Cognitive Theories of Corporations

Posted: January 17, 2010 at 7:34 pm in cognition, management

One of the topics I want to think more about is organizational cognition aka how organizations think, and how to design an intelligent organization. For some reason, I was thinking about this today, and made a connection to standard theories of cognition that I hadn’t made before.

Let’s start with Descartes’s view of the world: I think, therefore I am. In this view, consciousness is what fundamentally defines us as human. Our rational, conscious minds take in sensory input, make decisions and execute actions in response. Consciousness and thinking are assumed to be identical. Note: I am aware this is an oversimplification and possibly a mis-statement of Descartes, but that’s what straw men are for – see the Wikipedia entry on the Cartesian theater for a similar take.

This view of how we think has been shown to be incomplete, at best. Books like The User Illusion and On Intelligence describe an unconscious mind which is doing so much processing and filtering that it can often respond without ever involving the conscious mind. One might picture this as a bubbling brew of unconscious perceptions and responses which only rarely permeates the conscious mind.

What was new to me today is how these two views of the human mind might map to theories of corporate management.

The first view of cognition corresponds to the archetypal hierarchical command-and-control corporate structure, with the executive team corresponding to the conscious mind. All major decisions are brought to the CEO or executive team, a decision is made, and instructions are fired off to the rest of the company to execute. Once decisions have been made, processes can be put in place to ensure that such decisions are made consistently without the need to bring them to the executives again, much like McDonald’s has its three-ring binder which specifies every aspect of running a fast food franchise in a completely standardized way.

It’s less clear what would be the management equivalent of the second view of cognition. I think it’s closer to my idea of what an intelligent organization might look like, with self-organizing teams that band together to achieve a common goal. In such an organization, managers might not be hierarchical decision-makers, but instead “exception handlers” who trouble shoot problems that are not handled well by the existing teams (for some reason, I’m picturing the Wolf from Pulp Fiction here). This would be the analogue of the conscious mind only being involved in decisions where there is no established cognitive subroutine. In such an organization, most things would bubble along, being handled by the teams, and only rarely would be surfaced to the “conscious mind” of executive management.

Of course, this is an overly broad analogy, and figuring out what such an organization would look like in practice is really difficult (how do we balance between surfacing problems when needed and keeping the critical decision-makers from being overwhelmed?). But I thought it was interesting to explicitly draw the cognition analogy to organizations and see what that might imply about management. I’ll have to think about this some more. And, of course, I’d welcome any thoughts you have.

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