As I mentioned, we were meeting on Consciousness, and Jerry Talley led us to talk about organizational consciousness. He started by mentioning the film The Corporation (which I have not seen; we have children, not a life :) and how it proposes using psychiatric assessment on the behavior of organizations (self-obsessed, ruthless, etc) and concludes that on the whole organizations are psychopaths. This, naturally, is not a ’good thing’, and Jerry was curious how organizations could be raised in consciousness.
Jerry proposed four critical elements necessary for corporate consciousness: perception of both the external environment and of internal states and processes, ongoing memory of corporate activity, models for shared meaning (yes!), and a capacity to experiment. I’d tease the last part out into an ability to reflect and a willingness to act up on it. There’s certainly an analogy between individual consciousness and organizational consciousness!
Jerry argued that most organizations have none or few of these, and was eager to hear of any one who had all of them. Scary, really. Certainly we know organizations are working on beginning to capture memory (knowledge management), and increasingly we see corporations trying to track competitive intelligence in real time. We’re using stories to create and share understanding, and companies are beginning to realize the need to make their values explicit, though we don’t do enough about using models (but I’ve gone off on this enough already).
The last issue is the reflection and willingness to act on it. Of course, you can’t do the latter if you haven’t done the former. But that reflection doesn’t happen. We talked about a number of large well-known organizations whose culture doesn’t let them admit failure. We all know the managers who think that time for reflection is a waste. Even if you have ideas, the ability to take a chance is fraught with risk for many. We also noted, on the positive side, Google’s support (mandate?) for at least their folks to spend 20% of their time on their own projects.
It was clear that our societal focus on short-term shareholder returns is in contrast to the long-term success of organizations (and for society, but that’s another story; check out David Batstone in the meantime). If you’re looking for the greatest short-term return, your decisions can’t focus on other important elements like impact on society and the world, or even on long-term success (I was reminded of Akio Morita’s (chairman of Sony) analysis of Western business in The Japan That Can Say No).
The point being here that, except for a few isolated fits and starts, our organizations are not functioning optimally (and that’s true in the moment, not just in the long term). It’s partly an issue of organizational culture, partly a situation that technology can help. I’m happy if we work on both together. You really have to, after all.