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The Brain as a Model Organization

By | Food for thought | No Comments
We are going through an inflection point into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, our systems and environment are changing at an exponential rate, knowledge is doubling almost every day and we are beginning to see a merge between the biological, digital, and physical. These bring about unprecedented effects to entire systems of business and governance.
Every unit, from individuals to organizations, is being required to innovate and come up with creative ways to stay relevant. We have already started to see many organizations restructuring for faster adaptability, with a growing shift from very rigid hierarchical structures to flatter structures, and the implementation of methodologies such as Lean, Agile and Design Thinking.
There is also a growing trend in biomimicry; scientists have started to look for inspiration for our own systems by looking at the designer of the most evolved systems in our world: nature.
This led me to the question:
What things in nature could organizations look towards for inspiration?
I decided to break down the concept of an organization and found it to be no more than a network of people working towards a common goal. If we look then at our human organizations through the lens of network theory, wouldn’t it make sense to find the most effective networks we know and model after them?
One of these I believe to be the brain. This intricate network we have yet to fully understand has had hundreds of thousands if not millions of years of evolution to come to where it stands today – master creator on Earth (after nature itself of course). The networks of neurons carrying electric pulses inside our heads have brought everything from whole civilizations to economic systems to intelligent machines into existence. Thanks to our brains we have positioned ourselves at the very top of the food chain and taken control of the planet. What then, could this network teach us in our organizations to mimic such success?
The brain has more in common with our organizational structures than we think. Modern neuroscience has shown “the brain is a collection of distinct modules (grouped, highly connected neurons) performing specific functions rather than a unified system.” Sound like a familiar model? This is how many of our own organizations work. The following are my thoughts on how learning from the brain can help us create more effective organizations:

1- Antifragility

This term was coined by Nassim Taleb. In his book on this subject, he explains how things can be fragile, robust or antifragile. Antifragile things are those that gain from disorder or that get better when put under stress. Our brain is antifragile, it learns and gets better through stressors. Stressors and life’s disorder are taken as information by our brain to create models about the world in order to help us strive in it.

Taleb goes on to explain certain characteristics held by antifragile systems. One of these is functional redundancy. In How to Create a Mind Ray Kurzweil explains how the brain builds different layers of neurons with different recognizers for the same object; the brain’s functional redundancy allows it to recognize things and pull things from memory more quickly.

Moreover, although the brain is composed of distinct modules, it makes sure to share some vital data in all modules so that if one fails, another is able to take over. This is why when we suffer from a brain injury, our brain is able to rewire or putting it in network terms rearrange the network in order to take over the lost functions.

In the increasingly unpredictable and exponentially changing world we are living in, organizations need to learn how to be antifragile. An example use of functional redundancy in an organization could be having more people trained and knowledgeable of certain activities. While consulting on organizational development at a construction company I was able to see how it suffered because too much information was concentrated on one or two employees rather than spread and repeated amongst a larger group. This meant that if at any point those two employees could not respond to the problem, nobody in the company could resolve it. It does not mean everybody is a specialist in everything, but there needs to be a shared foundation so that if one part of the organizational brain fails, the organization is able to rearrange the network in order to continue functioning.

2- Self-Organization

Nothing in particular controls the brain. The unified mind we feel present emerges from the thousands of lower-level processes operating in parallel.” This means that the brain functions mainly bottom-up rather than top-down as many of our organizations do. Our brain is biologically wired for the success of its organization, being the person or species.

For human networks or organizations, we need to define what that elemental wiring or creed running through every unit will be rather than trying to apply ultimate control. Since we are now dealing with complex problems, we need to be able to implement emergent strategies, and the probability of these occurring is higher through loosely controlled and bottom-up led organizational structures. For many managers, this feels too risky. However, emergence is something you cannot control, for you cannot predict it. The answer here is to foster the environment – think of yourself as a gardener, rather than a craftsman – if a good environment is fostered, then you will grow good “brain modules” within your organization that will be able to respond for you when needed.

Secondly, we must not forget the brain is an organ that has been evolving for a really long time, and evolution means trying different features and keeping those that are naturally selected. If you want your modules to work as a unified mind in your organization you must be able to have them go through an evolution and be able to discard and restructure the components that don’t survive swiftly, that being specific people, ideas or whole teams.

3. Fluid Intelligence

This is known as the ability to “recognize patterns, solve problems, and identify relationships.” These are thought to represent a high performing mind. In fact, Yale neuroscientists can now perform brain scans to determine one’s intelligence, and the studies show “the more certain regions are talking to one another, the better you’re able to process information quickly and make inferences.”  Although the brain is composed of specialized modules, these do not exist in silos and have continuous communication with one another.

I worked at a university, and one of the most shocking things to see was how defined the silos were and how restricted the flow of information was. This was a pity because one could see the missed opportunities due to the barriers for collaboration between different schools and departments. A larger network gives you an advantage, this is what we often call the network effect and it is what keeps companies like Google and Facebook at the top of their markets. However, this network effect works because it is allowing these companies to have a higher level of information, thus giving them a positive asymmetry of information over the rest of us. This is why it is easier to get a job if you have a strong network than if you don’t, because you are more likely to find out about opportunities, and get connected to other people with special information, than if you didn’t have the network. If the different teams are not communicating with each other, they are limiting the information the whole has access to and thus reducing the organization’s overall fluid intelligence. Startups are normally better at this, while we still see government and corporations lagging behind and thus struggling to innovate at a fast enough speed.

4. Curation

The brain can be fooled by information, as Parrish puts it in his blog on mental models “your mind is at the mercy of what it’s fed”, and so we spend our lives trying to curate the information we feed it. This should be no different in our organizations. Managers need to be more mindful of what its teams are learning and the information they’re taking in. You cannot stop your employees from taking in certain information, but you can certainly choose what information you feed them and have them learn. With the increasing rate of information being produced, knowledge curation will become exponentially more important for individuals and organizations, and so knowledge management systems will become more ubiquitous.  In the Age of Information, where knowledge and insights are your competitive advantage, thinking about how to manage the knowledge that is taken in, produced, and shared within your organization can really enhance your company’s output.

These are only a few characteristics of the brain which I believe we can learn from, and as we understand this incredible network better I believe we will find many more. I think the most important point here is that there is much to learn from the most evolved structures in our environment when designing our own, and it is vital to have an interdisciplinary mind in order to be able to look at these and connect the dots – after all, it has long been said that creativity is combinatorial.

The world is changing at unprecedented speed and with it bringing a world of excitement, technological opportunities, and new knowledge – the question is, what are we going to do it? Please let me know what you think, and if you see other things in nature or in the brain that we can learn from to make our organizations better.