Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

The Conscious Organization

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[tweetmeme source=”jeffreysaltzman”]Is your organization conscious or does it stumble along in a state of semi- or perhaps unconsciousness? I will argue that there are distinct advantages to an organization if it can achieve and operate in a conscious manner. I want to define what I mean by The Conscious Organization, but first a slight diversion into the causes of human consciousness is necessary.

Some relatively recent research looks at the physiology of the brain and what happens to it during states of consciousness and unconsciousness. As you know the brain is made up of many structures. Some of the structures of the brain deal with language (Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area), some with memories, hearing and vision (temporal and occipital lobes) and some with reasoning (cerebral cortex). You may have heard of the amygdala which is associated with emotions, or the brain stem, the part of the brain immediately above the spinal column which controls autonomic functions such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, sweating and other homeostatic processes.

Needless to say the brain is a very complex structure with numerous sub-systems and sub-structures, each evolved to carry out specific tasks or duties, but the success of each of those systems is dependent on the other structures and systems within the brain carrying out their respective duties. For instance the centers of higher reasoning cannot interpret an image or scene if the visual cortex did not process the image. It is the Amygdala though that determines if that image is one that carries an emotional component. All of this communication, interpretation and experiential processing happen virtually instantaneously in the brain, achieving what is called “The Unity of Consciousness”. The various components of our brains work in silos, each carrying out their respective functions, but through complex interconnections each passes along information to other brain structures. Rising out of that complexity is human intelligence, consciousness or self-awareness which has been the subject of intense research for hundreds of years and philosophical debate for thousands. While the early work on the brain was philosophical and anatomical, examining and cataloguing the brain in an attempt to understand its inner workings, the more recent research has delved into real-time imaging of the brain in action.

When a person’s brain is examined as it enters an unconscious state such as sleep, the various silos of the brain, it appears, are no longer fully communicating with each other. They do not shut down, they do not function with less complexity, but they do stop sharing information across the parts of the brain as fully as they did when we are conscious or self-aware. The self-awareness or consciousness that the brain provides us is not driven simply by the complexity of the brain’s components itself, but by the ability of those complex systems to richly and virtually instantaneously communicate to other complex brain systems. The brain during periods of unconsciousness acts like many of our heavily siloed or stove piped human contrived organizations, looking inward and sharing only minimal information across the organization and sometimes even then begrudgingly. These heavily siloed organizations which cannot easily share complex and rich information are not capable of obtaining Organizational Consciousness.

Think of operations departments that are unaware of what the sales folks are promising out in the field, or engineering groups that do not include manufacturing in the development of new products. Think of customer care representatives who are unaware of the difficulties that distribution and fulfillment are having, or the salesperson who works in isolation of inventory or capacity information. Organizations that fit these descriptions are organizations stumbling along in a semi-conscious state. Information that is transparently communicated and shared across the organization in an instantaneous fashion is one key to
achieving a Conscious Organization. A conscious organization is intelligent, self-aware, more likely to successfully deal with changing environmental conditions and with the routine and enduring challenges that all organizations face.

“Human consciousness usually displays a striking unity. When one experiences a noise and, say, a pain, one is not conscious of the noise and then, separately, of the pain. One is conscious of the noise and pain together, as aspects of a single conscious experience. Since at least the time of Immanuel Kant (1781/7), this phenomenon has been called the unity of consciousness. More generally, it is consciousness not of A and, separately, of B and, separately, of C, but of A-and-B-and-C together, as the contents of a single conscious state.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2007)

IBM is betting heavily on helping organizations achieve consciousness through what it is calling its “Smarter Planet” initiative. In a nutshell the Smarter Planet initiative aims to make organizational systems smarter to achieve “economic growth, near-term efficiency, sustainable development and societal progress.” Among the examples given of smarter systems include smart power and informational grids, water management systems, traffic congestion avoidance systems, and greener buildings.  According to IBM, “these systems have historically been difficult to manage because of their size and complexity. But with new ways of monitoring, connecting, and analyzing the systems, business, civic and nongovernmental leaders are developing new ways to manage these systems” (emphasis added).

Think for instance of a water supply system for a city. It could be a just a bunch of pipes with values, relying on gravity and water pressure to distribute water throughout the city (much as the Romans and Aztecs did). A smarter water system would be interconnected to say the fire department, the weather service, and the water-pipe repair service. This smarter system could divert water from one part of the city to another if a major fire were to break out, maintaining enough pressure for the fire department to effectively fight the fire. It could realize that a heat wave was happening making additional water supplies available for cooling purposes, or if it sensed a drop in pressure it could send out a repair crew to where the leak was measured. Now multiply that interconnectedness and analytic ability to all of the critical systems that run a city and you achieve what I would describe as a conscious organization, in this case a conscious city.

If an organization wanted to achieve a higher degree of intelligence and consciousness it would seem that some precursors would be necessary. Included would be:

Creating conscious organizations will not be an easy process; maybe the notion of one is just a whim on my part. It involves not only creating well-functioning business processes for each critical business function, but also interconnecting across business functions, creating complex multi-redundant communication
pathways, so that each function adapts and bases their own decisions, interpretation of the world, and actions upon what is happening elsewhere in the organization. Seems complex, but I am reminded how many complex systems, such as a flock of birds in flight, are described by relatively simple rule structures.

When you think of how many organizations operate on a “need-to-know” basis, or how, at one extreme, spy and intelligence agencies compartmentalize information to purposely keep an organization “unconscious” you can begin to get a feel for how big a challenge it might be.

_____________________________________________________________________

Brook, Andrew and Raymont, Paul, “The Unity of Consciousness”, The  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta  (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries/consciousness-unity/&gt;.

Buzsáki, G., 2007, Connections The structure of Consciousness, Nature  2007, 446, 267

© 2011 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

June 13, 2011 at 12:56 pm

One Response

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  1. Champion article Jeff.
    What role do you think approaches like Ushahidi play in this?

    MATTHEW H LOXTON

    June 13, 2011 at 4:43 pm


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