Cognitive learning often has no place at work

Cognitive Learning

Cognitive learning basically means the same thing as “thinking,” and thinking is pretty much dead in the river at most companies. Not surprising, though: you get promoted at companies based on two factors, primarily. One is kissing the right ass or being close to the existing power core. The second factor is execution, and by that I mean a relentless, all-consuming focus on execution. Basically, you become a 15-year box-checker for those above you. Eventually you get promoted, and all you know is execution and task work. Cognitive learning? It left your life about 13.45 years before. It’s all about deliverables, targets, and KPIs. This is why a lot of companies attempt “strategic road maps” and, with only a few exceptions, they could be written on toilet paper. Most people running silos or businesses regularly confuse “strategic planning” with “operational details.”

As a result, there’s not a lot of cognitive learning going on. We love to talk about innovation, but in reality most workplaces aren’t even remotely set up to foster innovation. They’re set up to get tasks done. That’s how we hire, that’s how we promote, that’s how we fire, etc. Busy busy busy as a culture means more than “let’s be productive.” Quantity of work always matters more than quality. This is the office world a lot of us enter. It will change over time — in some ways, it already is — and eventually many of us will be automated out by the opposite of cognitive learning, that being machine learning.

But what can we do right now? Can we make this better? Could we turn organizations into places where thinking actually happens?

Some cognitive learning background

Here’s an article from Fast Company on the increasingly distracted world. There are approximately 92,988 articles like this written every day. We love to talk about social media, email, and how distracted all of us have become or are becoming. Some of this is very true. But, unfortunately, a lot of it is excuses. People prioritize the things they want to prioritize — or the things their boss yells at them to prioritize. If you want to prioritize Twitter over work, you will. I probably can’t stop you writ large. It’s OK to discuss distraction, but realize some aspect of distraction is choice.

One good quote from Fast Company:

“We have developed workplace practices that actually require us to be using our brain in a way in which it wasn’t designed. This includes multitasking, which is adding to our cognitive load and making it harder for ourselves to have that clarity of thought and the mental agility and flexibility required to deal with the increasing level of complexity in our lives today,” says Brockis.

Brockis is an author/researcher. And yes, multi-tasking is garbage.

And the second money quote:

In addition, we need to get better at prioritizing where we focus our attention. We’ve gotten into the habit of treating everything as urgent and important, which can lead to increased stress and multitasking and diminish our effectiveness. Learning to focus on one thing at a time and moving through our tasks sequentially will still be the best way for most of us to produce our best work, even with advances in technology, she says.

Ding, ding, ding.

The priority trap

I can keep this section short. Most organizations are horrible at setting priorities, including some super-high-growth companies. When a lack of priority is common, middle managers (themselves unclear on priorities) are often allowed to create work for those under them. This created work, which executives probably have no idea/care remotely about, is always presented as “urgent.”  “I needed this yesterday,” a manager will snarl.

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The sense of urgency BS rooted in poor priorities leads to a lot of people getting stressed out, which leads to turnover, which hits the bottom line. Follow that full bouncing ball and you’d get here: better priorities means more money. But most companies never realize that, in large part because the leaders can’t find their own priorities either.

Could we get better at cognitive learning in organizations?

We could. We’d need better managers, which is always tough. Ideally we’d remove “Learning and Development” from HR, because execs lip-service everything tied to HR.  Here is a potential road map:

Many of these ideas go against “now now now” and “show me the growth” that has come to define business, so they wouldn’t catch on. But we need to at least consider or try. Right now we’re putting thousands of people into a context 50 hours+ per week where essentially no critical thinking is required. And we expect them to make good decisions about politics, their mortgage, their kids, etc? Companies atrophy thinking in people. Cognitive learning dies. If we get it back, maybe we can help some other aspects of society as a whole.

What else would you add on cognitive learning?

Ted Bauer