What is Distributed Cognition (DC)?
The clearest example of DC is the existence of culture; DC is the way in which we offload much of our own information processing onto other people, other organizations, and onto the world itself. We consult books, we consult experts; at our best, we work together to solve problems. What differentiates the concept of DC from a simple org chart is that the DC recognizes that the contributions of individuals within the network is more than just their job description and how well they execute that set of tasks in a silo. Everyone is unique and everyone brings something of themselves into the work. Rather than trying to grind away these rough edges to have everyone fit nice and square, good DC puts these shapes together like puzzle pieces. People’s greatest value within an organization lies not just with what they do in their assigned role, but also in how they facilitate and contribute to flow through the network. One person may be less skilled at a specific task than another, but how the first person behaves in the network may be more beneficial to that network, and more than offset the difference in competence. This is the elusive “synergy” that people talk about, the quality that makes some groups more productive as a unit than just the sum of their individual efforts.
DC is fundamentally about “fit”, and while job qualifications are part of “fit”, they are only the beginning of it. In some teams or departments, being social may be a key component of “fit”, while in others, excessive socialization could destroy the dynamic. Optimal DC is about the individuals involved, and not just a stereotypical function of the type of department. Cultivating the DC of your organization really does require a personal touch. The goal should not be to make your organization conform to some external template – rather, organizational principles need to interface with human dynamics to arrive at what works for your company. Just making sure that people are happy is simply not enough. People need to be respected, challenged, and encouraged to own their accountability. Organizations with a high Distributed Cognition Quotient (DCQ) are productive, profitable, and resilient.
Sometimes, high DCQ arises by chance – luck brings together the right people who have the right skills to make things happen. Don’t leave it to chance; your company’s DCQ is something that you can cultivate, develop, and improve over time. You can weave high DCQ into the culture of your corporation by design.