This article belongs to Cécile Demailly’s blog here; a version in French is available here: Entreprise 2.0 et cerveau, quels parallèles ? .

Using metaphors enriches understanding and provides insights that are not only theoretical, but also incredibly practical. Gareth Morgan, in his book “Images of Organization”, mentions the Brain as one of them, among many others. It didn’t strike me as an interesting analogy until recently, when one of my neuro-psy teachers drew neurons connections on a chart. Dependant on the brain territory, you either get neuron highways, i.e. structured and persistent connections, or a fully meshed design where connections can be established on demand, in virtually an infinite number of ways.

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) connections schema caught my eyes: isn’t it similar to what one can draw when picturing the most recent form of an organization, whether you call that Enterprise 2.0, the Collaborative Organization or the Connected Corporation?

Are our brains more evolved than our enterprises?

According to the Triune Brain theory revisited[i], the very first brain development was the Reptilian territory, dedicated to survival: act when everything is calm, escape, fight or play dead when there is a death threat. Second layer was the paleo-limbic, when mammals started to live in herds: it manages relationships in the group. The third brain territory that developed was the neo-limbic cortex, where our character and temperament sit, and where among other things our values are formed and referred to – this territory is present today in a limited number of mammals brains. The PFC is the last evolution stage of the brain and only exists in human brains, and a few apes: it helps us face complexity and new situations. It also manages pure creativity, when one is able to think beyond what-he-thinks-he-knows – see double loop learning from Chris Argyris, for example. That is how it creates new routes of neurons on demand, and how many more connections are kept alive than in other territories.

A small joke among neuro-psy practitioners is that politics are at the paleo-limbic stage, our education system is at the neo-limbic one, and the enterprise is trying to overhaul that same neo-limbic stage. A vision of hope.

Are we making the most of our brains? Forget the old rumor saying we only use 10% of it – this was in the 80’s when we didn’t know what the 90 other per cent was doing. They work at 100% . However, the whole brain does not hold the reins all the time. Where the neo-limbic territory governs automatic responses and actions based on a data bank of known situations (or supposedly known) related to given behaviors, the PFC benefits from a virtually infinite database of very diverse tokens and recollections in which it can search, evaluate and compare. The thing is, most of the time the neo-limbic governs, while the PFC is backstage – even sometimes when it should conduct. It is just like if the PFC has yet to accomplish its full development.

Parallels with todays corporation? The neo-limbic looks like the corporate culture and the processes, whether they are explicit or implicit. The PFC looks like the collaborative and collective potential – when there’s a whole world of talents and knowledge to mine and the power of connections to leverage. The former runs our organizations, the latter may have hints for innovating and solving pervasive issues – though not fully sure how to use it, not sure where it will lead.

Decision-making constituents, action impetus Brain Enterprise
Who usually drives? Limbic territories: Relationship in the group, character/ temperament/ values, automatisms Corporate culture, processes, hierarchy, policies, norms & rules, etc.
Who can help adapt, progress, change? PFC: complex and new situations are its field, with fully meshed neurons networks and a versatile memory, able to process on-demand – no automatisms there, it is mainly adaptation, creativity and innovation (that are lost in case of lobotomy) Could it be the power of connected people, collaboration and collective intelligence?

Adapt or die – where the power of networking could fuel agility

One easily sees benefits of being able to put the PFC to work: adapt to any situation without chains or barriers, benefit from our total intelligence in any circumstance. Human beings who can do this are very few – as mentioned above, our brains have not yet reached this development level. One can train and improve though, this is some of what we learn to facilitate in neuro-psychology.

One paradox of using the PFC is that one has to let go the effectiveness and efficiency duty in order to become more effective and efficient. A clue is that serene people are in much better shape to address edgy situations. Easy to write, hard to grasp, harder to do!

Back to our comparison, a conjecture would be that the enterprise has to get ready to welcome what may come from collaboration initiatives, and get the most of it. That is, without planning ahead what the result should be, or how it should work. Just wait and see. And, it has to feed it with real and serious problems.

In both cases, brain and corporation, it does not mean the other layer (the neo-limbic / the corporate culture and processes) is off work; it just implies that both layers need to work together and rely on each other.

How can the enterprise get there? Probably one very important ingredient is a culture of change. Because whatever situation you address, there will always be a new and more complex one coming. The power of connected people needs to be tapped, but not tamed: new forms of collaboration, new forms of collective intelligence have to be fed with new issues.

The corporation does not age, but it can eventually die. It may become rigid, make errors in terms of adaptation, and then collapse – most corporations expire before they reach 40 years old[ii]. And in these times where everything accelerates, it is more than urgent to cultivate adaptability, even if it means welcoming uncertainty as a resource.

[i] Among other, by the Institut de NeuroCognitivisme in its neurocognitive and behavioral approach
[ii] a Royal Dutch/Shell survey of 1983, the Fifth Discipline, Peter M. Senge