Cognitive Surplus?

A fascinating article by Clay Shirkyon (Gin etc.) on the concept of cognitive surplus.  Go and read it, but to summarize briefly, his argument is that technological changes through history have freed up leisure time; and that the responses to this freedom have varied at different points in history.  At first, when people moved from rural areas to urban centres during the industrial revolution (a British invention, lest anyone forget), they filled their free time with drinking and licentiousness.

Aside - did they really have that much free time?  If I remember my British history and trips to dark, satanic mills, people were working all day, every day.  However, perhaps the social setting and street lights made for this change.  Sorry - not to derail Clay's thesis.

After this decline in social cohesion, it took some time before society as a whole woke up and put in place structures to fill this free time "usefully" - the Victorian flourishing of free libraries, art galleries, museums, broader access to education, etc.

Following the second world war (more so in the US, Canada, Australia and NZ than in Europe which was rebuilding), rapid industrial development led to a rapid growth in the middle class and people suddenly had even more time on their hands.  Some of them filled that with drinking and licentiousness (I'll avoid the easy Aussie jokes here, mates), but most people in the 'developed' world spent a lot of that time watching TV.  This was the rise of network television and these programmes became shared social reference points through the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.

Fast forward to the last 5-10 years and many people have moved away from this model.  This is where the time to post on Wikipedia, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc. comes from.  This is the 'Cognitive Surplus' - where people use their brain power to post, to argue, to flirt, to learn, rather than working, watching TV, or doing something else.  Add to this the increased convenience of access - it's easier to read web pages, or blog, or watch YouTube on your iPhone than it is to find a TV - and you have a fundamental shift in behaviour.  The time for this interweb stuff doesn't come from nowhere, it generally comes at the expense of sitting watching TV.

So this leads to a number of fascinating questions and observations, but I want to focus on the impact of this idea for Enterprise ECM (you knew there must be a point to this somewhere, right?).  For knowledge workers - those of us who think more than do - the nature of our days' work has changed fundamentally in the last decade too.  There's a lot less paper (although still too much), more online applications; most of us are tethered to corporate networks and the internet all day, email has replaced memos, processes and workflows are automated and integrated with email, phone, web-apps, etc.

So do you feel like you have time on your hands?  Has this efficiency got you down to a 32 hour work week with 6 weeks holiday? (apart from you Genevieve and Pierre, thank you very much). 

I'm guessing the answer is no and that you are busier than ever.  How can ECM help with this?  Well, we can start by providing search technologies so people can find stuff.  We can rationalize storage and versioning, so that everyone knows which is the latest and greatest version of a policy.  And we can provide conversion and transformation so that I can access content in PDF from a mobile device or  as XML or HTML within an intranet page. 

Once we have these efficiencies, though, I think we need to aim to use that time wisely.  Capture the internal knowledge, share the lessons learned.  Update the content.  Look to the virtual world and see that people contribute to the knowledge total (even if that knowledge is a debate on the correct spelling of Lemmy from Motorhead's last name).  Now take that model and bring it within your organization. 

The transformation is from a passive, centralized, consuming model of network TV or corporate pronouncements and documentation to an active, decentralized, contributing model of wikipedia or organizational blogs, wikis, knowledge base articles, etc.  Even if the quality is spotty (which it will be - see wikipedia) there will be nuggets in there.  Even if 50%, 70%, 90% is junk - there will be value in that 50%, 30%, 10%.  And isn't even 10% of something better than 100% of nothing?

This way lies the path to Web 4.5 (h/t Bex)


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