The Language of Concepts and Ideas

Language is a human ability that allows us to communicate with one another, complex concepts or simple ideas. In the absence of language, we are blind as to the value of things in our surroundings, as we lack the ability to express their value to others. So it is fundamental in the creation of value for others, to have the ability to express the attributes of an experience, to use analogies and symbolic images that trigger associations. The lack of an appropriate language is usually the main reason executives are unable to understand the relevance of a competitor's product; if you cannot express what is great about a product, you are bound to ignore its relevance.

This is precisely what happened when the iPhone was introduced into the market place, by a company that was not an incumbent in the communications sector, as both Nokia and Research in Motion (today's Blackberry) were. These incumbents where blind to the potential of the iPhone to disrupt their market not because they did not see the iPhone, but because they lacked the language to define what it was. That language is not technical, that language is not English or German, and that is the language of ideas and value creation.

Mathematics has its own language. So do physics, biology, finance, marketing, etc. They all have terms with definitions that mean something. E=mc2 has a specific meaning that transcends time and space. It doesn't matter what century it is, what business you operate, or who you are. E=mc2 is a universal truth that applies across all cases across all time. That's equally true for ROI in finance, or DNA structures in biology. These are examples of universal truths expressed in a technical language.[1]

But what about value creation? What are the universal truths about that? How many universal truths can you name (with terms and definitions) that explain value creation across all times and in all environments? So this is not only about seeing, it is about understanding what you're seeing, and being able to describe what you are seeing. In education at all levels, but especially at the undergraduate and graduate level, where are the courses in 'value creation'? We teach our MBA's to manage value assets, how to increase value in products and services, but who learns in a business school anything about how to create value? If one lacks the elements of language when one is faced with describing something new, there are no frames of reference left. When we don't have frames of reference, all we have left is our own experience, so we are faced with describing the new experience based on a previous experience, defining value creation from our perspective, the perspective of the business we are currently engaged in.

My collaborator, John Sutherland, has proposed a new definition of value that takes into account a framing of the experience new value creates. In his definition, the creation of value is the expansion of relationships from new behaviors enabled by a disruptive media. Any time our relationships are being expanded into a new behavior, or a retrieved behavior due to a disruptive media, we can call that moment value creation or new value.

This definition works in describing why we find value in Facebook, why we find value in Twitter, YouTube and other social platforms.

If we look at life as being composed of relationships between our environment and ourselves, life becomes a system of relationships between ourselves and time, our location in time, in space, or where we are at any given moment. We also have a relationship with our own self, which is the quest of understanding it and promoting it to others, which brings us to our relationship with others, either by themselves or in groups, and the relationship with our objects and with our ideas. Every one of these relationships is being enriched by the disruptive medium we call Facebook. In the context of these multiple relationships and in proportion to their depth and complexity, what creates value in our interaction with a new medium is the measure by which this medium improves both the size and quality of our relationships. Improving the size means allowing us an easy reach to a greater number, while improving quality means introducing new layers of experience, be that by means of images, sounds or motion pictures/video.

The language of value creation uses concepts, and concepts use ideas. A concept is a platform for an idea, the place where ideas come from. Value is in itself a concept. Breakthrough leaders of the new economy are talking about concepts, and plan strategy in conceptual terms. Connectivity is a concept. Access and empowerment are concepts. Beauty is a concept, and many ideas can express it. Concepts have attributes which compel us to describe them, thus entering into a conversation about the concept. For each individual the attributes of concepts are personal, as we assess concepts based on individual frameworks for value.

What are the attributes of 'elegant'? Elegance is beauty. Once I say or write the word elegant, I have to describe in which way something is elegant. Once I say something is 'nice' I have to be more specific. So these idea words invite elaboration. They invite development. They invite descriptive examples of their properties. If something is beautiful in my opinion, I am bound to explain to my peer group which attributes of this product or experience are beautiful and why. I would use analogies, I would use metaphors, and I would probe my audience for any experiences of the past that might contain characteristics of the experience I'm describing as beautiful.

The language of ideas is not a science. In the context of value creation, the language of ideas is something felt, something that has to be experienced. It is something that uses somebody's imagination because one cannot access the concept of beauty without imagination.

Ideas about things are attributes. One of the toughest concepts to describe is probably the concept of 'cool.' What makes an experience cool? The description that follows uses idea words which in turn might be concepts, but understood nevertheless by the audience from their own experiential perception. An experience that is categorized as being cool is something that has a sense of novelty, something that is technologically advanced, something that has a sense of uniqueness, something that has a sense of special, in the sense that it is a special kind of experience, not part of ordinary life, and it is something that you encountered only a few times up to the moment in which you are describing something is a cool experience.

A cool experience is a transformative experience. Spending the week at the Burning Man festival is probably very cool. Because of the attributes I just described, the coolness factor of something disappears as the frequency of use increases.

The Internet of Things is another good example of a concept. To make someone understand what is the promise of the Internet of Things, you will have to give a few examples of some of the tangible benefits of this new technological capability in people's lives. And the language used in these examples would undoubtedly use more concepts and ideas, things such as the connected fleet, or predictive maintenance, or smart cities, or smart shopping malls, and so on.

Each one of these ideas fall under the big umbrella framework of the Internet of Things, which is a concept holding other concepts, each one requiring further explanation detailing the benefits of predictive maintenance, or manifestations of what a smart city is in daily life. What is a smart city all about? Well for one thing, it is a city that is aware of its inhabitants, it is aware of its consumption needs in terms of utilities, it is aware of the location of the inhabitants at any given moment, it is aware of the transactions that take place and the interactions between the city's inhabitants, their objects and their spaces. A smart street understands when to turn its lights on or off, based on the number of participants in traffic at any given time. A smart street corner can talk to a smart car, in order to understand where that car wants to go, and where is it coming from, so it can adjust accordingly all the traffic lights towards the destination.

Concepts are forcing us to imagine ideas about creating new benefits in people's lives, benefits that balance the having and being mode to a new degree of satisfaction.

Concept is to idea what vision is to mission. Vision is where to go and the mission is how to get there. An idea allows individuals to perceive the reality that doesn't physically exist. How does this translate to enterprise?

Concurrent sets of ideas are key in organizing the missions that implement the vision of an enterprise.

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  • [1] Sutherland, J. (2012). 'Afterword: Getting started.' In A. Manu, Behavior Space. Farnham: GowerPublishing, 211-22.
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