Expanding Horizons and Cognitive Computing

21 Nov

The cognitive computing software we are currently working with is methodologically based on systems thinking. A key influence was the work of ecologist and cybernetics expert, Frederick Vester. Vester argued (2007) that the failure of organisational systems occurs because only a single aspect of a problem is ever explored, a concept he referred to as “symptom bashing”.

An organisation, like any aspect of life, is a network of interlocking relationships, interdependencies and features, which can be referred to as nodes. The relationship which exists between the various nodes of a network is crucial to an improved understanding of a wider system. Vester observed that what seems to happen in organisational planning is an over emphasis on nodes, with very little attention paid to the relationships and arising interdependencies.

For example, in organisational change, a CEO needs to make the organisation more streamlined by reducing the number of management positions. Each management position is a node in a network, and can be identified clearly on a spread sheet.

From this spread sheet, the CEO can select which positions they wish to retain, restructure or remove. What is not fully known to the CEO is the relationship each of these nodes have with the organisation. The formal rationale for restructuring, presented as the symptoms of too many managers, too long decision making, and too much cost, makes sense, but the cost of change, which will only become apparent through time, is unknown.

In other words, the nodal management positions are known in theory (job descriptions, formal responsibilities etc.), but how this theory has been adapted to practice, and what relationships have been formed to the delivery of key business areas, could be fuzzy at best. What occurs is an initial saving followed only by the appearance of “unexpected events”, the latent effect of system neglect. Not all risk can be known by taking a systems approach, far from it, but the risks that change can bring can be better prepared for, creating a more resilient restructure.

A lot of system neglect is human nature. We, as human beings, have a natural bias to jump to conclusions, and then stick to these conclusions, explaining away any evidence or data which might contradict our initial assumptions (Kahneman, 2011 for excellent examples). High level expertise presents frequently as the ability to let go of conclusions and adapt quickly to new information (Klein, 2007). However, the conditions need to be supportive for “letting go” to occur (Klein, 2014).

A practical method of providing this support to improve strategic decision making, forecasts and analysis is to think about the system as opposed to the nodes, or put more simply, get a broader perspective. For example, affective forecasting (Wilson et al, 2003, Greening, 2014) discusses how forecasting about the outcome of an event or future state improves when the forecaster speaks to someone who has lived their future.

Forecasting and decision making in small groups can become overly focused on the perceived resources, abilities and knowledge of the team to achieve a goal, the inside perspective (Kahneman, 2011). However, this type of planning leads to over optimism and no consideration of what time and uncertainty will throw in their direction.

However, if the team speak to someone who has made and lived through a similar decision and faced the unexpected events, then the team is being exposed to the outside view. This takes their focus away from the nodes (the closed attributes) and broadens the perspective to the potential relationship of the nodes to the system, the outside perspective, through a period of time.

This is one of the aspects the cognitive computing software we are working with aims to achieve. It aims to collect a wide range of experiences, forecasts and anticipations from variety of decision makers and make these available to a user so they (the user) are able to view their environment more as a system and less as a series of nodes. The software is able to present information to a user in a time critical format, so the user is able to see the latent effect of decisions and the emergence of potential unintended consequences.

Viewing a decision as being part of an interconnected and changing system broadens the perspective. A broadening of perspective allows a decision maker to let go of initial assumptions and adapt to changes in a system. This can be achieved by accessing the knowledge and experience of people who have experienced the topic system through a period of time. For the CEO in the earlier example, this means a sharp analysis of the key relationships the managers have built up in their role. The result is discreet knowledge of what the CEO will be actually restructuring beyond spread sheet nodes, and the risks which that brings. For a user of cognitive computing software, this can mean exploring a topical system through the eyes of potentially thousands of people who have already lived a similar future.

Reading

Wilson, Timothy D.; Daniel T. Gilbert (2003). “Affective Forecasting”. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 35: 345–411

Kahneman, D (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin

Gilbert, D (2013) (p.45) AFFECTIVE FORECASTING…OR…THE BIG WOMBASSA: WHAT YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING TO GET, AND WHAT YOU DON’T GET, WHEN YOU GET WHAT YOU WANT in John Brockman (Editor) (2013) Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction. Harper Collins

Klein, G. (2014) Seeing What Others Don’t: the remarkable ways we gain insight. Public Affairs.

Klein, G. (2007) The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work. Currency

Vester, F. (2007) The Art of Interconnected Thinking: Tools and concepts for a new approach to tackling complexity. Malik Management (English language edition)

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