Cobalt-60 The Cobalt Blog

The Art and Science of Understanding

By William Harris

As communicators and marketers, we throw the word “understanding” around a lot without really stopping and thinking about what the word means.

At Cobalt, we take understanding seriously. Understanding is so important to us that we use the word in our tagline (see the title of this blog). And we like to say, in our marketing materials and capabilities presentations, that we are experts in communicating complex information or in complex organizational environments.

But what does that really mean? What is understanding? When someone attains understanding, what have they achieved?

Understanding Understanding

One helpful step in understanding understanding is comparing the term to the similar terms knowledge and skill. In doing this, we have found the work of David Perkins, a researcher at Harvard University and a principal investigator of Project Zero, to be informative. Here is how Perkins defines these terms:

  • Knowledge is information on tap, meaning that a person who possesses knowledge can readily recall facts and information when prompted.
  • Similarly, a skill is a routine performance on tap. By using adverbs correctly in a series of sentences, a person can demonstrate his or her skills in that particular aspect of grammar.

But having knowledge and being skilled at certain automated tasks doesn’t necessarily translate into true understanding. For example, I might be able to recite Newton’s third law of motion perfectly, but if I can’t predict what would happen if astronauts tried to have a snowball fight in outer space (another thought exercise Perkins uses in his writing), then I can’t demonstrate a deeper understanding.

Which leads us to a useful definition of understanding: understanding is the ability to think and act flexibly with what one knows. Perkins calls this “flexible performance capability.”

At this point, you might be saying, “This is great if you’re teaching science, math or social studies to middle school students. But what does this have to do with communications and marketing?”

A lot.

Marketing Communications = Understanding

Most textbooks will define marketing as “all the processes involved in getting a product or service from the manufacturer or seller to the ultimate consumer.” But, at its essence, marketing is a far simpler concept: it’s the process of teaching consumers why they should choose one product or service over a competitor’s similar product or service. In other words, marketing is an activity that leads to a consumer’s deep understanding of a product or service. Ask an evangelical Apple consumer why he buys Macbooks and iPhones, and he’ll be able to talk and think about the products in a truly immersive fashion. Ask the same person to start using an Apple Watch, and he’ll likely have no problems demonstrating a flexible performance capability.

Apple, as it turns out, relies a great deal on building understanding among its consumers.

So do corporate communicators. Communications is the process of sending messages through various media to target audiences. But successful communication isn’t just about the delivery — it’s about getting the receiver of the message to assemble conceptual models of really challenging topics (like helping employees of a pharmaceutical company visualize drug discovery) or to perform tasks with greater flexibility (like helping manufacturing employees embrace, roll out and adapt a new EH&S initiative).

Beyond Understanding

By now, I hope you can appreciate why we’ve chosen our tagline — and how that tagline describes the work we do every day. Beyond our tagline, however, we want to do more to demonstrate our ability to promote understanding. In that spirit, Cobalt is pleased to introduce our Understanding(X) Series, which will take complex topics (or topics that seem deceptively simple) and, across the year, explore them substantively, fully, all with the goal of helping ordinary people like you and me understand the world around us a little bit more deeply.

For 2018, here is the list of topics we plan to explore:

  • Laughter (April/May)
  • Freedom (June/July)
  • Fear (September/October)
  • Snow (November/December)

We hope you’ll join us for this journey. We’re sure to encounter twists and turns along the way, but we’re also sure that, as we strive to reach our destination, we will encounter true moments of comprehension and discovery. Because, as Albert Einstein observed, “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”