The ECHO Way (v2.0)

Oliver Ding
Published in
15 min readJul 1, 2021


A practical framework for Knowledge Curation and Boundary Innovation

One year ago, I published an article titled HERO U — A New Framework for Knowledge Heroes on June 26, 2020. Two months later, I started testing the HERO framework by writing a series of articles about Activity Theory. I called this project the Activity U project which is considered a knowledge curation project.

Since then, I have been using the HERO U framework to guide my knowledge curation projects. From August 2020 to March 2021, I wrote the following three books in English. This was an amazing experience!

Two months ago, I joined an online program and shared my reflection about the HERO U framework and the above works. Eventually, I wrote a new book called THE ECHO WAY in Chinese in April. It is a 312-page draft.

In fact, I started applying the HERO U framework’s diagram to platform innovation and personal innovation. On March 24, 2021, I published Platform Innovation as Concept-fit. On May 25, 2021, I published Personal Innovation as Career-fit. On June 4, I made a new diagram called Global-fit for Cross-Cultural Innovation and I had a wonderful conversation with a friend who is a founder of a cross-cultural innovative project.

It seems I am returning to the original source of the HERO U framework: When X Meets Y (WXMY) which is a diagram for visualizing boundary innovation.

I realized that it is time to use a new name for the HERO U framework and the new name should focus on boundary innovation. So far I think The ECHO Way is a good name.

The above picture is the book cover of THE ECHO WAY. The subtitle of THE ECHO WAY is Echozone and Boundary Knowledge Work. The book records my reflections on connecting Theory and Practice. Unfortunately, I wrote THE ECHO WAY in Chinese because I wanted to share ideas with my Chinese friends who are participants in the online program.

The WXMY diagram has three containers: Container X, Container Y, and Container Z. I used the term Echozone to name Container Z. Boundary Knowledge Work is a special type of boundary innovation. We can explore more boundary innovations such as Boundaryless Careers, Cross-cultural Innovation, Platform Innovation, etc.


Part 1: A Practical Framework for Boundary Innovation

1.1 Theme U
1.2 Project I
1.3 Container Z
1.4 Concepts
1.5 Methods

Part 2: Becoming A Boundary Innovator

2.1 Find a particular domain
2.2 Identify two target zones
2.3 Discover Pairs of Opposite Themes
2.4 Design a Developmental Project
2.5 Attach to the Echozone
2.6 Detach from the Echozone
2.7 Two Cases about Global-fit

Part 3: Collective Echoes

3.1 A Three-year Journey
3.2 From Reflection to Echo
3.3 Call for Collective Echoes

Part 1: A Practical Framework for Boundary Innovation

The ECHO way is defined as a practical framework for guiding research, design, and development in the real-life world. As a knowledge framework, it has three components: diagrams, concepts, and methods.

The core of the ECHO way is the following diagram. In fact, this is a result of Diagram Blending which means a process of curating several diagrams together. The original sources of the diagram are three primary diagrams:

  • Theme U
  • Project I
  • Container Z

1.1 Theme U

The Theme U diagram presents six themes in a U shape. I have been using the diagram many times since June 2020. For example, I published an article titled Frame Analysis in Context with the following diagram on July 21, 2020. I said, “Inspired by the HERO U diagram, I made the following diagram to visualize six kinds of context: Physical, Digital, Personal, Social, Figure, and Idea. I name this process of diagramming for reflecting as Ecological Interaction Analysis.”

Theme U is not only about six themes, but about representing complex thematic relationships with spatial mediation. For example, I used the following diagram to explain Pairs of Opposite Themes with the Theme U diagram.

Source: Personal Innovation as Career-fit

1.2 Project I

Project I is inspired by the Developmental Project Model. I changed the shape and layout in order to make a Diagram Blending that can be used for curating two or more frameworks together.

This means the ECHO Way is not a primary framework since it connects to other frameworks. You can find more details about the Developmental Project Model in this article.

1.3 Container Z

The ECHO Way is about the fit between individuals and environments. Where is the fit? It happens at the “Echozone” which is the third container of the following model.

The concept of Container is the core of the Ecological Practice approach. By adjusting the quality and quantity of the Container, we can create advanced frameworks for discussing complex phenomena. The quality of the Container can be potential and actual, and the quantity of the Container can be one or two. If we develop a new framework with one potential container and two actual containers, the outcome is the above diagram.

I named the potential container (Container Z) Echozone which refers to a creative space containing echoes between Container X and Container Y. The term “Echo” of “Echozone” refers to a dialogue between two containers.

The above diagram sets a foundation for boundary innovation. A more concrete version is the WXMY diagram. WXMY stands for When X Meets Y. The WXMY diagram says nothing about practical issues, but pure abstract relations between two groups of entities. Container X means one group which contains entity X and its related entity X’. Y and its related entity Y’ form another group Container Y in the same way. When X meets Y, there is a new group called Container Z which emerges from the process of coupling, connecting, competing, cooperating, and interacting between X and Y.

The WXMY diagram is not a practical framework for directly solving a domain problem, but it can generate domain diagrams if you use it to visualize your ideas about a particular issue in a special context. By using the WXMY diagram, you can create your framework. The HERO U framework is generated from the WXMY diagram. In fact, the original name of the HERO U framework is When Theory Meets Practice.

The most important part is Container Z! For example, let’s look at the Echozone of the Activity U project. The diagram below only shows the Echozone with some notes for discussing the process of fitting between career themes and developmental projects.

The above diagram presents fits of two pairs of opposite themes. The “Theory v.s. Practice” fit is described with three movements:

  • Practice-based Reflection: building rough models with intuition.
  • Theory-based Reflection: improving models with theoretical resources.
  • Theory-Practice Dialogue: turn models into frameworks and test them with cast studies.

The article Platform Innovation as Concept-fit offers a real example of these three steps. The Concept-fit framework was developed within three months.

It’s a challenge to share complex personal knowledge within the Echozone. I try so hard to design visual diagrams and write a book. The second part of THE ECHO WAY uses 76 pages to describe what I experienced with the Echozone. It’s all about deep thinking, personal reflection, boundary dialogue, etc.

1.4 Concepts

Without theoretical concepts, a diagram is just a concrete model which can’t inspire deep thinking.

The above concepts are some ideas behind The ECHO Way. I have introduced them in previous articles.

1.5 Methods

The last component of the framework is methods which mean processes, tools, and other practical knowledge. The ECHO Way considers a 6-step process and a set of thinking tools.

The above picture is a simple list. We can discuss more details later.

Part 2: Becoming A Boundary Innovator

I’d like to invite you to explore boundary innovation with the ECHO way. You can use the above diagrams to visualize themes of a domain and design a developmental project for yourself and your peers. You could enter the Echozone and get your experience of boundary creativity!

There are three types of purposes for adopting the ECHO way for Boundary Innovation:

  • ECHO for Self: You just use it for your personal innovation.
  • ECHO for Others: You use it to help others with their personal innovation.
  • ECHO for Team: You use it for your team in order to achieve collective innovation.

Different types of purposes require different levels of applying the ECHO way because different contexts need different kinds of knowledge. For the context of ECHO-for-Self, you might just directly use the ECHO way as a general thinking tool. You even just use one diagram of the ECHO way without applying the whole process and its related methods.

It all depends on your needs and situations.

The above diagram shows the whole landscape of the ECHO way and its applications. We should note that the framework is a meta-framework. So, there are three approaches to using it.

  • Use it to make Domain-specific frameworks
  • Use it directly for general thinking
  • Use it indirectly by adopting a Domain-specific framework

I have mentioned three domain-specific frameworks:

  • The Concept-fit for Platform Innovation
  • The Career-fit for Personal Innovation
  • The Global-fit for Cross-cultural Innovation

If you are passionate about a particular domain, you can adopt the ECHO way to develop your own domain-specific frameworks. The following sections roughly suggest a 6-step process.

2.1 Find a particular domain

One mistake about understanding domains is people often don’t pay attention to the distinction between horizontal domains and vertical domains.

  • Horizontal domains refer to general functions in society such as “organization, strategy, and innovation.” They often lead to professional services and professional career paths.
  • Vertical domains refer to specific industries, for example, farms (agriculture), buses (transportation), and movies (entertainment). This is a general understanding of the concept of domain.

Another useful notion is a distinction between established domains and emergent domains.

2.2 Identify two target zones

The ECHO way uses “target zones” to describe bounded cognitive spaces which can be substances, concepts, issues, problems, fields, etc. In simple words, it is just a thing we try to understand.

In order to make the Echozone which is the third zone of the ECHO way, you need to identify a pair of target zones. The two target zones highlight two boundaries that could generate distance, difference, heterogeneity, contradiction, complementation, etc.

Now you have set the orientation of boundary innovation. You see some structural tensions and they mean creative opportunities too.

2.3 Discover Pairs of Opposite Themes

The most important step of the ECHO way is the Theme U mapping process. You are required to discover several Pairs of Opposite Themes and place three of them on Theme U.

This process is a challenge because it guides you to understand thematic relationships deeply. You also need to think about it with Theme U which is a spatial representation framework with three layers and two sides. You should pick a logical method to make sense of these spatial structures and place six themes on the U shape.

It’s not easy to find an ideal configuration! You should try several times during this step. This is what I called diagramming as thinking!

2.4 Design a Developmental Project

The Developmental Project model is an abstract framework, you should adopt it to design a real developmental project for your journey of boundary innovation.

For example, I designed the HERO U framework for connecting Theory and Practice. In order to test it, I started the Activity U project which led to the Echozone where I created so many unexpected outcomes. I also learned an important insight that the Activity U project is a great example of Knowledge Curation. I could design similar developmental projects for others with the HERO U framework.

This step is for testing your Theme U diagram and designing your Project I. The outcome is a validated Theme U diagram and a guide for implementing Project I.

I have to emphasize that you can develop your own elements for Project I if the Developmental Project model doesn’t fit your situation. In fact, I use “Personal Conditions of Knowing” to name the ecological dimension of the HERO U framework. I said, “I consider this framework as ‘an ecological approach’ of knowing because it refers to the structure of ‘organism (personal conditions of knowing) — action (knowing) — environment(objective of knowing)’.” Now, we can consider “Personal Conditions of Knowing” as Project I.

2.5 Attach to the Echozone

At this step, you could get a real first-hand experience from the Echozone. This is the most fantastic and wonderful movement of the journey.

The ECHO Way is inspired by the Ecological Practice approach. The Echozone is a Container. If we return to the following original diagram of the Ecological Practice approach, we can find “attach/detach” and “offers/acts”. The term “Offers” is an affordance-inspired concept, it refers to opportunities afforded by the Container. The group of “Offer — Act” forms an “Event” which changes the status of the Container. The new status of the Container affords new opportunities which guide new acts and events.

The ECHO way is developed with a synthesis of knowing and acting. While Theme U refers to knowing, Project I refers to acting. Container Z (Echozone) refers to a creative space since it connects knowing and acting together.

2.6 Detach from the Echozone

Every beginning has an end and every end is a new beginning. While you detach from a container, you are going to attach it to a new container. For the ECHO way, detaching from the Echozone means you are attaching to a new container which means reflecting on the whole process.

For me, this means the process of writing the book “THE ECHO WAY” after detaching from the Activity U project. I use 312 pages to reflect on the HERO U framework and what I learned from the Activity U project. It also collected my writings about Theory, Practice, and Knowledge Curation.

For example, I used two chapters to talk about “Diagramming as Thinking.” Chapter 7 of THE ECHO WAY records the development of the HERO U Canvas which is the visual format of “Personal Conditions of Knowing”.

In the beginning, I designed the HERO U Canvas to visualize the development process of Yrjö Engeström’s Activity System model when I was writing Activity U (IV): The Engeström’s Triangle and the Power of Diagram. Later, I realized that I can use the canvas to guide my knowledge curation work. Thus, I applied to a sub-project of the Activity U project and reviewed Andy Blunden’s project-oriented activity approach. The outcome of the sub-project is the book Project-oriented Activity Theory. Finally, I used the canvas to guide my writing on my own approach to Platform(Project) and wrote the third book Platform for Development.

Thus, the HERO U Canvas is an important tool for my knowledge curation projects. However, I didn’t design it originally with the HERO U framework. It was just emergent from the Activity U project.

2.7 Two Cases about Global-fit

Finally, I’d like to share two cases about Global-fit. The first case is When Global Meets Local (2020) and the second case is the Global-fit framework (2021). Both cases are about building global cross-cultural communities.

In 2020, I designed the WXMY diagram and tested it with several cases. When Global Meets Local is one of these cases. I chose Global and Local as two opposite target zones and selected the following themes:

  • Global Solution Network
  • Open Action Program
  • Global Curator
  • Local Curator
  • Local Volunteers
  • Local Individual Actor

The theme of “Global Solution Network” is adopted from the Global Solution Network program. Don Tapscott, the author of Wikinomics and the founder of the program, identified and studied 10 types of Global Solution Networks. He claimed that TED is a case of Global Solution Network. The theme of “Open Action Program” is adopted from my own research about “Open Action Wisdom” and “Open Brand Programs” in 2014. I also used TED’s TEDx program and TED Circle program as examples of the “Open Action Program”.

The Global-fit framework was created on June 4, 2021. This time I focused on testing the ECHO way. I chose “Developing Countries” and “Developed Countries” as two target zones and selected the following themes:

  • Trend 1
  • Trend 2
  • Talent 1
  • Talent 2
  • Thing 1
  • Thing 2

Where do these themes come from?

In fact, I use “Affordance”, “Supportance”, and “Curativity” as three dimensions to organize these themes. These three terms are adopted from the Ecological Practice approach. The term “Affordance” is about physical environments and people, so I used “Thing 1/Thing 2” to highlight the “Affordance” aspect of human life. The term “Supportance” is about social environments and people, so I used “Talent 1/Talent 2” to highlight the “Supportance” aspect of human life. The term “Curativity” is about pieces and whole, so I use “Trend 1/Trend 2” to highlight the “Curativity” aspect of human life.

You can roughly consider these three dimensions as “Biological/ Physical / Material/Technological — Social — Cultural”.

Both two cases share the same deep spatial logic. The differences between the two cases are the themes I chose and the knowledge I curated. Also, When Global Meets Local is a concrete model while the Global-fit framework is an abstract model because “Thing/Talent/Trend” is too general.

What can we learn from these two cases?

The process of creating domain-specific frameworks is a process of both knowledge curation and personal reflection. The ECHO way offers you a series of tools for pulling out your personal experience and personal knowledge by connecting the status of the domain and your creative actions. It encourages you to create new themes and new projects for pushing forward the domain.

Moreover, you are expected to share your domain-specific frameworks with your team and others.

Part 3: Collective Echoes

The ECHO WAY is a three-year journey. Each year I take one step.

  • 2019: Practice-based Reflection
  • 2020: Theory-based Reflection
  • 2021: Theory-Practice Dialogue

3.1 A Three-year Journey

In July 2019, I developed a framework called SET (Structural Engagement Theory) which is about one-to-one social interpersonal interaction. In March 2020, I developed a framework called Platform Container which is about platform-centered digital product design. In April 2020, I reflected on these two frameworks. I was curious to find out the difference between these two frameworks. How did I create these two things since they are both about digital product innovations?

I realized that there are two abstract levels between these two frameworks. SET closes to abstract theories while Platform Container closes to concrete practices. This insight inspired me to develop the HERO U framework.

Both SET and Platform Container were born from my reflection on real practices. This is the first step: Practice-based Reflection.

In August 2020, I started the Activity U project. This project is the second step: Theory-based Reflection.

The last step was writing the book THE ECHO WAY which is a process of Theory-Practice dialogue.

3.2 From Reflection to Echo

As an independent researcher and a practitioner, I adopted Donald Schön’s “action research” and “critical reflection” as the primary method for the ECHO way. This method is also useful for biographical research and self-study.

However, I also adopt Theory for the HERO U framework and the ECHO way. I believe that practitioners can be theory-makers too. Thus, the Theory-Practice Dialogue is important for my approach. In order to highlight the difference between my approach and Donald Schön’s Reflective Practice, I use “ECHO” as a keyword for my frameworks.

Eventually, I adopted the Ecological Practice approach as the foundation of the ECHO way. Thus, the term “ECHO” became the ecological version of Reflection. I even considered a new term “Echoness” as a basic theoretical concept of the Ecological Practice approach. This topic is beyond the scope of the ECHO way.

3.3 Call for Collective Echoes

I’ll continue to work on Knowledge Curation with the HERO U framework. However, I’d like to invite you to join me in the development of the ECHO way (v2.0).

I hope the ECHO way (v2.0) could lead to a community of boundary innovation. Let’s make Collective Echoes together!

You are most welcome to connect via the following social platforms:


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Oliver Ding

Founder of CALL(Creative Action Learning Lab), information architect, knowledge curator.