Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Does Organizational Cognition Make Sense?

#orgintelligence @carlhaggerty argues that ‘Social’ is Key to Improving Performance, discussing my presentation on Modelling Intelligence in Complex Organizations.

Carl quotes the statement that "Cognition only makes sense for individuals" (Slide 5). This is a reductionist view that I don't myself share. I prefer the holistic view presented in my following slide: that cognition makes sense for socially-embedded systems - not just people but also communities. I personally don't have any problem talking about how an organization perceives and decides and remembers and learns - not just as a metaphor but as a literal account of what is going on. However, I have had many arguments about this with people who are uncomfortable with applying any notion of cognition to artificial or social entities.

In practice, reductionists are usually willing to talk about non-human cognition, but they think this is only properly meaningful if it can ultimately be defined in terms of human cognition. Now there may well be a mapping between non-human cognition and human cognition, but it is probably very complicated and it's not something I'm particularly interested to work out.

Interestingly, some people who object to the notion of an organization having a collective memory don't seem bothered by the notion of an organization making a collective decision. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that collective decisions can often be understood as the result of a semi-democratic process in which individuals have a weighted voice/vote depending on their status in the organization. (Although in practice, collective decisions never quite work like that, and it is perfectly possible for an organization to arrive at a collective decision that nobody is happy with.)

This then links to the point Carl picks up from my slide 7 - the illusion of individual performance. In my book on Organizational Intelligence (now available on LeanPub, thanks for asking), I talk about the Talent Myth that was one of the things that did for Enron - the idea that all you have to do to build a brilliant company is recruit a bunch of brilliant individuals. Thinking about organizational intelligence doesn't diminish the talents and efforts of individuals, but we have to understand how these individuals can collaborate intelligently and learn collectively, using a wide range of sociotechnical mechanisms, to achieve greater results.

Carl thinks this is highly relevant in a public sector context. "An individual local government officer has a complex system environment, which could include Peers, Press and Media, local demographic, local political influence, national political influence, training, policy framework etc. Essentially an individual's performance is the result of the ‘systems’ own restrictions and ability to achieve and facilitate outcomes."

As I understand it, Carl's own work focused on building social knowledge systems to support local government intelligence. As local government (like everyone else these days) is constrained to do more with less, good organizational intelligence is surely a critical success factor.

See also Can We Manage Individual Knowledge? (May 2012)

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