In the past few years, people have been talking about consciousness in business. Often they use consciousness as a synonym for ethics, for social or environmental responsibility. There is another way of using the word ‘consciousness’, however, evoking the learning organisation, ‘presencing’, ‘U-theory’, and the legacy of Gregory Bateson (who provided the first solid cybernetic foundation for thinking about ecology, organisation, and person as sharing the property of Mind). I am one of the latter group.
I’d like to explore with you a bit of what we know about consciousness, what I regard (from an interested layman’s perspective) as the leading account of consciousness in humans, and what implications this has for designing thriving ‘conscious’ organisations.
In this section I will be relying largely on the accounts of neuroscience provided by Giulio Tononi, Humberto Maturana, and Francisco Varela, as well as a thick slurry of science journalism that I can’t be bothered to footnote. Undoubtedly inaccuracies will creep in through the gaps in my understanding, and there is active debate in neurology and philosophy about the value of Tononi’s theory of consciousness (although nobody disputes his grasp of the underlying data). Still, I will do my best to offer you a useful framework for thinking about consciousness.
Much of our skilled activity, even most of it, is unconscious. People can do all sorts of skilled activity while sleep walking; people do a great deal of skilled activity without realizing it (for example, have you ever chewed bubble gum and walked? have you ever found yourself doing something out of habit — driving somewhere, or taking something off a shelf — and realized that you were doing so without a conscious plan?). In fact, studies of decision-making show that there are clear brain signals that a decision is happening which occur a measurable time before people report consciousness of making a decision. So the consciousness of making a decision follows an array of unconscious processes which lead to the decision.
In the human brain, the outside world (and indeed the body as a whole) is not present — only informational echoes are present, in the form of biochemistry, electricity, and various kinds of resonance between different elements of the brain. As you read these words, the world you experience is only an ephemeral construct within your bodymind. Perhaps you are aware of the world around you, of the feeling of your body as you sit or stand, of sounds, and of many other thoughts and feelings which seem internal, thoughts about the past or future or these concepts I am sharing with you. All of these experiences are fleeting assemblages of neurons singing to one another in the bloody dark of your skull.
Consciousness is what happens when the many skilled unconscious processes share their information with each other in a structured way, to integrate the information each one holds into some unified meaningful whole. In fact, the word meaning signifies exactly what consciousness does — by arranging data into a patterned whole, consciousness and meaning emerge. Tononi argues that consciousness is a matter of degrees; we are conscious to the degree that we integrate information into a meaningful whole. This doesn’t require conceptual thought necessarily — mindfulness meditation may allow us to integrate much more information than we do when engaged in fervent debate.
So — consciousness is different from skill. It is always constructed, an emergent phenomenon in the inner world of a system, the world we assemble within following events of the physical universe with at least a few milliseconds’ delay. We are conscious to the extent which we are able to integrate information.
Some authors (and I am thinking particularly of Ph.D. biologist and science fiction author Peter Watts) have speculated that consciousness is completely unnecessary, an unfortunate accident which produces suffering beings at odds with the physical reality in which we toil. I don’t agree.
In my experience, consciousness is the requirement for transformation. In the moment when we assemble a new picture, we transform ourselves. We literally transform the biophysical substrates of our minds; consciousness and learning are inseparable, and we can transform ourselves to the extent of our consciousness.
Of course, we change in unconscious ways as well, but those changes are not what we think of when we think of learning or personal transformation — they do not produce a greater whole. On the other hand, being conscious does not mean we understand or can predict — I personally find that being conscious of the experience of mystery, the experience of not-knowing, is powerfully transformative. It provides the ground for new ways of thinking and being.
What can this understanding of consciousness tell us about organising in human groups?
First I wish to draw a few parallels. As Bruno Latour has pointed out, what we think of as “the modern world” or “the modern person” are emergent results of the complex diversity of the networks we encounter (and integrate). Our identities — the self-in-world stories we tell ourselves, and each other — are structured by the complex networks we encounter in our environments. At the same time (as Pierre Bourdieu might say), we produce those networks by enacting our identities and playing the games we know how to play.
We are not aware, however, of most of what happens in those networks which support us. All those people, machines, plants and animals, unicellular organisms and weather and tides… like the unconscious skill of personal habits, most of the skilled behavior in the networks which support us is outside the reach of our consciousness. In fact, even in large organisations with powerful computers, skilled programmers and algorithms crunching the ‘Big Data’ provided by (ironically) countless sensors, most activity happens as a result of local decisions. The information content of Big Data is often inaccessible to the meaning-making processes of human observers.
When Greenpeace challenges a company on its workers’ rights record, or its pollution record, Greenpeace is not only waking the public’s ire — it is allowing us to assemble new meaning. It often also allows the company it challenges to assemble new meaning, to integrate the information which was previously unassembled, sitting in distant filing cabinets or swept under the rugs of various obscure sub-contracting arrangements. Companies become capable of “ethical behavior” only after they assemble the internal systems for monitoring their impact on their social or biophysical environment — only through developing the capacity for consciousness.
Just as with the individual person, an organisation is only conscious to the extent that it is able to integrate information.
It might be useful here to say a little bit about Gregory Bateson’s concept of ‘Mind’. Bateson saw any self-modifying system (from a unicellular organism to biosphere, civilization included) as having the property of Mind. Mind, in Bateson’s formulation, is a process of self-modification based on perception of “differences that make a difference” in the flow of data which a system acquires from its environment. In fact, Bateson was not particularly impressed by our conventional ideas of system boundaries: he saw a man, an axe, and a tree as part of the same system, so that the tree is influencing the man who is chopping (and unfortunately it was always a man in Bateson’s formulation) just as the man influences the tree.
This self-modification, in response to a systems construal of “difference that makes a difference”, is learning (and as we discussed earlier, it is also only possible with a degree of consciousness). However, there are degrees or orders of magnitude in learning. Bateson distinguished logical levels of learning: Learning 0, in which a system can only provide a stereotyped response to a stimulus. A thermostat can do this; so can all micro-organisms. Learning 1, where a system can learn to assign different responses to stimuli, based on experience. Learning 2, where a system comes to associate sets of stimuli into different contexts, can distinguish one context from another and respond with action which is context-appropriate. A system capable of Learning 2 might respond differently to identical stimuli, given differently construed contexts. With Learning 3, the system is capable of reconsidering its map of contexts, and develops a “theory of contexts” which we might also call identity or a self-in-world story. With Learning 4, the system is capable of transforming its self-in-world story, and fluidly moving between identities. There may be deeper orders of learning, but I don’t have a clear understanding or personal experience of them.
Each of those levels of learning requires an order-of-magnitude shift in a system’s ability to make meaning. When a system is engaged in Learning 4, it is able to integrate multiple self-in-worldviews effectively in a meaningful whole. In my experience, this happens at times in effective group learning and decision-making processes.
The conscious organisation, like the conscious individual, requires a network which delivers information to the places of integration. The processes of integration in an organisation are both personal and social: an individual may integrate information which the larger group does not; in order for a group to integrate information it must not only be accessible to the individuals but it must appear as shared constructs, words spoken, attitudes between people, rituals enacted, artifacts produced, stored, used. We see the fruits of this integration and the transformation which accompanies it when the organisation can plan and act in new ways — especially when its new ways provide a better fit between it and the larger systems of which it is a part.
To produce conscious organisations, we need high bandwidth networks which reduce the period of time between distant events and the integration of data about those events. The highest bandwidth, of course, is provided by physical presence, but it is rarely possible for a large organisation to all be present in the same room. In fact, if you were to sit everyone in a single circle, where each person could see the eyes of every other person, larger organisations would be sitting in such large circles that the participants could not easily read the expressions of their co-workers. For that reason, it is best to organise in semi-autonomous teams around shared work, so that a team can have a high-bandwidth, low-latency connection to one another.
Because work often requires us to give our attention to the objects of our work, more than to our coworkers and our shared understanding of our environment, most teams are capable only of Learning 0 or Learning 1 while actually on the job, delivering value to a client. Deeper learning requires separate time set aside — time which might be a “circle meeting” in sociocratic language, or an “agile retrospective” or “kaizen event” in the language of other disciplines. Effective team learning rituals provide a space for making meaning and transforming our systems together.
Even if our teams are able to effectively learn together, however, we still are left with the unconscious organization. The typical management structure (or even matrix structures) provides a single-person overlap between one management layer and another. As many people (perhaps most famously Chris Argyris) have pointed out, normal (defensive) social behavior means that each single-person link filters a great deal of information out of their communications. For this reason, it is best to have at least two people overlapping between each team and the one to which it reports (assuming that we have a structure where one team coordinates the efforts of several others). For daily operations a single person can provide the leadership link from a coordinating team to a reporting team, but when it comes time to integrate information from multiple reporting teams and engage in learning and policy-making, it is best to get representatives chosen by each of the reporting teams all in the room with their leaders / coordinators. This upward-directed flow of representation gets the “whole system in the room”, and it is the sociocratic solution to enabling consciousness in organisations.
So these are the lessons as I understand them at the moment: gather as much of the system as possible, at least in the form of representatives, and engage in learning processes which allow us to deeply integrate and transform. Don’t expect to be able to do this all the time, but ensure you do it regularly. Use the highest-bandwidth, lowest-latency approaches you can; at best, you will be sitting face to face in a circle, all of your data shared transparently, speaking the same language, each having a turn to speak, feeling safe and thus being honest. Then you can learn deeply together and consciously self-organise.
There may be other implications of the science of consciousness for how we organise; I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter.