missing in complex things.
The first point is what most people think of, and rightly so. If I say an organization is a car, we can then discuss the engine that powers it, the steering mechanisms that guide it, the suspension system that smooths the ride, the importance of fuel to power the engine, and so on. We might even say this organization is a particular type of car: a race car that accelerates quickly, a sports car with a high level of agility, or even a hybrid vehicle that gets exceptional fuel economy. Regardless, the key components, and their function, can be more easily remembered and understood in the context of the metaphor.
The second point is less obvious. Metaphors can help identify components that are missing from a model or highlight business areas that need more attention. Back to the organization is a car metaphor, we may focus on those components that achieve a particular performance, such as acceleration. When thinking about the actual car, we may remember it has brakes to stop, and that there is a relationship between how fast the car is traveling and its shortest stopping distance. Apply that to the organization and we may identify an important missing component, such as a business forecasting unit to predict whether we should be pushing harder on the accelerator pedal (increasing output) or the brake pedal (decreasing productivity) to avoid a crash.
The Perception Problem
But metaphors are rarely perfect. They are usually incomplete and can be misleading or even misunderstood, so they should be used carefully and their specific meaning explained, if shared. What we individually understand perfectly can simply be misunderstood by another. Take the WWW example. Long before it came to be, we talked about people who spun twisted webs of lies, or were caught in a web of deceit. The web was used to connote a sticky place where one can get trapped. To some, that may stay lodged in their mind and the WWW seen as a terrible place to be. In the organization-car metaphor, people with different perspectives could fixate on parts that you hadn’t conceived, such as the cost of maintaining this high-performance vehicle. Such is the perception problem with metaphors.
Still, metaphors are great and by all means use them when they make sense. They’re helpful when explaining complex concepts to others. They’re wonderful tools to help visualize how various parts of something fit together in the whole, especially while learning or during creative endeavors. In fact, one helped me in an earlier discussion about online communities by helping me visualize how a person neither adds value to nor derives value from one if he or she doesn’t spend quality time there.
At the same time, use metaphors with some care when sharing with others, making sure to explain their meaning to be sure the points you intend are really being made without unintended consequences.
Thanks for reading
This work by Tom Spiglanin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at tom.spiglanin.com.