Nobel Prize winner, psychologist, an behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman has dedicated much of his 50+ year career to studying human judgement and decision making. In his best selling book “Thinking Fast and Slow“, he describes two primary systems of thinking – figuratively named “System 1” and “System 2“.
• System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
• System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.
The labels of System 1 and System 2 are widely used in psychology, but I go further than most in this book, which you can read as a psychodrama with two characters.
When we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do. Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is, the automatic System 1 is the hero of the book. I describe System 1 as effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2. The automatic operations of System 1 generate surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, but only the slower System 2 can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps.
Parallels between the Human Brain and the Global Brain
While neuroscience races ahead, continuing to unlock more secrets about how our brain works and functions (still largely a mystery), parallels continue to grow between how neurons fire to relay information and instructions throughout our nervous system, and how information flows between individuals and organizations in an increasingly connected world.
Concepts and considerations such as “the hive mind”, “global brain”, “collective intelligence” and similar continue to pique the interests of leaders, strategists, scientists, and futurists.
If we consider for a moment how information is stored, shared, and relayed across today’s enterprises in order to make billions of tiny decisions daily, we begin to see the parallels between independent brains of individuals and the central processing hubs of organizations, and the world at large. It is interesting to consider how we might learn by re-framing our view of today’s interconnected world, and it’s organizations and institutions.
In the early days of the industrial revolution, people assumed the roles of both System 1 and System 2 in the information processing of enterprise activities. System 1 actors were used as cogs in the assembly line to do repetitive work. A small fraction played the role of system 2, thinking about ways to optimize, expand, explore, and create new methods of value creation and exchange. Both were critical. Tools played an important role in the output, but people were at the core of the giant industrial machine.
Technological “agents” mature
During the last century, we’ve transitioned growing volumes of our repetitive work away from humans and to technology. (Remember telephone switch operators, stadium scoreboard operators, banks with no atms, and stores and airports with no self checkin/out function(s)?).
The pace of this transition is becoming more pronounced. The capabilities of our technological “agents” are becoming more sophisticated. Robots are set to displace bartenders and farms of the future will be nearly totally automated. Algorithms are fast approaching the ability to learn and think as well or better than humans.
The Global Subconscious
So as the move towards collective intelligence happens, technology continues to take greater ownership of our collective system 1 behavior. It is increasingly playing the role of the global subconscious, taking ownership of anything and everything that can be automated, freeing up humans to do more processing intensive work. But not everyone is getting the memo.
Anything that can be automated is being automated by technology. While this sentence was just as true 100 years ago, we are now able to automate increasingly complex activities. We see this manifesting itself in the programmatic nature of digital ad buying, and the automation of distributing content, offers, and other interactions. The algorithms of Google and Facebook control what and when people are exposed to.
It is also safe to argue that system 1 is also encroaching on more of our traditionally system 2 behavior (as evidenced by this tweet reading bot that made millions in the options market in a day). This relentless progression has actually led folks like Vivek Wadhwa to conclude that we’re actually heading towards a jobless future. (I disagree, but that’s a post for another day. )
While human capability is relatively static, the processing power, storage capability, and broadband speed and access continues to grow exponentially. We should expect these trends to continue into the foreseeable future.
This dichotomy has profound implications. Have humans and the frenetic pace of innovation actually unleashed “creative destruction” on themselves?
Because technology is able to absorb more and more of our automated, repetitive, high processing activities, what remains to be done by people is the heavy processing work of focused creativity.
At least for the next few decades, people will continue to carry the burden of system 2 thinking and behaviors in the context of the enterprise, and the global brain, as they transition more and more (intelligently) automated work to technology. The subconscious is becoming smarter, stronger, faster, and cheaper so we’re transitioning more of the collective work burden that way, increasingly cannibalizing much of the work that humans have traditionally performed.
What does this ultimately mean?
We’re collectively trying to figure this out. I’ll take a brief stab and I hope that we can build on this together.
A tsunami is subsuming many traditional roles and the tasks and functions associated with them. Focus your efforts on doing what technology cannot. Automated processing, repetitive tasks, traditionally low wage jobs will be displaced by technology. Roles that involve creative and critical thinking, deep human relationships, and induce unique experiences will not. Look to solve problems that computers cannot.
There has been plenty written about how the pace of innovation requires organizations to become more dynamic, more agile, and that they tap the intelligence and capabilities of those that exist beyond the “four walls” of their organizations. Senior leaders should continue to think hard about what role their organization will fill within the context of the “global brain”.
– What role will they play in their respective industry and its evolving ecosystem?
– How can you leverage the power of the increasingly intelligent technology subconscious to speed the flow of information and value exchange within and beyond your organization, and what new models can be developed to capture value from these new flows?
In many ways, the ball is in your court. The future of organizational success (in every industry) depends on leveraging information, algorithms, and insights to create value. Innovative CIOs who can envision, evangelize, and implement a future state where a technology “subconscious” powers an increasing majority of repetitive tasks, while knowledge workers are provided with tools to help create, imagine, collaborate, prototype, and ship new products and services to market will be rewarded. Reframing the landscape, envisioning and constructing new models, and partnering with senior leaders and LOB (Line of Business) peers is key to continued success and relevance.
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The views and opinions expressed herein are my own and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of KPMG LLP.