Cognitive and social presence

by eskokilpi

Have you ever wondered why you don’t see anyone reading a book when you visit companies? We associate reading with finding information and learning, but we also involve qualities such as contemplation, solitude and mental privacy when we think about books.

There is a mental framework that is used when dealing with books, and another distinct mental framework regarding information related practices in the corporate world. Basically, you are not allowed to read a book but you can read a document.

Documents and word processing are part of the mental framework of management today. Documents were born from the needs of a hierarchical, systemic approach to management. Information flowed down from the top in the form of PowerPoint slide decks containing vision statements, Excel sheets with goals and Word documents explaining corporate procedures. Information, which flowed up from the bottom, was used mainly to provide reports and data for managers, helping them to keep their employees accountable and to ensure the smooth operation of the business process.

The framework of computerized word processing is associated with terms like information flows and the sharing of information. This is not something you normally talk about when discussing a book. While a book provides a view of the contemplative mind, documents create a view of controlled content. Do you still ask why you can read a document but you are not allowed to use Facebook?

Instead of predictive process flows, knowledge work in practice follows a very different logic. A senior executive in one of the most successful multinational corporations in the world explained what was going on:

  • There may be a triggering event that needs to be explored.
  • The exploration is performed most efficiently through transparency, wide area engagement and a communal process of distributing the cognitive load of the case.
  • People don’t perform job roles. People participate in tasks. You don’t delegate, you invite!
  • People from the whole community should participate through voluntary self-organization as widely as possible at the same time, not sequentially.
  • The industrial process was long, sequential and divided. The knowledge based process is short, parallel and interactive.
  • As many people as possible with applicable skills should contribute, each spending as little time as possible.
  • Finally, the contributions and comments that are received should integrate into a modular solution than can be iterated.

Knowledge work is about a community-based cognitive presence. But cognition is just part of the answer. Work today is even more about social presence. To manage is to participate in the live conversations.

There cannot be management without a social presence.

A dramatic shift is needed in the mental framework of information, communication and work. Without this changing mindset, no efficient implementation of social media can be made in the corporate world. Work is communication. Conversations and narratives are the new documents. Conversations cannot be controlled. The only way to influence conversations is to take part in them. The most meaningful conversations are the ones where customers voice their views. Those conversations take place outside of the firewall in the new world of mass communication.

As much as we need to associate Facebook with work, we need moments of slower pace. We need to combine the qualities of contemplation, solitude and mental privacy with work.


Thank you Walter Ong. The photo is of an interior detail of the Alvar Aalto architecture in the Academic Bookstore in Helsinki