TALE: The “Strategic Thematic Exploration” Framework

Oliver Ding
Published in
13 min readApr 1


A Strategic Framework for Knowledge Engagement

TALE stands for Thematic Analysis Learning Engagement. As a new knowledge center, TALE aims to host the Thematic Engagement project which is supported by the following two approaches:

  • The Themes of Practice approach (Oliver Ding, 2019, 2021)
  • The Project Engagement approach (Oliver Ding, 2021, 2022)

You can find more details about the above two approaches in The Thematic Engagement Toolkit (v1.0).

Thematic Engagement refers to the “Person — Theme” relationship and interaction.

I define two types of themes for the Thematic Engagement project and TALE. See the diagram below.

While Knowledge Engagement is about the interaction between a person and a knowledge theme, Cultural Engagement is about the interaction between a person and a cultural theme.

On Jan 13, 2023, I encouraged readers to Start Your Journey of Knowledge Engagement with A Possible Theme. On Feb 17, 2023, I recommend a 100-day challenge to readers.

Today I am going to introduce a framework called Strategic Thematic Exploration for Knowledge Engagement.

Creative Life Curation v.s. Strategic Thematic Exploration

On Feb 1, 2023, I made a multi-thematic reflection on a thematic conversation project about “Strategic Exploration”. In the last section of the article, I compared “Collaborative Strategic Exploration” and “Creative Life Curation”.

This is the seed of the theme “Strategic Thematic Exploration”. I’d like to repost the section as the first section of this article.

Collaborative Strategic Exploration” and “Creative Life Curation” are two things and we can use them as triggers to activate Multi-thematic Reflections.

What’s the difference between these two things? See the diagram below.

The above diagram is based on my diagram “the Path of Creative Life” and the concept of “the fleeting moment” is adopted from Ping Keung Lui’s Theoretical Sociology. You can find more details in Three Paths of Creative Life and A Semiotic System.

In 2007, Lui published a book titled Gaze, Action, and the Social World in which he presented his account of theoretical sociology. The fundamental starting point of his approach is an Ontology of action, which was inspired by Saint Augustine (354–430), Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961). See the statement below:

The body is in action, action is in the fleeting moment, the fleeting moment is in the body.

According to Lui, “This moment is Augustinian, it comprises at the same time the Present of the Past, the Present of the Present, and the Present of the Future. The actor Remembers in the present of the past, Pays Attention in the present of the present, Expects in the present of the future.” (p.235–236, 2010, The Scientific Project of Sociology)

  • Reflection: Remembers in the present of the past
  • Emergence: Pays Attention in the present of the present
  • Anticipation: Expects in the present of the future

Creative Life Curation” is about the Present of Past. It means we reflect on the past of a creative life from the present time.

“Strategic Exploration” is about the Present of Future. While we are exploring something new in the present time, the thing is anticipated to be useful in the future or used to guide us to the future.

In other words, “Strategic Exploration” and “Creative Life Curation” have their own logic. However, we can apply them to the same present project. In both two ways, our present life themes are possible triggers for Multi-thematic Reflection.

I use “Strategic Thematic Exploration” to frame a creative space for exploring the strategic intent with the thematic analysis methods, especially for knowledge engagement.

As a sub-category of “Strategic Exploration”, “Strategic Thematic Exploration” belongs to the Present of Future.

In this manner, it seems we can’t use the Creative Life Curation framework for “Strategic Thematic Exploration”.

However, I found this assumption is false.

In fact, we can use the Creative Life Curation framework for “Strategic Thematic Exploration”.

How is it possible?

Two Significant Insights

In the past several days, I captured two new significant insights.

  • Three aspects of Mental Elements
  • The Attachance of moving mental elements between two knowledge centers

We will apply these two new insights to develop the “Strategic Thematic Exploration” by directly using the Creative Life Curation framework.

In Mental Moves #1: The Transformation of Mental Elements, I conducted a case study about the Attachances of moving mental elements. The outcome of the case study is the following diagram about mental elements.

The term “mental elements” is adopted from Dean Keith Simonton’s Chance-configuration theory (Scientific Genius,1988).

What are mental elements?

According to Simonton, “In scientific creativity, the predominant mental elements are cognitions of some kind, such as facts, principles, relations, rules, laws, formulae, and images. Yet immediate sensations may also play a role in laboratory experimentation and field exploration, and feelings may figure in scientific thought and discourse as well (Mahoney 1976). Sometimes these mental elements can be evoked voluntarily (e.g., the deliberate retrieval of a stored fact from memory); at other times these elements enter mental processing involuntarily (e.g., via a conditioned emotional association). Moreover, these mental elements do not have to be fully conscious, but rather, many enter information processing at the periphery of consciousness. ” (1988, p.6)

I highlight some keywords from Simonton’s description of mental elements. It looks like this is a rough definition. And, it is very hard to give an accurate definition for such things.

Dean Keith Simonton doesn’t give us a typology of mental elements. We also don’t know the details of significant aspects of mental elements. From this case study, I realized that three aspects of mental elements are necessary for further discussions.

Based on these three elements, we can develop a framework of mental elements:

  • Name: does it have a name?
  • Form: does it have an identifiable form?
  • Content: does it have more than one identifiable entity?

In the next section, we will apply this framework to analyze the Creative Life Curation framework.

In TALE: A Possible theme called “Life Coordinate”, I discussed possible collaborations between knowledge centers, especially moving mental elements between two knowledge centers.

I used a collaboration between CALL and TALE as an example. See the diagram below.

  • CALL: “Life Coordinate” is a concept of the Lifesystem Framework (v1.0)
  • CALL > TALE: “Life Coordinate” is detached from the Lifesystem framework (v1.0) and attached to TALE as an independent theme.
  • TALE: “Life Coordinate” is an independent theme and it is developed to v2.0
  • TALE > CALL: “Life Coordinate” is detached from TALE and attached to CALL as a concept of the Lifesystem Framework (v2.0)

We will apply the same method to build a collaboration between TALE and Curativity Center which is the host of the Creative Life Curation framework.

The Creative Life Curation Framework

In 2019 I wrote a section about Knowledge Curation in my book Curativity. However, I didn’t write about Life Curation intendedly. I wanted to keep this topic for my second book about Curativity Theory.

In the past three years, I worked on the Knowledge Curation project. On Sept 18, 2022, I designed a cover image for a possible book Knowledge Curation, and used it to close the Knowledge Curation project (phase 1).

Then, I moved to a new journey: the Life Curation project in Oct 2022.

The first thing I did was reflect on my journey to the Knowledge Curation project. The outcome was the following model.

I roughly used five movements to model my journey of the Knowledge Curation project. These five movements form a basic model for understanding Creative Life Curation.

I also used First-wave, Second-wave, and Third-wave to describe the dynamics of the model. All these dynamics can be found in my journey.

The Knowledge Curation project is a Single-theme development. I also found Multi-theme Development from a Slow Cognition case study. See the diagram below.

The case study is about a creative journey of developing a meta-theory. The creator developed several unique themes over several years. Finally, he curated these themes together and developed a brand new meta-theory. Later, the new theory was represented in a book.

The above five movements form a basic model of my creative journey. There are more dynamics between these movements.

The above five movements form a basic model of my creative journey. There are more dynamics between these movements.

Moreover, the dynamics of the model can happen only in the stage of Objectification. Though Curativity Theory can be applied to various fields, I only focused on Knowledge Curation in the past three years.

Now, I will move in the direction of Life Curation. This is the second-wave development of the theme of “Curativity” too. It is the change in the Objectification of “Curativity”. See the diagram below.

The Life Curation Project is a collaborative project between Curativity Center and Life Strategy Center.

Originally, Life Strategy Center focused on Life Strategy and the “Anticipatory Activity System” (AAS) framework.

However, Life Curation is a good strategy for life development too.

We see a thematic dialogue in this stage. See the diagram below.

Third-wave Development considers the dynamics of a project network and the creative thematic dialogue. You can see an example in Slow Cognition: The Echoes of A Thematic Dialogue.

You can find more details in Slow Cognition: The Creative Life Curation Framework.

Let’s apply the “three aspects of mental elements” model to “Creative Life Curation”.

If a mental element has a name, then we can test if the name is separable or inseparable from the whole.

Let’s try to use “Thematic Curation” to rename it. See the diagram below.

I didn’t modify the original model. It seems the new name works well because a significant step of the model is “Crystallize Thematically” which refers to a turning point.

Before the turning point, the tendency is to discover a meaningful theme for the next phase.

After the turning point, the tendency is to spread the meaning of the theme by making various artifacts.

These two phases can be understood as two types of thematic curation activity. One is called Subjectifcation and the other one is called Objectifaction.

The new name “Thematic Curation” is perfect for the model. Now we can detach it from Curativity Center and attach it to TALE.

Curativity Center > TALE > Life Strategy Center

As mentioned above, The Life Curation Project is a collaborative project between Curativity Center and Life Strategy Center.

So, I used “Creative Life Curation” to name the original framework. My purpose behind the naming is to develop a Domain-specific Model for life curation.

Now let’s run a collaborative project between Curativity Center, Life Strategy Center, and TALE. See the diagram below.

  • Curativity Center > TALE: the original model is detached from Curativity Center and attached to TALE with a new name: “Thematic Curation”.
  • TALE: The model is detached from “Thematic Curation” and attached to a domain called “Strategic Exploration”, the outcome is a new domain-specific model “Strategic Thematic Exploration”.
  • TALE > Life Strategy Center: The “Strategic Thematic Exploration” is detached from TALE and attached to Life Strategic Center.

Can I directly rename the original model “Strategic Thematic Exploration”?

Yes, I can.

However, this approach is only can be explained with mysterious intuition. Here I want to apply the Attachance approach to explain the creative process. This is the primary theme of a possible book Mental Moves: The Attachances of Moving Mental Elements.

You can find some case studies in Mental Moves #1: The Transformation of Mental Elements and Creative Action: The Attachance of Moving Mental Elements.

This post is not a case study, but a test. The above two new insights were discovered from case studies about “Attachances” and “Moving Mental Elements”.

Let’s discuss the details of the transformation from “Thematic Curation” to “Strategic Thematic Exploration”.

The “Moving-down” Attachance

The name “Thematic Curation” refers to a general model. It frames the direction of applying the model at an abstract level. This is fine for general discussion about thematic analysis.

However, if we want to connect TALE with the Strategic Exploration practice, especially the Knowledge Engagement section, we need a domain-specific model.

The new name “Strategic Thematic Exploration” frames a new purpose for the original model. Now it is about the Present of Future.

The “Strategic Thematic Exploration” Framework

The original model is used as a Frame of Reference for reflecting on the past and the present and anticipating the future. See the diagram below.

We can also use the vertical view (which is not a normal view for visually representing a timeline). See the diagram below.

By combing the “Past — Present — Future” structure with the “Thematic Curation” framework, it asks you three questions:

  • What did you do in the past?
  • What are you doing in the present?
  • What would you do in the future?

To answer the above three questions, you need to do the following things:

  • Sort projects you have done, are doing, or will do around a present them and a related theme network.
  • Assign your journey to the “Thematic Curation” model and find where you are.
  • Explore the next phase with the “Thematic Curation” model and find an opportunity to run a new project.

Also, you can find some tools to help you with the above things. For example:

In this way, the Strategic Thematic Exploration framework can offer a toolkit for knowledge engagement.

Two Examples of “Strategic Thematic Exploration”

Let’s see an example of “Strategic Thematic Exploration”: The Activity U project. See the diagram below.

You can find more details in Slow Cognition: The Activity U Project and Creative Life Curation.

The second example is Jonathan Kahan’s knowledge project: Modeling in Problem Solving (MPS). In 2022, he published a series of articles about MPS.

I considered the MPS project a good example of “Creative Life Curation” and made the following diagram.

  • Explore Widely: 500 Frameworks and concepts
  • Inquire Deeply: 40 Consulting projects and Reflecting on projects
  • Crystallize Thematically: Writing 4 articles on Modeling in Problem Solving
  • Work Deeply: Problem Solving Map, Mental Model Navigator
  • Play Widely: ?

He uses the following two diagrams for the MPS project.

Source: Jonathan Kahan (2022)

The above diagram is the primary Framework of the MPS project.

Source: Jonathan Kahan (2022)

The above diagram is the primary Canvas of the MPS project.

He also worked on Mental Model Navigator which is a database of knowledge models. The picture below is a screenshot of the database.

Mental Model Navigator (Jonathan Kahan, 2022)

We can use the “Strategic Thematic Exploration” framework to predict the development of the MPS project.

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Oliver Ding

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