Thinking about cognitive surplus in the enterprise

I like Clay Shirky. He doesn’t say a great deal, he doesn’t write a great deal, but when he does say something or write something, what he says or writes is brilliant. Clay is a web optimist, a class of person who believes that everything the web stands for can create value, and often new value. That the democratisation engendered by the web is a good thing; that communities can do good things that individuals can’t achieve in isolation; that the very concept of expertise is being redefined by the web.

Such views often tend to attract a lot of criticism, often from people threatened by the worldview he describes and ascribes to.

And so it was with his most recent book, Cognitive Surplus. Some people loved it. Some hated it. I for one really liked it, because Clay made me think about something normal and commonplace in a different way, by exposing a small number of ideas in an articulate and enjoyable way. [Disclosure: I count Clay amongst my friends; I count Cory, who wrote the positive review, amongst my friends as well. And I don’t know Nicholas Blincoe.]

I’m not going to review the book here, other than to say I really liked it. I’m sure that you can read many erudite and enlightening reviews elsewhere. All I want to do here is to share one idea that affected me deeply. And that was this: what I found really intriguing was not that cognitive surplus existed, but that it existed because people were doing less of something. In this particular case the principal activity that declined was that of watching TV, but what I found useful was the principle. That a cognitive surplus exists because time gets freed up, and if you have the tools and the motivation, then that surplus gets put to good use.

When I try to learn about social software, I tend to use music and food as analogues, as digital social objects that will help me learn about the particular medium or media. If you’ve been following this blog for long, or if you’ve been following my tweets, you’ve probably noticed that.

And so it was with the cognitive surplus notion. I started looking for sites that would help me understand how people would create collective value in ways that individuals could not, specifically in music and in food. What I hoped was that I would learn something that could be applied at work.

In this context, I’d like to bring your attention to two sites:

The first,, is a wiki-style repository of sets played at music concerts. You get details about a specific song.

You also get details about a particular concert. Most of the time, you can play a video of the song, get the lyrics as well.

Sometimes you can even play the song; sometimes you can watch a video of the song; sometimes you get the lyrics. In effect, what services like foxytunes were trying to do for recorded music, was seeking to achieve for concerts.

Let’s leave music aside for a minute, and move to food. In this context, I found truly intriguing:

So now you could check out meals to expect by class of travel, see photos of what you were likely to be served, even get ratings for the meal. And for added measure you had an idea of what the person paid for the fare. You could even travel back in history, do some Retronautical research:

I guess Pan Am made the going great. I guess Pan Am went bankrupt.

What I liked about these two examples is that they shared a number of key characteristics: the problem to be solved could not be solved easily by a small number of people, it needed distributed scale, “edit rights” for a large number of people. The problem could not be solved per se unless people wanted to share something: their memories, their photographs, their mementos and relics: in fact recording devices like cameras and tape recorders are essential equipment in this respect. And out of the cognitive surplus, real value was obtained for many classes of person: archivist, historian, aficionado, experimenter.

Incidentally, there was an example of cognitive surplus use in the weekend papers that made me cringe, that sent shivers down my spine:

Big Brother meets the Twitching Curtain. First you acquire CCTV feeds, probably the most abundant thing in the UK today. Then you add viewers, curtain-twitchers with time on their hands and who are willing to pay for the “privilege” of random voyeurism via CCTV. Finally you add the businesses prepared to pay for the alerts. The viewer pays you. The viewed business pays you. Who knows, maybe the CCTV company pays you as well. I shudder to think what the next generation of such businesses will look like.

Which leads me to my conclusion.

I’ve watched attempts at knowledge management in the enterprise fail for decades, and rationalised the failures in many ways. The technology wasn’t ready. People didn’t want to share. Management didn’t want people to share. And so on and so forth.

That was then. We live in a world where edit and upload rights are getting more democratised every day, even in the workplace. Knowledge management is now less meaningful not because knowledge has waned but because the management of knowledge has become harder, given the historical bias towards making information scarce and therefore more powerful for those who had ownership or access to that information.

But none of this is meaningful unless there is cognitive surplus in the enterprise. Which means people have to admit that they have free time, time they can devote to creating value by sharing what they know, what they have known, what they have collected, what they have archived. The tools are there. The motivation is there. But before it can happen, people have to be willing to acknowledge the existence of a time surplus at work.

This was not a problem for the agricultural sector; this was less of a problem for the industrial sector during an era of manufacturing; but now, as we are full-fledged into the tertiary “services” sector, the possibility looms large that knowledge workers will have time surpluses. Knowledge work is lumpy and non-linear, you can’t apply assembly line approaches.

So that’s where my mind is today. That the lumpy nature of knowledge work means that there are time surpluses at work. That these surpluses are Shirky Cognitive Surpluses. That the people with the surpluses have the tools and motivation to share what they know, knew and “own”. That doing this would make their lives easier; would enhance the lives of their colleagues, their trading partners, their customers. That real productive value is gained by doing this.

Imagine a wikipedia of equipment installed at homes: the positions of meters and stopcocks and telephone lines and fuseboxes; the types of equipment, in terms of makes and models and ages; the dates they were installed, the dates they were serviced. Imagine the amount of time and money wasted because we don’t have this already, the errors made, the damage caused, sometimes the lives lost. So many industries will stand to gain if we had this sort of resource.

Imagine fault reports and customer complaints and cases all being made available for anyone to annotate, the ability to apply Linus’s Law to processes at work. Given Enough Eyeballs All Bugs Are Shallow.

It’s been a while since I wrote. I’ve had a lot to think about. This is just a sliver. I’d love to know what you think.

22 thoughts on “Thinking about cognitive surplus in the enterprise”

  1. My personal observation is that people who value their own time are the ones who are most likely to contribute their cognitive surplus. They are the ones who have felt the pain of losing their time over trivialities and want to ensure that others dont do the same.

    We all have worked with individuals who take the pains to update phone entries, create new templates, prepare welcome packs for new starters etc. It has also been my observation that these individuals have risen through the ranks and I dont think its a coincidence at all.

    It reminds me of the fable where you had a huge boulder lying in the middle of the road. Every vehicle travelling on the road would navigate around it and curse the government for good measure. However, there was one individual who decided to save collective time and spent effort to remove the boulder from the road. The fable has it that it was a test set up by the King and the person was richly rewarded for his initiative.

    Modern day kings should also be observing the workplace and richly rewarding the individuals removing these barriers

  2. First of all, I love the concept. I did have one of these types of jobs at Morgan Stanley when I was working on Enterprise 2.0. I had surplus and I ended up using that time and energy for the greater good of the company. Too bad that my job was the exception, not the rule…an anomaly.

    This concept also makes Google and their 20% time policy look that much smarter…give people some freedom where they aren’t supposed to be busy the entire time and magical things might just happen…especially if employees are motivated and believe in the mission and culture of the firm.

    Reminds me of the Google Talk by Luis Von Ahn back in 2006 on Human Computation:

    If we can figure out how to borrow or hijack some of the time that people ‘waste’ on dumb (but fun) games like Farmville, Flight Control and Doodle Jump….the sky is the limit. We can increase the available cognitive surplus in the world exponentially.

    Great post!

  3. Was that link set up just for me? :) … I couldn’t resist track 3 – certainly soaked up some of my cognitive surplus.
    Good luck getting people to admit to their boss that they have spare time at work … although as I recall wasn’t the original idea that we would work less time? – Bertrand Russell predated Clay Shirky by more than 75 years:

  4. I thought immediately of types of organisations that try to design out cognitive surplus, where thinking is not what managers really want, at least not in the way you describe. Introducing these ideas causes cognitive dissonance and is damn hard work! :-)

  5. JP, You need to bottle up your blogging more often if we are to get posts like this popping out when the cork’s removed.

    Despite Cory’s positive review I hadn’t paid much attention to ‘Cognitive Surplus’, but it’s now on my wish list (what a shame the Kindle version isn’t available in the UK).

    I like how you call into question the chasm that’s opening between how we manage our time as individuals, and how companies manage the time of their employees. The expectation that people should show up to ‘work’ from 9-5, and that they should be ‘busy’ for the whole time is clearly damaging to productivity in a knowledge economy. It makes me wonder just how long it will take to disrupt companies out of their industrial age practices?

    I also suspect that meetings emerge as a productivity antipattern – a denial of service attack against the utility of cognitive surplus at work. Of course they start with the best of intentions – we need these minds on the task to deal with a given level of complexity; but typically degenerate into routine time sapping black holes of tedium.

    How often have we all spent an hour on a conference call in order to have 2 minutes of input? Perhaps the new tool to emerge from this insight will be micro scheduling of collaboration (rather than the coarse grained hash of it we have today)?

    We should also pay special attention to the role of project managers as they presently exist within most organisations – as people who schedule the time of others (and hence the high priests of make work meetings). If we can figure out how to replace the project managers with something new and better, then we’ve truly moved forward.

  6. Prashant, you’re right. But I think there’s a twist. Modern day kings need tools to observe the workplace with, and facilities to reward the sharers. This is part of what enterprise 2.0 promises.

  7. Adam, see my reply to Prashant. We need enterprise tools and facilities that make it possible for cognitive surplus to be donated, for the donations to be observed, for the donors to be rewarded, or at the very least encouraged to continue. That’s why I’m excited by tools like Chatter.

    In some cases the hold-up is that people don’t value the knowledge created, don’t believe that a time surplus should exist, so they don’t invest in the tools needed. But the enlightened ones are adopting the new ways of doing things. Because it’s a faster, cheaper, better way. Makes good business sense.

  8. @ric I must admit I thought of you when selecting the link :-) there aren’t that many over-50 retired-hippie-yet-clued-into-web-20 readers of my blog….

  9. Forget Russell. Thorstein Veblen was the guy who kicked it off, I think, with his Leisure Class theories at the turn of the 20th C. But neither Veblen nor Russell saw the proliferation of tools that would make sharing easy, tools that would facilitate a transformation of cognitive surplus into communal value. That’s where Shirky helps us understand.

  10. I don’t have any set plan for blogging. I indulge my curiosity, read, chat with people, think. And every now and then something crystallises, and I feel the urge to write. As twitter has grown, and as we get twitter-like tools in the workplace, I think my blog drive morphs into something more contemplative…. glad you liked it.

  11. With respect to the Internet Eyes site – getting the public to view your CCD footage for you – Bruce Schneier discussed the concept a few weeks ago:
    His conclusion is that the business case is likely to fail due to the sheer boredom of most of the footage.
    Of course that really depends on how many people you can get involved and technological advances are also likely to have an impact (as usual).

  12. Disclaimer: I haven’t read Clay’s book, so this is strictly in response to this post.

    Makes me want to bone up on my economic terms again. Surplus, huh? In straightforward terms, a surplus exists when supply outstrips demand. But the more powerful surplus is the one that gets carved out of demand by compressing it or short-changing it. How is it that an individual with a tight schedule has time for Twitter? Where do cycles for general socializing and catching up, fit in? They happen because of a value system where priorities change.

    The goal here is to tap natural energies — passions. Your blog post is a classic example of this: “It’s been a while since I wrote. I’ve had a lot to think about.” But when the critical mass of relevance struck it’s tipping point, there was no holding you back.

    There still seems to be a mental model somewhere here that is seeing the artifacts of what gets shared and why still with a KM 1.0 filter. In 2.0 what gets shared is created AS it’s shared. It’s new knowledge (often based on old experiences). It’s contextual, it’s relevant, it’s NOW.

    It’s really the same issue for knowledge as I discovered it was for information. Information is not data in context. A map, while clearly data in context, is just useless data if it’s not relevant to the recipient — if the map is not of a place of interest or if I can’t determine where I am in relation to the map — it’s just useless data — noise. In order for data to inform, it must be contextually relevant, now. The same is true of knowledge.

  13. @peter I wish I could be sure. Three things make me feel it might still happen. One, when you look at MMORPG, video games and virtual worlds; two, when you look at Mechanical Turk; three, when you consider how long “gossip” has been a route, not always constructive, to moderating social behaviour….

  14. Hello JP,

    congratulations!!! i will checkout salesforce from now on. I got a Mozilla T-shirt atlast. Talk soon.

  15. Not everyone is like this, it’s the passionate few, we have CoP Facilitators at work who go beyond and create new starter pages, training list pages, write regular blog entries, etc…but also a lot of this is they have been around for a while and have amassed lots of resources, so even for their own sake that need to consolidate. But yes, is mainly about those that are passionate and engaged. Once you start, and get some comments, it propels you to post again, then again…the more you share the more you become known…again this propels you to devote your cognitive surplus

    I think here we are talking about Above-the-Flow, volunteering information and experiences that goes beyond our tasks…they are not part of a deliverable or task, but may be about it…the story, the tip, the lesson…

    But it’s not just limited to online, I think we use our Cognitive Surplus going to the gym and playing sports in work hours…we always end up conversing about work…this is not passive and idle it’s sharing in conversation. In fact conversation about work in the coffee room, etc is most often about “above-the-flow” stuff ie. the story/gossip of the task

Let me know what you think

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.