Cognitive surplus and organizational slack

[Cross posted at FASTforward]

Clay Shirky’s got a new talk and he’s taking it on the road. It’s stimulating a good bit of thoughtful discussion around the web. Here’s a video version of his talk:

Shirky has also posted a transcript of the talk on his site, if you’d prefer to read instead of watch. The talk is a riff on one of the themes of his new book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. I’ll post a complete review of that shortly; it’s well worth you’re making time to read it.

One of the stories Shirky hangs his argument on is an interchange with a TV producer about the creation and growth of Wikipedia. Here’s how he tells it:

I started telling her about the Wikipedia article on Pluto. You may remember that Pluto got kicked out of the planet club a couple of years ago, so all of a sudden there was all of this activity on Wikipedia. The talk pages light up, people are editing the article like mad, and the whole community is in an ruckus–“How should we characterize this change in Pluto’s status?” And a little bit at a time they move the article–fighting offstage all the while–from, “Pluto is the ninth planet,” to “Pluto is an odd-shaped rock with an odd-shaped orbit at the edge of the solar system.”

So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, “Okay, we’re going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever.” That wasn’t her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, “Where do people find the time?” That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, “No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.”

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought. And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation. [Gin, Television, and Social Surplus]

The notion of “cognitive surplus” is a clever and useful way to frame the issue. Now, Shirky is primarily interested in the societal level impacts of new technologies. Big numbers help his argument tremendously, but they are a little bit like the arguments for why you might want to target your new consumer product at China (“if we only get one person in a hundred to drink our new sport drink, we’ll sell millions!”). Or the dotcom era arguments for capturing eyeballs. I don’t think that Shirky falls into this trap himself. Here, and in his book, he explicitly talks about how the design and architecture of systems such as Wikipedia leverage cognitive surplus in granular ways to exploit these large numbers.

My primary interests are inside organizations. How can we translate and adapt these insights into those environments? Organizational theorists, not being as clever or market oriented as Shirky, did not think up a notion as attractive as “cognitive surplus.” Instead, they talk about the notion of “organizational slack.” In hindsight, a very poor choice of words. For the last two decades, or more, organizations have been rooting out “slack” wherever they could find it. When the goal is efficiency, this is an appropriate strategy. However, it leaves no capacity for innovation and adaptation. Those few organizations that explicitly provide this capacity, such as Google’s 20% rule, are deemed notable and newsworthy.

The first order of business for business is to immediately appropriate Shirky’s term. Organizations that care about innovation and adaptive capacity should begin talking about “cognitive surplus.” Look for ways to measure it, if only crudely, and increase it.

The second task is to better understand and appreciate how various new technologies and tools let organizations derive benefit from smaller grains of cognitive surplus. Google’s 20% rule is a product of a time largely before blogs and wikis. Can an organization combine the tools with a one hour or 10 minute rule? Can we get value out of an hour a week or 10 minutes contributing to an internal wiki? Clearly, we will need to design some thoughtful support and encouragement processes around the tools in order to take advantage of a different scale of participation.

The third task is to monitor how well the large number phenomena outside the enterprise operate inside. We may discover critical mass issues; efforts below a certain scale are doomed to fail, while slightly larger efforts will need an extensive “life-support” system to survive. Other efforts may need support scaffolding but can become self-sustaining. Today, we have far more questions than answers. Shirky has provided us with some good new notions to start finding answers. I’d also recommend some of the following discussions that I’ve come across so far:

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