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Internal and External Reference, what is the Link with Innovation?

February 28, 2019
Jaap Hollander

As you know, the meta program ‘internal reference’ is defined as: using one’s own standards in evaluations. ‘External reference’ is using other people’s standards in evaluations. What are some concepts from mainstream science that this distinction is related to?

Internal and external frames of reference in the academic self-concept
An ‘Internal/External frame of reference’-concept used in the study of academic self-concept (Marsh, 1986). When students gauge their academic self-concept by comparing their ability in a given area with the ability of their peers, this is called ‘external comparison’. When they compare their ability in one area with they own ability in other areas, that is called ‘internal comparison’.

The meta programs internal reference and external reference, are also related to the 'Kirton Adaption–Innovation (AI) continuum' of cognitive style (Kirton, 1987). Messick (1976) defines cognitive style broadly as “consistent individual differences in preferred ways of organising and processing information and experience” (p. 5). Kirton (1999b) defines cognitive style more narrowly as the preferred style with which the individual undertakes problem solving and creativity. He asserts that cognitive style is highly resistant to change. The Kirton Adaption-Innovation (AI) continuum of cognitive style ranges from more adaptive preferences for creativity, decision making, and problem solving at one end, to more innovative preferences at the other.

Kirton (1994) describes people with more adaptive preferences as being seen by others as more precise, sound, reliable, disciplined, and dependable. They are more concerned about how things get done - the means. They tend to accept the given problem definition and are more concerned with resolving problems rather than finding them. People with more adaptive preferences will generally focus on change that promotes incremental improvement, perfecting existing systems or “doing things better.”

Kirton (1994) described those with a more innovative preference as being seen as unique, visionary, and ingenious. Those with a more innovative preference prefer to challenge the definition of the problem by manipulating and questioning existing assumptions. They may be seen as undisciplined and the kind of change on which they focus is perceived as more radical and often described as breakthrough. When these characteristics are operating together, more innovative people will generally prefer changing the existing system or “doing things differently.”

Focussing on others, but doing what?
When we compare the internal and external reference meta programs with Marshes (1986) Internal/External frame of reference and the Kirton Adaption-Innovation continuum, we see the following similarities and differences.

a. What the internal/external reference distinction in meta programs shares with Marshes Internal/External frame of reference model, is that in both distinctions there is a focus on self (internal reference) in one case, versus a focus on others (external reference) in the other.

b. There is also an important difference. In a comparison there are two elements: observation and evaluation. When a student compares themselves with their peers in Marshes model, they are observing others. But when they evaluate their own capability, comparing themselves with these others, they are using their own standards. If they were displaying the meta program ‘external reference’ in that situation, they would be using the standards of their peers. They would be measuring their own performance against what their peers found to be a good standard, not even necessarily observing the ability of their peers.

Summarising: Both Marshes internal/external frame of reference-concept and the internal/external reference meta programs distinguish - in a broad sense - between focus on self and focus on others. A major difference is that in Marshes model people using an external frame of reference use their own standards to evaluate their performance, while with the external referenced meta program they use the other person’s standards.

Many other meta programs in Kirton's AI distinction
c. Looking at the Kirton Adaption–Innovation continuum, people with adaptive preferences, certainly sound more externally referenced, while people with innovative preferences clearly seem more internally referenced in terms of meta programs. Adaptive preferences are characterised by “accepting the given problem definition”. In that regard they are externally referenced: accepting the judgement of other as to what the problem is. People with innovative preferences are described as challenging the definition of the problem … and questioning existing assumptions. These are definitely internally referenced qualities.

d. But as with other concepts we have discussed in this article, Kirton’s adaptive and innovative preferences also harbour many elements that would be coded as other meta programs.
- ‘Being precise’ would be coded as ‘specific’
- ‘Reliable and disciplined’ would be coded as ‘procedure'
- ‘Undisciplined’ would be coded as ‘options’
- 'Concerned about how things get done’ would be coded as ‘procedure’ too
- ‘Resolving problems’ would be coded as ‘away from’
- ‘Incremental improvement’ would be coded as ‘development’
- ‘Radical change’ would be coded as ‘change’
- ‘Visionary’ would be coded as ’change plus general plus visual’.
So apart from the internal/external reference distinction, Kirton’s distinction also seems to make use of the ‘general/specific’, ‘options/procedure’ and ‘maintenance/development/change’ meta programs.

e. Another difference is that Kirton sees cognitive style as ‘highly resistant to change’, while meta programs are presupposed to be different in different contexts, which also presupposes that they may often change quite easily.

Summarising: We recognise internal/external reference elements in Kirtons adaptive/innovative distinction. Apart from these two meta programs, we also recognise several other meta program distinctions, like ‘general/specific’ and ‘options/procedure’.

About the author 

Jaap Hollander

Psychologist, living in the Netherlands. Founded MindSonar in 1995. Directs MindSonar Global, which manages the ICT development, applications and the curriculum of the MS Certification Trainings. Working part time as a trainer, writer and coach as well as being an expressionist painter (artist name JAAPH, see jaaph.com). Has written 10 books on NLP and Provocative Coaching.

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