The brain, the Internet and the future of work

by eskokilpi

It is not uncommon to think that knowing is something that goes on in the brain. Perhaps astonishingly, the evidence that it is really so is not quite clear. Some scientists have recently expressed doubts. The mind, they have argued, is not a thing to which a place can be allocated. Intellectual life is essentially social and interactive, they say. Life is carried on through communication between people. These researchers claim that interactions are not secondary by-products of thinking. They are the primary sites of that activity.

The structures of the brain and the Internet look the same. In the brain there are neurons that link as a result of being active at the same time. This firing together creates a connection that increases the strength of their connection. On the Internet there are servers and people that are linked in temporary interaction, sometimes as a result of being inspired and interested in the same topic. This short-term communication sometimes leads to a longer relationship increasing the strength of the connection. No neuron links with all the other neurons at the same time. No server links with all the other servers at the same time, and no one person interacts with all the other people at the same time. So all communication is always contextual and local, whether in the brain, in an organization, or on the Internet. However, local here does not mean spatially local. The nodes in local interaction can be physically located far away, in different parts of the world. The Internet redefines what the local, in local interaction, means.

We often think of individuals as independent and self-contained. The view suggested here sees individuals as nodes of the complex networks they form, co-creating themselves and the reality in which they participate.

Our social interactions play a role in shaping our brain. We know now that repeated experiences sculpt the synaptic connections and rewire our brain. Our relationships gradually frame the neural circuitry. Being chronically depressed by others or being emotionally nourished and enriched has lifelong impacts. This is of course unwelcome news to someone whose relationships tend towards the negative but it also points to where the possibilities for repairing the situation might be. And they are not inside a person’s head.

We can no longer see our minds as independent and separate but as thoroughly social. The human mind is not located and stored in an individual. Rather, what we have called the individual mind is something that arises continuously in relationships between people.

This is why we need to focus on communication practices in addition to, and perhaps even instead of, communication technologies. Communication starts with acknowledgement. It is about paying attention to others and making room for them in our lives. Our attention should be on questions such as who is talking and who is being silenced, who is included and who is being excluded, who I acknowledge and who acknowledges me?

In a corporate context, an organization is still metaphorically a picture of walls defining who is inside and who is outside a particular box. Who is included and who is excluded. Who we are and who they are. This way of thinking was fine in repetitive work where it was relatively easy to define what needed to be done and by whom as a definition of the quantity of labor and quality of capabilities. As a result, management practice created two communication designs: the process chart and reporting lines.

In creative, knowledge based work it is increasingly difficult to know the best mix of capabilities and tasks in advance. In many firms reporting routines are already the least important part of communication. At the same time, much more flexibility than the process maps allow is needed. The variables of creative work have increased beyond systemic models of process design. It is time to learn from the brain and the Internet.

What if the organization really should be an ongoing process of emergent organizing? Instead of thinking about the organization as a structure, let’s think about contextual communication. If we take this view we don’t think about walls but about connections and how groups are formed around what we actually do. The new task is to make possible very fast linking and thus to make it as easy as possible to get the best contributions from the whole network.

The focal point in organizing is not the organizational entity one belongs to, or the manager one reports to, but the reason that brings people together. What purposes, activities and tasks unite us? What is the cause of interdependence and group formation? These contexts should create transparent, permeable boundaries between them, not walls. Instead of the topology of organizational boxes that are often the visual representation of work, the architecture of work is a live graph of interdependence and accountability. Yes, accountability, because the interaction itself constrains and not only enables the people in the interaction.

Changing the way we communicate is the way we change organizations. Changing the conversation is not a major programme or change process. It is about understanding and influencing participation. It is sometimes about new connections, new conversations, and new people actively taking part. It is often about asking different kinds of questions and pointing to different kinds of issues.

The human brain has more than 100 billion neurons. There are around 3 billion Internet users at the moment. So we are still far away from the cognitive potential of the brain when it comes to possible link combinations of communication between people. But this may be humankind’s most valuable untapped resource!

On any scale we choose to look at things, there can be no change without changes in the patterns of communication.

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More information: Learning rewires the brain.