Collaborate Cognative Surplus

Posted on by Brandon Klein

TED Talk about the use of games, cognative surplus and collaboration 

For decades, technology encouraged people to squander their time and intellect as passive consumers. Today, tech has finally caught up with human potential. In Cognitive Surplus, Internet guru Clay Shirky forecasts the thrilling changes we will all enjoy as new digital technology puts our untapped resources of talent and goodwill to use at last.

Since we Americans were suburbanized and educated by the postwar boom, we've had a surfeit of intellect, energy, and time-what Shirky calls a cognitive surplus. But this abundance had little impact on the common good because television consumed the lion's share of it-and we consume TV passively, in isolation from one another. Now, for the first time, people are embracing new media that allow us to pool our efforts at vanishingly low cost. The results of this aggregated effort range from mind expanding-reference tools like Wikipedia-to lifesaving-such as, which has allowed Kenyans to sidestep government censorship and report on acts of violence in real time.

Shirky argues persuasively that this cognitive surplus-rather than being some strange new departure from normal behavior-actually returns our society to forms of collaboration that were natural to us up through the early twentieth century. He also charts the vast effects that our cognitive surplus-aided by new technologies-will have on twenty-first-century society, and how we can best exploit those effects. Shirky envisions an era of lower creative quality on average but greater innovation, an increase in transparency in all areas of society, and a dramatic rise in productivity that will transform our civilization.

The potential impact of cognitive surplus is enormous. As Shirky points out, Wikipedia was built out of roughly 1 percent of the man-hours that Americans spend watching TV every year. Wikipedia and other current products of cognitive surplus are only the iceberg's tip. Shirky shows how society and our daily lives will be improved dramatically as we learn to exploit our goodwill and free time like never before. 


Where was I? Oh yes, information doesn’t want to be free. You know something, sometimes I feel the same about knowledge. It doesn’t want to be free. As Paula Thornton said some years ago, maybe knowledge doesn’t want to be managed either.

Ever since I read Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus earlier this year, I’ve been thinking about the book’s implications for “knowledge management” in the enterprise. Which is why I wrote what I did yesterday, and planned to follow up today. Which is what I’m doing here.

Let’s start with knowledge. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to define knowledge in the enterprise as “information about anything and everything that makes our customers’ lives easier; as a corollary, information about anything and everything that helps us make our customers’ lives easier”. I feel that such a definition is in keeping with the ethos of Peter Drucker’s immortal saying “People make shoes. Not money“. If we make our customers’ lives easier, they will thank us for it. With their attention, their time, their loyalty, and even their money.

Using this definition, the management of knowledge can be defined as “the process by which we create, collect and share information that makes our customers’ lives easier”.

So who should be involved in such a process? Who would know the most about what would make our customers’ lives easier?

Our customers.

If you accept that logic, then the customer should be at the heart of any knowledge management system.

Who else? People who deal with the customer. Those who “touch” the customer. Followed by people who know something about the products or services those customers want or sometimes even need. Followed by people who know something about the process by which the products or services get created, delivered and exchanged for value.

Which means pretty much everybody in the enterprise. The extended enterprise. All the way to the customer.

Okay, so that’s the what and the who of knowledge management. Let’s take a look at the how.

One way of defining the how is to look at the things that failed in the past.

  • The right people weren’t involved.
  • Access and edit permissions were hierarchical rather than networked, preserving “expertise”
  • Information was inaccurate; without scale, the costs to correct were too high.
  • Information was missing: only text could be captured, image and sound were missing.
  • Information was out of date; production, reproduction and distribution costs were prohibitive, reviews were infrequent.
  • Information was inaccessible. Analogue, poorly indexed, and hard to copy.

Today, all these failures can be dealt with. Scale is not an issue for companies designed to make proper use of the internet. Network-based architectures are inherently more flexible than their hierarchical predecessors: role- and function- based permissioning is simpler to implement. Smartphones allow us to capture all types of media, not just text. Connectivity is pretty much ubiquitous. And the information is held digitally in the cloud, taggable, searchable, retrievable. From anywhere. Anytime.

Taking a leaf out of Clay’s book:

We have the means. Cloud computing infrastructures. Smart phones. Cloud services that allow people to converse with each other, share and annotate digital objects, improve upon them.

We have the motives. Human beings are inherently social, we like sharing. We enjoy the bonding, the peer respect, the recognition. No man is an iland, intire of it selfe.

We just haven’t had the opportunity before. Enlightened bosses are now providing that opportunity, by focusing on outcomes rather than input timesheets, allowing their staff to determine what happens with their cognitive surpluses.

Knowledge workers, part of the tertiary sector, are intrinsically different from those employed in the historical primary and secondary sectors of agriculture and manufacturing. Their work is lumpy, amorphous, misshapen, non-linear.

This is not a new problem. Many “professionals” faced real challenges of scheduling and prioritisation, and found it impossible to have true predictability in workflow. Ask a doctor. A nurse. A teacher. A policeman or fireman. Their lives have been about lumpiness and unpredictability and non-linearity.

But we were stuck in the manufacturing mindset, so we pretended these anomalies didn’t exist. And we designed our education and healthcare institutions as if they were industrial in origin. Look what they’ve done to my song, ma.

Today is another day. We now have means, motive and opportunity. All we have to do is to allow people to make use of their cognitive surpluses. Focus on outcomes rather than inputs. And make everything we do centre on the customer.

Originally publish by JP Rangaswami on Confused of Calcutta