I always liked Mr. Spock.
This was in spite of his profoundly stupid ongoing arguments with Dr. McCoy about the value of emotions in daily life.
[If you’re lost, you never watched Star Trek. I can’t help you. You’ll just have to pick it up from context.]
It’s our emotions that cause us to want. Decisions are about people getting what they want. If Mr. Spock has no emotions he doesn’t want. No wants, no decisions.
And not only people: A flatworm in a T-maze has to decide whether to turn left or right. It does so based on whether, in past trials, it encountered food or electric shocks in one or the other direction. It “wants” food and also wants to not experience another electric shock, and it makes its decision based on those wants, although, as we haven’t yet achieved telepathic rapport with planaria, of necessity we’re using “want” fairly loosely.
One could, were one an argumentative sort, counter that we haven’t yet achieved telepathic rapport with each other, either. We each might know what we want, and, for that matter, that we want, but we can only infer the same about each other.
When Scott Lee and I wrote The Cognitive Enterprise we wrestled with the challenge of building organizations that act with purpose — that make similar or complementary sorts of decisions no matter where in the organization each decision is made.
Or, avoiding the passive voice, no matter who in the organization makes each decision.
One of the challenges: Comparing humans to planarians, while we’re undoubtedly more sophisticated than flatworms in understanding what we want, we’re alike in the fundamentals, like wanting food when we’re hungry and wanting to avoid pain when something might hurt.
Organizations? Not so much, and in fact the more we stare at an organization the more our heads hurt trying to infer what “want” might mean.
The naïve among us might imagine that, narrowing our focus to for-profit businesses, what they want is more profits.
That view lasts only as long as it takes to recognize that business decisions are made by individuals and committees.
Imagine you’re one of those individuals. Now imagine you’re in the organizational equivalent of a T-maze. Turn left and the business makes more profits, but, it does so in part by defenestrating you. Turn right and profits diminish but you survive the experience and get a bonus.
Multiply by the number of decision-makers and you realize, there’s no reason to think the aggregate of all business decisions will be to increase profits. It will be to maximize the personal survival rates and compensation of those in a position to influence them.
But we’re straying from our focus, which isn’t the nature of the decisions made by an organization. Our focus is on whether an organization can and does “want” the way humans (and flatworms) want.
The answer, I think, is a resounding no. Humans and all other biological decision-makers want in the sense of an emotional need. Emotions are what set the targets for our decisions, which is why Mr. Spock’s emphasis on logic was misplaced: Without emotion, we can’t want anything and neither could he.
Logic is how some people (and most Vulcans) sometimes go about making decisions that get us what we want.
So ignore phrases like “corporate greed” and similarly meaningless formulations. There’s nothing about how an organization is constructed that would let us imagine it experiences anything that corresponds to greed or any other emotion.
The closest counterparts are its governance and its culture.
Its governance is the set of rules, guidelines, and organizational sub-structures … committees and councils … that its board of directors and management establish to encourage consistency in an organization’s decision-making.
Governance starts by assigning the authority to make decisions, typically includes prescriptions for how those authorities are supposed to make them, and somewhere along the way also defines what want means: The organization might want more profits, mission achievement, or the recently demoted increase in shareholder value.
In a cognitive enterprise, as you know if you read the book, culture is the new governance. Culture is how we do things around here. It’s the sum, substance, and consequence of the assumptions — conscious and unconscious — and other mental habits shared throughout the organization.
A cognitive enterprise — one where culture is the primary form of governance — might not want in the human sense.
But it has at least a chance of acting as if it did.