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Ideas as Corridors

October 6, 2003
George Siemens


Our reality is shaped by the ideas we hold. A model of ideas as corridors (larger structure of ideas which determines the nature of subsets of ideas) is presented. The article explores how ideas are developed, how they are challenged, and the implications in an educational and knowledge sharing context.


Ideas shape reality. Ideas create new opportunities, obliterate obstacles, shape tomorrow, imprison people, free people, produce hope, or produce confusion. Of the many unique traits of humanity, the capacity to have an idea and bring it into reality is certainly the most notable.

I'm always intrigued when I enter a discussion with someone and we seem completely unable to understand each other. The language may be similar, the cultural background compatible, yet the ideas (world views) are so much at odds with each other that understanding is limited. This "lack of understanding" is poised to reach epidemic proportions in how traditional institutions embrace their customers/clients. Fields of education, journalism, entertainment, and media in general are at preserving a model in conflict with the social and technological undercurrent that has altered the information/learning/knowledge needs of much of society.

As an educator, one of my primary goals is to present new ideas and viewpoints for learners to consider. What makes ideas stick? How do learners react when exposed to a new idea? How does knowledge flow within an organization? What does it mean to learn? How do we design learning environments? What types of tools are needed? What type of economic model is required to share learning resources with others? These are critical questions that need to be explored in order to create better learning and knowledge sharing environments.

How Do We Develop Ideas?

To explain the process of idea development, I've come to view ideas as corridors. When we adopt a particular set of ideas, the ideas contain in themselves a germinating process. The ideas produce a certain set of predictable additional ideas as they are explored. The details are shaped by the framework (much like rooms are linked to the corridor).

As an example, let's say I feel people are not able to be trusted. If I enter this idea corridor, subsequent ideas will follow that will be similar to virtually anyone who holds a similar belief. As managers, we might build rules/processes/guidelines that flow from this idea. Entering these side rooms of a main corridor is natural.

However, if I believe that people try their best if given an opportunity, a completely different set of behaviours will arise, and will be common to all who have entered a similar thought corridor. Essentially, adopting a liberal/conservative mind set (i.e. entering the corridor), will produce certain predictable actions/viewpoints...and will make it extremely difficult to understand the reasoning of others who have taken a different world view.

New learning, new life experiences, new circumstances cause us to pause, reflect, revisit, evaluate our idea corridors. Most of the time, we are within a corridor, and are largely unaware that we are merely debating which rooms to enter in the context of the larger thought structure.

In corporate learning, the ideas that will succeed (measured by effectiveness and results, not popularity) will be those that most closely match the wants and needs of learners. The organization at odds with its employees and customers will have reduced effectiveness. Additionally, the quality of internal training, learning, and knowledge sharing hinges on the administrative/executive interpretation of the two-sided debate. One model reflects the traditional approach to learning and knowledge sharing - formal, controlled, managed, centralized. The second represents a model similar to the Internet - informal, connected, exploratory, decentralized.

The process of entering an idea corridor is also one of exclusion. By selecting a certain mind set, other competing concepts are set aside. To hold to the idea that learning is a personal, exploratory process excludes the idea that learning must be tightly managed and controlled.

What About Epistemology? Perception? Subjectivity?

The concept of idea corridors is closely related to epistemoloy, perception, and subjectivity...with some distinctions. Epistemology is concerned with analyzing knowledge and understanding in what type of conditions something is true...I'm not concerned so much about whether or not something is true, but how a person develops any viewpoint (true or false) and responds when that viewpoint is in conflict with the environment they are in. Perception is a perspective that creates a subjective reality in the beholder...again, not a consideration for this article. The intent of idea corridors is to explain how ideas of a similar nature produce similar extended viewpoints due to their germinative nature. This notion is then cause for consideration in exploring how elearning and knowledge management are adopted.

How Do We Adapt to New Ideas?

New ideas can have significant impacts. On an average day, we encounter many instances where our world views are challenged. It would be difficult to keep our sanity if each contrasting idea caused large scale self-evaluation. Instead, we rely on a system of idea assessment. New idea evaluation follows this process:

  1. Ignore - this is the first line of defense. Unless we are immediately impacted or have strong interest in the subject, ideas are generally ignored at first exposure.
  2. Deny - if the idea clashes directly and strongly with our existing corridor, the next step is to deny as if it were without value (or truth).
  3. Reject - if the idea is persistent, we may take the time to formulate a planned, detailed, logical response for why it is not true.
  4. Integrate - in the absence of a strong rejection of the idea, or if the idea proves to be too valuable to discard, we may integrate it with our existing world view. In some cases this results in incongruous thoughts, in others, the removal of a conflicting thought. The larger structure of our thinking (the idea corridor) remains unchanged.
  5. Transition - if the idea has significant merit, and is presented in a manner that is consistent with other new ideas, the final stage of idea assessment may occur: transitioning to a new idea corridor. This is a very infrequent occurrence. It's extremely disruptive.

What Causes Transitions to New Corridors?

Many factors cause people to transition to new idea corridors. Some common causes:

  • New climate - Foundational change in the marketplace, society, or economic climate.
  • New evidence - Often linked to studies and research that shed light on an existing problem.
  • Extended period of conflict - after an extended period of internal conflict in evaluating and assessing opposing ideas, resolution is pursued to ease the conflict.
  • New learning - When we grow and learn, we are more apt to expand our idea corridors . Learning may be formal or informal.
  • Life experiences - The best learning comes from life experiences. Successes and failures shape our world views and how we choose to interact with ideas and people around us.
  • Logic - New ideas may also be acquired through reason, logic, debate, and discussion.
  • Emotions - Emotional intelligence is considered to be an important criteria in determining our success. Consideration and evaluation of our emotions offers insight into how we view and organize our world view.

Accessing Other Corridors

While ideas generally flow from the larger structure of world views, at times, disparate viewpoints have points of contact or similarity. This has the effect of creating a sense of likeness in thought, which has the potential to confuse when the deeper principles are explored. For example, open source advocates find some comfort in the work of IBM in promoting open source, viewing the software company as an ally. In reality, the intent of IBM is very much in line with Microsoft - profit. Advocates are confused when the activities of IBM, which seemed friendly, go against their impressions.

We bump ideas. Often we think we are debating and discussing with others, but at the heart or our discussions, we are really only brushing our peripheral viewpoints. Accessing other idea corridors is needed in order to understand others. Even if we don't acquire their viewpoints, being able to understand their mind sets is critical. Designing any type of learning, marketing, or information resource requires a detailed exploration of the average user. Creating excellent elearning, and then abandoning it to chance for adoption is a recipe for failure. It must be promoted in light of the needs and circumstances of the profiled end user.

What Causes People to Cling to Ideas in the Obvious Conflict?

At certain times, we will encounter an obvious conflict between our cherished ideas and new information or experiences. Often this will result in a process of negotiation listed earlier. In some cases, however, we may be reluctant to change even though there is obvious conflict between our ideas and reality. What causes us to resist new ideas even when they "make sense"?

Comfort. We are not likely to change our world views unless the stress of staying the same outweighs the potential stress of changing.

Existing ideas work in most contexts.

Structure. Organizing and reorganizing ideas causes ripple effects that impact other ideas. The structure of our mind sets are intricately created.

History. Inability to see or adapt to the nature of the new situation situation. Usually the result of strong attachment to processes or ideas that have worked well in the past.

Stress. Reorganizing viewpoints and mind sets is stressful, often difficult work.

Some Random Thoughts

Why is elearning adoption slow? Why is knowledge sharing within organizations is generally not successful. Fundamentally, getting people to use elearning requires a reorganization of their thoughts on what it means to learn. Getting to share knowledge requires a reorganization of their thoughts on how they provide value to their employer. If first attempts are successful, the perspective of "you can't learn online" will challenge the existing thought and give way to a more gentle assessment of the medium. Repeated success/failure will serve to further challenge/replace the idea of what learning (and knowledge sharing) means in today's society.

Ideas that are not aligned with a particular culture, environment or zeitgeist, create and generate conflict on a large level. Tactics are utilized by others in order to discredit the ideas or bring them into conformance (through reasoning, force, ridicule...any means necessary). Consider the activities of RIAA. Their corridor of thought is at odds with the reality of a culture that has formed underneath their empire. The end users of their product have needs and attitudes that severely impact the RIAA's business plan. Failure for either group to align ideas will result in continual conflict, coercion (extortion), violation, and disregard for the other's viewpoints.

Our objectivity is generally in question. We are usually inclined to agree with viewpoints that are similar to ours. A "good idea" is one that crystallizes and extends our existing thoughts. A bad idea is one that too significantly challenges our existing world view.

We are at the beginning stages of an involved conflict about learning (in both corporations and learning institutions). The notion of centralized control vs. exploratory learning (and the debate has many more dimensions than that - it's not black and white) is representative of a fundamental shift in thought on the needs of learners. The learner's needs have changed from courses...to needing multiple levels of learning in a format that suites their lifestyle and their need to continually learn. Experiences, life circumstances, and the ineffectiveness of courses in a information frenzy environment, have resulted in a need for a new model. Colleges and universities risk becoming enterprises that fight to preserve a revenue model that doesn't exist, much like traditional media and the RIAA.

With regards to technology, current conflicts over privacy/control, centralization/decentralization, LMS/learning environments, etc. are great examples of idea corridors. For educators who believe that learning is a rich, exploratory process, structured LMS and centralized/standardized control conflicts with viewpoints of learners being capable of identifying and meeting their knowledge needs. On the other hand, educators who believe that learning is more objective - free, exploratory environments for learning seem inefficient. Structure, control, standardization, are the focal points. It really boils down to the thought corridor we've decided to enter.

With regards to learning, I've often felt that I need to make sure I "tell students" everything they need to know about a particular field. In terms of thought corridors, this is the wrong approach. Leading a learner to a particular corridor will result in the learner having the capacity to explore the individuals nuances of the corridor on their own (activate the germinate (noun) present in the corridor). Once in, their path will be generally similar to others who have entered. I need to lead to the framework, not the particulars.

Some suggestions

Discussions of how people think, acquire and defend ideas has little value if they don't lead to some type of action. The following suggestions are considerations for teachers, learning designers, knowledge managers, etc.:

  • Understand that everyone (regardless of how absurd we may think their idea corridor is) has gone through some type of process of exploration and internal debate. That alone needs to be respected, especially in a learning/knowledge sharing context (but certainly also in a societal context).
  • True tolerance is very rare. To truly tolerate does not mean to be in agreement with someone else. Tolerance involves understanding the world view someone else holds, and realizing (whether we feel it's right or wrong) that their ideas are sensible and real to them. To meet the needs of learners in this situation involves presenting a mind set that we feel may be more beneficial (i.e. sharing knowledge increases your value to an organization, or, online learning can be an effective way to improve your skills).
  • Promotion efforts of knowledge management and elearning should reflect the nature of how people hold thoughts, change, and resist change.
  • Rather than addressing idea subsets, focus on shaping the "parent idea". Allow learners/employees the flexibility to redecorate their own idea corridor.
  • Build early success into programs.
  • Provide strong support to new users.
  • Create environments rich in options and high in social contact to allow people to express their viewpoints.
  • Develop variety into every stage - designing, developing, and implementing. Give the end user the control to create and organize their idea corridors.


An understanding of idea formation, allows learning designers and knowledge facilitators to create a model that will produce maximum impact for the end user and the organization. Processes that are at odds with the needs of end users are likely to fail. Creating learning as a rich, exploratory, objective end-goal process, and offering flexible tools and methods to connect with others and form communities, is required in today's work places and schools. The process is simple: understand how ideas are formed, understand that certain ideas are subsets of others (and changing the "parent" idea is the main requirement), understand the value of being close to your end user, and then delivering a learning experience compatible with their needs.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License