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Friday, June 18, 2010

Can we improve organizational intelligence?

There are several reasons why you might not wish to do anything about the intelligence of your organization.

One reason is that you think your organization is intelligent enough already. When asked if you experience any of the Symptoms of Organizational Stupidity, you deny it, or say it doesn't matter. (Denial happens to be one of the symptoms of stupidity by the way, but of course that doesn't prove that all instances of denial are evidence of stupidity.)

Another reason is that you or your bosses benefit personally from suppressing the intelligence of your organization. I have never met anyone who admits to this for themselves, but I have often heard people wondering if their bosses were really as stupid as they pretended to be.

The next possible reason is that you regard intelligence as a fixed and unalterable quality. After all, you can't turn a stupid person into an intelligent person, even if brain gym and fish oil and listening to Mozart might have a fractional advantage. So why would we think that organizations are any different from people?

But yes, organizations are different from people. As I've pointed out many times, there is no automatic correlation between the intelligence of an organization and the intelligence of the people: a stupid organization can be packed with brainy people who don't talk to each other. So improving the intelligence of an organization might be achieved by getting people to collaborate better.

Hold on, that looks like cultural change. And doesn't cultural change take a long time? Not necessarily. Think of it like gardening. Some things certainly take a long time to bear fruit: I planted a small cherry tree in the garden about ten year ago, and it's only in the last couple of years that we got a decent crop. But if you cut the grass and trim the hedges, you can see the benefits immediately. Gardening involves a lot of mini-projects, some short-term and some longer-term, and the outcomes are generally pretty uncertain, but a lot of people think it's still worth doing.

What gardening teaches us is that some things call for persistence and patience - you can't just go out on a sunny spring afternoon and fix things that have been neglected for years and expect them to stay fixed until next spring without further attention. It also teaches us the limitations of command and control - you can't simply command the plants to grow as if you were an Old Testament prophet. There are many aspects of management that share these characteristics of gardening. So "Urgh, CultureChange" doesn't seem much of an excuse for inaction.

Finally, we might note that organizations are investing in all sorts of initiatives and technologies that I can only make sense of by interpreting these as attempts to improve various aspects of organizational intelligence - better business intelligence, better decision-making, better knowledge sharing, and so on. Now I'd certainly caution against the fantasy that a stupid organization can magically become more intelligent by buying a load of expensive software, nor would I argue that other people spending money and management time on this stuff is a valid reason for you to spend anything. However, there seems to be some willingness to invest in this class of organizational benefit, possibly even in your own organization.

So perhaps I should ask a different question - not "Do you want to do anything about the intelligence of your organization?" but "Wouldn't the organizational intelligence lens help you achieve greater synergies from what you are already doing?"

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