Cognitive Surplus: Problem or Solution?


By Sven Larsen (@zemoga)

The average American logs about 60 hours a month online, and spends one-third of that time on social networks and playing games, according to data from recent Neilsen surveys. By extrapolation, that means the average American is spending 2 hours a day online, and 40 minutes of that is with social networks and games.

I think most of you would agree that thats a very reasonable estimate. It might even sound low. But when you begin adding the numbers up, it does get startling. Even just 40 minutes a day is more than ten days a year. This is not watching television, reading email, instant messaging, searching, or even watching YouTube, but just specifically using social networks and playing online games.

Ten days a year on Farmville? Couldnt you grow real crops in about as much time? Well, you can use these numbers to bemoan the state of the world today, if you like. And many people do. What a waste, what a sign of intellectual decline, how spoiled we are…. Youve heard the complaints.

However, you could also choose to look at the situation differently. Consider the concept of “cognitive surplus coined by author Clay Sharkey. The point is, he says, that we in the developed world have this free time. Thats neither good nor bad, but fact of life.

The open question is figuring out whats to be done with it. The great example of free time spent online to a purpose is, of course, Wikipedia, which was developed in 100 million hours. Check out this great visualization comparing that amount to our annual TV-watching time, for some perspective. It sounds like a lot of hours, but its not.

So, how can you use cognitive surplus to your advantage at work? You know your colleagues and staff spend time online at work when they are not working. Is there a way to harness that to everyones benefit? Perhaps there is.

The keys are, to make the project mentally engaging, and to make the goals enjoyable to work towards.

Think of a project analogous to the SETI@home project, which has worked for over a decade, using spare computing power of volunteers around the world to search for intelligent life transmissions from throughout the universe. Except you dont want peoples spare bandwidth or processor speed – you want their brainpower.

You always hear that keeping a question in the back of your mind will give your subconscious time to work on it. This is why you often get an answer to a problem that had stumped you while youre getting ready for work the next day. While youre not thinking of anything in particular, suddenly the right answer will pop into your head.

Your company has hired people, one assumes, for their intelligence. Why keep them so siloed?

Heres an idea. Post two Top 10 lists: one of the biggest recent accomplishments, and one of the most important current questions to answer. Everything can be fair game, from sales, to HR, and everything in between.

“Reps increased physician calls by 12% year-over-year and “employee cafeteria meals now post nutrition facts – both are important improvements in how the business is run. “Our biggest product is losing patent protection next year and “employees are proud of their department but nobody understands what R&D does – both of these are questions worth answering. Anything thats legally able to be disclosed should be.

Make them visible – on the intranet, in break rooms – and, heres the important part, make it easy, almost required, to provide answers.

Then, start harvesting the solutions. Hold meetings of randomly selected employees; reinstate the old “suggestion box concept. Get people talking about the topics for the quarter, and start listening to the answers.

Good ideas come from unexpected sources. Honey Bunches of Oats was created by a Post Cereals employees 18-year-old daughter. Post-Its were some leftover paste stuck to a hymnal bookmark. Einstein, of course, developed the theory of relativity in his spare time.

Dont wait for your colleagues to think of great things. Help them out by putting the questions in front of them and helping them percolate.



Powered by Facebook Comments

Comments are closed.