Monday, March 30, 2009

The Deep Brain and the Quick Brain

Foundations for social network strategy in a connected world

I have spent the past two years leading internal collaboration-based change management programs. Slowly, the conversations are developing, pushing us to the next issue: how to leverage the internal conversations to find a right voice for the corporation in the social web ?

This is not an easy question, and it does not solely revolve around marketing or PR, because, beyond general conversations (that are not always very well considered), what is just begining to happen within the companies I help is new capability development. And I still do not see that happening in the wider social web, at least not to the same level, unless there is a well identified corporation behind (open innovation, for instance).

In the past few days, a post by Brian Solis (the Micro Disruption Theory and the Social Effect) and a tweet by Ross Dawson (using twitter to build the global brain) inspired me to finish organizing my thoughts.

I understand that a global brain is indeed under construction, that I will call the Quick Brain. To participate meaningfully and profitably in this quick brain, corporations must strive to become Deep Brains and then learn to master a new voice. In this world, strategy would revolve around Engaging, Deepening and Twitting (or socializing).

The Quick Brain

The sheer size of online links, searches and conversations has helped rise many voices that wonder whether we are still able to think by ourselves in this environment (see Is Google Making Us Stupid, by Nicholas Carr). My own thought has been that yes, by linking, conversing, searching, we at least loose some of the time we previously had for deep thinking.

And yet, I for one spend a huge amount of time in this new game, and I would say that the share of global attention being devoted to the web is growing fast. The new skills that I am developing (quick reading, tool switching, quick writing, fast thinking process switch, ...) are key to participating in the conversation. But what exactly am I doing, what am I accomplishing in this web ?

The description that Brian Solis makes of Contextual Networks was very helpful in making me understand that role. As I see it, when I participate in a conversation or just forward some information that was interesting or helpful (RT or liking), I am part of an ephemere contextual network, in which I am bound by topic and time to other people. This network is based on existing connexions (friends, contacts, links, followers, depending on the social platform), yet different from those connexions, and it serves a specific purpuse (forwarding a piece of information and increasing resonance).

It is possible therefore to say that the accelerating linking of people in the web is similar to the development of a new kind of infrastructure, let’s call it the human infrastructure. Its objective is to accelerate the transmission of information from one person to another, using existing links and search engines, but also those contextual networks defined by Brian Solis. The web has hypertext links for individual usage. The human infrastructure has contextual networks that it uses to, yes, think (in want of a better word to call this process).

I could then say that, when I tweet, blog, comment, RT or contribute, I am an individual component of this Quick Brain.

Why do I call this brain the Quick Brain ? Because it seems to me that its primary purpose is to accelerate the rythm of information/knowledge sharing, thus provoking insights, inspiration, learnings, ... in the members that are touched by that sharing. And it also seems to me that, in order to think deeply and organize my thoughts, I need to disconnect (or at least, partially disconnect). This brain goes fast, and it inspires or surprises or helps learn. It does more than sharing but does it think ?

To answer that question I would say that deep thinking rests with individuals and organized groups or communities. In that sense, it is clear that companies, much like individuals, are supposed to think. Or at least think deeper than the quick brain.

The Deep Brain.

I make a difference between corporations operating and corporations thinking. Corporations need to be good at operating their business models and also at advancing ideas and concepts, and later use them either to develop services (R&D) or to solve client problems. Increasingly, it’s their ability to continuously advance ideas and solve problems, and transform new ideas and solutions into lean operations, that makes a difference.

The knowledge economy is not a new concept and corporations are used to developing ideas and solutions. What is then different with the arrival in corporations of social computing, E2.0 or, as I like to call it, improved and people-centered collaboration (I have already said that we are entering a time of People-Centered Organizations)?

The main difference is the soft infrastructure that the companies are developing. Yesterday, and contrary to what happens in the Quick Brain, there was a Knowledge Infrastructure in most companies, but not yet a Human Infrastructure. Companies were (most still are) knowledge-centered. With the arrival of social networks and other social computing tools, the corporations have an opportunity to recenter themselves around people or talent.

I would say the Deep Brain is the new, people-centered, corporate working environment that leverages both the strengths of the organization and of the social networks. Like the Quick Brain, the Deep Brain has in speed a fundamental asset, and yet it strongly differs from the Quick Brain:
  • People (employees) have the ability to create their contextual networks depending on their interest or they can participate in existing contextual networks. Still, many of these contextual networks are long-lived (existing functions or departements), and they maintain strong ties with a number of employees; the attention spams are wider, and people concentrate on a limited number of topics because they have a result to reach;
  • The number of topics itself is limited, and most of them concentrate around the professional field of the organization;
  • People (employees) have developed strong common ways of working. Not only do they share a common knowledge, they are also able to work together very efficiently (today, this is what we call a corporate culture);
  • Most important, to my mind, employees do not engage in conversations or contextual networks only based on their personal interest or attention; they engage in these contextual networks based on their professional responsibility and interest.
When I started thinking about the difference between the Quick Brain and the Deep Brain, I was thinking that there would be a difference in tools: twitter would more useful in the quick brain and blog in the deep brain. Actually, I think now that the important thing is usage, that very often comes after tools. It is how people in a corporation use these tools in consistent ways that will make much of the efficiency of their deep collective thinking.

Engaging, deepening, connecting

How then to leverage your Deep Brain to make a difference in the social web ? That is what I plan to work on for the next months. But I would give a number of insights:
  • It is more important to engage your people than to train them;
  • Only based on a special kind of motivation is there a chance for collective deep thinking;
  • That ability for collective deep thinking will probably be a key skill, and it will be a part of your employees personal reputation, therefore making a strong impact on your corporate reputation.
Your people will be ready to connect, based on skill and reputation.

How do you think this distinction between deep brain and quick brain is helpful for a social network strategy design ?