6 steps to success in the cognitive age
I would not be surprised if you are suffering from digital fatigue. Digital this, digital that. Disrupt here, transform there. My sense is that we are hitting ‘peak digital’, a result brought about by over-usage of the term coupled with under-execution by those in positions of authority.
This is exacerbated by a general misunderstanding of the term digital. Broadly such misunderstanding falls into two categories:
- Digital is digitisation
- Digital is Industry 4.0.
Both of these are a subset of digital, but neither capture the important distinction that digital is less about automation and more about thriving in the post-industrial (ie digital) age.
And perhaps the biggest surprise is that it is less about technology and more about people. So much so that we can think of the digital age as the cognitive age.
Some big tech players use this term to flag the growing significance of AI. Whilst this is steadily, but slowly, becoming more significant, it is still only a sideshow to the main event, ie the harnessing of our human cognitive capacity.
We need humans, for now
I believe there is a period that will last circa one decade whereby humans are critical to organisational value production. During this time, emerging technologies will be used to augment our cognitive capability. Beyond this time, the algorithms and robots will be able to do what we can do, even when we are operating at the peak of our cognitive capacity.
At that point it is ‘game over’ in respect of our economic relevance, and the commencement of a post-work utopia / dystopia (TBD).
So, let’s not dwell too much on the future. Ask any fighter pilot, zen monk or boxer, the present is what counts. Here are six cognitive approaches you can take to optimise your organisation’s ongoing sustainability.
Maximise the cognitive capacity of your people
As algorithms and robots take on more organisational responsibility, the workers will need to use their cognitive capacity to stay in play. Smart organisations will harvest the associated creativity to make their offerings more compelling.
Thus organisations need to plug the cognitive leaks that lead to poor use of the workers’ brainpower. Such cognitive plugging will include:
- Better workplace design.
- Better management and leadership.
- IT systems that boost rather than hinder productivity.
- Elimination of rules designed purely to let the workers know who is in charge – eg. enforcement of work hours, where work happens and dress code.
The less brain power expended on the trivial, irritating and unnecessary, the more can be applied to doing great work.
Those that get this right, can then start to think in terms of marginal cognitive gains.
Minimise the cognitive burden on your customers
Customers have brains too. These are under assault from every angle. There is a real opportunity to help your customers by (ironically) reducing their choices and making engagement with your organisation simple and stress-free.
In a time-starved, pressurised world, we will opt for products and services that require the least cognitive demand to acquire.
Smart organisations will endeavour to ingrain simple behaviours in their customers that lead to a habitual buying response. The customer is happy because they didn’t have to think about the purchase, and you are happy that this thoughtless behaviour resulted in a purchase from your organisation.
Use AI to support your cognitive initiative
Identify those areas of your business processes where your people are currently spending much of their time doing tedious work. Accounting comes to mind. Use AI to take some of the load off, for example, tax management. Let the software do the bulk of the work and let humans handle the exceptions or where the algorithm has declared a degree of uncertainty about its recommendations.
In general, it would be wise to simplify where you can. Possibly your back office functions have developed their own arcane ways of doing things and in turn have spent a fortune installing highly configured and thus very expensive (financially and cognitively) enterprise applications.
Revisit your processes and revert to industry ‘standards’, unless you genuinely believe that deviation will yield extra value.
Develop a strong sense of purpose
If your people have a strong sense of your organisation’s purpose, they will not wrestle with the reasons they are working for you; thus freeing up cognitive capacity.
This will likely reduce staff churn, which is the ultimate cognitive leak.
Developing a noble purpose with a coherent narrative will act as a cognitive magnet for both talent and customers. It’s a natural value-add.
Exhibit trust at every opportunity
It is no surprise that trust underpins reputation and that reputation is a key survivability marker. My recommendation is that the care allocated to reputation in the customers’ eyes needs to be counter balanced with the expectations of your people.
In respect of employees, we are not so much running out of people. However, there is a shortfall in those that can apply their brain in a value-creating manner and so the war for talent will become more intense. Thus, we must not take our people for granted and so must work constantly to earn and retain the trust of current and prospective employees.
Imagine the wasted cognitive capacity of a workforce where each person is running a background mental task that continuously raises concerns such as:
- I am not sure this organisation respects me.
- My organisation has questionable ethics.
- My boss treats me like a slave.
- I wonder what it would be like to work for one of our competitors.
Contrast that with the belief that the organisation is treating me like a world class cognitive athlete and is working hard to help me discover my true cognitive potential. At some point, your competitors will offer that.
In fact that is what the Fang+ league are doing to you in respect of your best people right now.
Are you happy for your organisation to be a ‘feeder club’ for the Premier league titans.
Are you a cognitive leader?
I would encourage you as a business leader to view your organisation from a cognitive perspective. You would be wise to reflect specifically on the responsibilities of your Marketing, HR and IT functions. This may necessitate a radical overhaul, particularly if they are more focused on maintaining the status quo, rather than adjusting to the new realities of the cognitive age.
Keep in mind that reflection is a cognitive action.
If you feel uncomfortable stepping away from the hamster wheel, you might not be best placed to lead the cognitive charge.