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Apr 22, 2019

The Third Kind of Intelligence

A recent HBO documentary Future of Work shows how computers and humans are intelligent in different ways. For example the world-class chess play is hard for humans, but easy for computers. Yet a task like picking up an apple off a table without crashing it, is still very hard for a computer. Similarly, organizations can be thought of as another, third kind of intelligence, different from that of an individual human and of a computer. Theirs is the intelligence of the third kind. Certain things are easy for humans or computers, but hard for organizations, and vice versa.

Take memory, for example. Humans are very good at marking important memories with emotional markers, and wiping out everything else. Computers never forget anything, as long as they have enough storage and a retrieval system. Organizations remember routine, repeatable processes very well. In general, you will get consistent, more or less efficient treatment when asking for travel reimbursement. Your paycheck will generally come on time. At universities, classes will be scheduled, and grades given to students, degrees conferred, and faculty evaluated. However, organizations are bad at learning new things. For example, a university decided that all event announcements will be access-friendly, and offer accommodations. Yet it is not happening, because there is no routine yet to make sure it happens. Just a commitment, a decision to do something work for individual human being, but not for an organization. It needs to establish a routine, otherwise nothing will happen. The trick needed is something like this: OK, where all events come to be announced? Well, there are newsletters sent by Communications. That’s the one control point where we can enforce the new procedure. So, someone has to be told in writing, that from now on it is an extra check, an extra requirement. And by the way, the deadline for announcements has to be pushed back, for we need a week to schedule a captioner or an interpreter.

Organizations rely on written policies as a special kind of memory, but those are very imperfect, often contradictory, hard to find, and slow to update. Moreover, these little proсedural tweaks tend to accumulate over time, making organizations slow and inefficient. Every little procedure makes sense, taken altogether, they may become too much.

Organizations, just like computers, are very bad at forgetting. Once a policy and procedure is established and institutionalized, it keeps going even if the original impetus is forgotten. One example I wrote about is the catalog; there are many more. Individual humans are much more adaptable. Once a routine becomes obsolete, they are able to ignore it, and eventually forget. Computers can be rebooted, and all the software junk wiped out, but this doesn't happen with organizations. They have deep structural memories, which is both a blessing and a curse.

Organizations are both dumber and smarter than humans and computers that comprise them. They are incredible for coordinating specialized efforts of multiple individuals and machines for a large and complex task. Nothing of importance can be achieved without organizations. However, many of their species are denied the gift of mortality, which can also be understood as the gift of reset. Forgetting and death are friends of the human and machine intelligence. They both prevent clogging and excessive growth. Organizations are immortal like gods, and like gods they suffer from knowing too much, and failing to adapt.

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