Organizational Cognition

Over the past seven weeks (good golly, where does the time go?) at Google, I’ve noticed a funny habit of mine. Whenever I overhear a conversation involving something that is related to my team’s work, I drop whatever I’m working on and wander over to listen in. Now, one might guess this is due to my slacker ways and desire to gossip as much as possible, and one would not be entirely incorrect. However, I was listening to one such conversation earlier this week as two of my groupmates were trying to suss out exactly how an analysis should work, and realized that there’s more going on here.

Such conversations are where an organization’s thought processes are made visible (audible?). In other words, if an organization could be perceived as a group mind, then those conversations are the equivalent of watching the synapses between neurons firing. It’s the only way to get insight into how the group mind operates. This may sound a little wacky, but I’m inspired by Edwin Hutchins’s book Cognition in the Wild, where he extracts observations about cognition by watching how a group mind in the form of a navigation team operated. In the best case, meetings can be a reflection of this organizational cognition, an aspect which Peter mentioned in the comments of my meetings post.

So by listening in on such conversations, one can map out how the organization operates. Which assumptions are taken for granted? Who are the stakeholders mentioned regularly as needing to be consulted? How are decisions made in such conversations – is it by consensus, persuasion, or hierarchy? These sorts of observations may not be directly relevant to one’s job, but it’s invaluable to an amateur anthropologist like myself in understanding the different forces that are at work within the organization.

Even better, conversations often arise when new organizational territory is being mapped out, either in the form of current assumptions being questioned, or in the development of a response to a new stimulus. When everything is running smoothly and there’s a defined process for how to do things, there is no need for conversation as everybody knows how to do their job. But when one reaches the limits of one’s understanding, then one has to consult another person, and such consultations are where somebody like me can see how the organization, in the form of its constituents, learns. To use the framework of Latour, conversations are where we can see the organizational Collective perform the Consultation process, where it grapples with an outside influence (what Latour calls “Perplexity”). Seeing the Collective go through a round of growing and learning is exactly what I mean by saying that conversations are a window into the cognitive process of the organization.

This is also exactly the sort of fuzzy stuff that I once would have scorned as a hard scientist and logic-driven engineer. These sorts of ephemeral observations about an organization are difficult to quantify and would not have even been on my radar ten years ago. And now they are the sorts of things that capture the value I bring to an organization, as my ability to attend meetings and listen to passing conversations and extract this sort of organizational knowledge is a testament to my ever-improving observational skills. I liked Rands’s description of it as the culture chart, as opposed to the formal organizational chart. The culture chart isn’t written down anywhere and is supremely fuzzy – it can only be intuited by reading between the lines of conversations.

So that’s my rationalization for why listening in on conversations when starting a new job is important. It’s the best way to understand how an organization operates: which assumptions are stated (and more importantly, not stated), which stakeholders matter and which can be ignored, etc. And, in case you’re wondering, all this listening to conversations is why I have to stay at work until 9pm a couple nights a week to catch up on my individual contributions. Once I am more efficient at my assigned tasks and up to speed on how Google works as an organization, I hope to get my hours down to a more reasonable number.