Communicating Evidence Over Different Cognitive Frameworks: Overcoming Incommensurability in Communication Frameworks Between Research and Practice

My recent posts have highlighted the differences between scientific research and other types of practice as it relates to the design of evidence-based practice.  Previously I discussed how the larger scope of practice changes the epistemological needs of practice knowledge.*  In this post I will take up Nicolay Worren’s paper which suggests the cognitive frameworks that managers use to guide and control business practice are also different from those used to disseminate scientific practice.  (Worren, N., Moore, K. & Elliott, R. (2002). When Theories Become Tools: Towards a Framework for Pragmatic Validity, Human Relations, 55(10), 1227-1250.)

Nicolay notes that science is typically conducted and disseminated in propositional frameworks (often steeped in dense scientific vocabulary), but notes that managers depend more on narrative and visual cognitive and communication frameworks that are constructed in everyday language.  This can result in 2 problems:

1. People do not really understand the generalizable meaning of research because it is buried within obscure propositional frameworks.  Good communication must be constructed with the ability to span different cognitive and situational frameworks.  Consider the following quote from R.L. Ackoff **:

Until we communicate to our potential users in a language they can understand, they and we will not understand what we are talking about. If Einstein could do it with relativity theory, we should be able to do it with systems thinking (Einstein and Infeld, 1951). It is easy to hide the ambiguity and vagueness in our own thinking behind jargon, but almost impossible to do so when speaking or writing in ordinary language.
We have developed a vocabulary that equips our students with the ability to speak with authority about subjects they do not understand. Little wonder they do not become effective spokespersons to potential users.
Ackoff, R.L. (2006). Why Few Organizations Adopt Systems Thinking,

2. Managers must deal with practices that have a wide scopes and a high level of complexity.  Just as this creates different epistemological requirements for knowledge, it also entails different cognitive requirements for understanding and communicating.  While propositional frameworks are good for maintaining precision in deductive arguments, they do not have the speed of communication and the ability to communicate complexity, change/time, or emotion that can be found in narrative and visual frameworks.

Different cognitive frameworks can make the language of research and practice not only difficult to translate, but they can become almost incommensurate.   Again, I don’t think that research and practice are incommensurate, but you’ll need to engage in inductive processes to appropriately bring them together.


* Primarily this refers to the inability to design practices scientifically; with the amount of variable control necessary to ensure the same level of internal validity we see in research.  Without this level of control it is questionable when generalizing research to uncontrolled situations.  This does not mean that research is not relevant.  It means that decisions are dependent on inductive processes (as opposed to the deductive processes common in research) and that these processes are aligned with a goodness of fit model of verification (as opposed to deductive truth).

** I’m also indebted to Nicolay for pointing me to Ackoff and this source.  See his blog post: