Webster's defines context as follows:
In other words (in the context of a business meeting), context is about all the stuff that's not directly in front of the participants in the moment, but which informs and colors their seeing, hearing and interpretation of what happens in it. It's the 'stuff' that's in the heads of the meeting participants that either helps or hinders them in getting to an accurate understanding of what is being said and processing that information in a way that helps them make 'good' decisions, (or at least better ones -- than last month; than the competition, etc.) .
Context operates at both the individual and group level. At the individual level, it consists of everything I've heard, read, seen or surmised about what's going on, ranging all the way from assumptions about the direction of the economy and data on the growth of my industry all the way down to how I interpret the word 'risky' when used by the new VP of Sales for Asia-Pacific on September 20th, 2008 versus what that word means indicates coming from our veteran Director of Manufacturing for the plant in Brazil on October 20th, 2008.
At the group level, context consists of all the experiences, assumptions and knowledge which group or meeting participants hold in common and which they are aware that they hold in common and agree that they hold in common (e.g., "remember the layoffs last week?"; "remember when the EVP of Operations told that off-color joke on the big conference call"; "I don't need to tell you how Q3 is going...").
Where context gets tricky is when it involves what a group or team,
- don't hold in common (but which some may think that they do),
- hold largely in common (but don't necessarily realize it),
- didn't even imagine could be part of context (but which nonetheless color their ability to see and inform what other data and what futures they believe are plausible).
Given that vast scope, it's no wonder that the word 'context' has gotten a rap for being nebulous and less-than useful! Where it can become far more useful (and rather quickly and painlessly) in moving towards better meetings is when at least two things are true:
2) when the language for expressing context is made concrete (e.g., how many of us believe this future event is highly likely to happen? how many that it's highly unlikely? how many don't know? how many think it's somewhere in between 'highly likely' and 'highly unlikely'?)
In the scenario workshops we run for clients, getting folks to indicate their perceived likelihood of key future hypothetical events (usually live and in person but not necessarily so) is an important building block in making a group's context explicit and thus being able to discuss and modify it.
That's a much longer post. In the meantime, go read Lencioni.