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  • Ben

Diversity Change Minds: What does anything mean?

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

In the final blog of a three-part series on cognitive diversity, I uncover the information chaos that permeates daily life.

Sharing knowledge enabled us to create complex and sophisticated societies, and individually information helps us to recognise patterns, learn and make decisions.  Let’s not forget that we are social beings too, and it is our desire to communicate that leads us to share wisdom with one another, which in turn helps us to form bonds. We are fortunate to live in the digital age which provides unrivalled access to information, and the ability to communicate and connect with people anywhere, at anytime.  So this begs the question; why are we becoming less able to use this information wisely?

Scale rears its ugly head, again

There’s no single cause but a major driver is one which I highlighted in the previous blog - scale.  Our default mode - more is desirable - has carried into our digital economy. We’ve never digested more news, or had more friends; replying, sharing, and liking everything in sight. Our always on culture requires relentless management and everything is framed by units of time, transactions, and sound bites.  We have prioritised consumption and convenience, and in doing so we traded things that matter; meaning, relationships, and privacy.

In a world where everyone is selling something, we increasingly view people through the lens of how they can benefit us.  Language becomes less about sharing stories, and more a lever to manipulate.

The information economy

Knowledge work powers our service economy, and this stimulated innovation in communications.  Email and instant messaging offered new and convenient ways to conduct business. However, the arrival of new workplace technology should prompt us to ask whether existing ideas remain fit for purpose.

The impact of digital communication is set out in the HBR book - The Definitive Management Ideas of 2015.  The study highlighted how executives in 1970 received on average 1,000 communications a year, but as new forms of digital communications evolved, these numbers jumped.  The introduction of voicemail in the 1980’s accelerated the figure to 4,000 per year, and email in the 1990’s pushed this further to 8,000. With the rise of virtual collaboration today, executives now receive an astonishing 30,000 external communications a year.

Let’s not forget the internet either; it’s great, hideous, and everything in between.  We are yet to fully appreciate the long-term consequences of paying for it with our eyeballs.  Digital marketers lapped up new opportunities to capture our attention, so it should be no surprise that our brains absorb 5,000 brand messages each day.

Where do we go from here?

If we are hellbent on this notion that more is better then of course AI will be our saviour.  Our attention is a finite resource, so as we pursue more, we will need to outsource admin, decision-making, and other cognitive functions, to our algorithmic masters, but is this the only way?

Technology offers huge upside, but it’s potential is hamstrung by yesterday’s mindset.  We can’t put the genie back in its bottle - the modern enterprise is littered with customer touch points, broken processes, data silos, and fragmented systems which only automation, AI, and other digital tools can fix.  Our personal lives are no different.

Technology will improve efficiency, but is this enough?  Surely the real value is freeing people from the burden of shallow tasks, and opening up the space to learn, innovate, and collaborate?

Our classrooms, workplaces, and communities are home to diverse individuals - not just in the obvious ways, but with novel outlooks, experiences, thinking styles and behaviours.  Templates and one-size-fits-all approaches are not delivering the desired results and this will shift our decision making to one which is personalised, and with sustainability front and centre of people’s minds too, we’re also recognising less is often more.

Can we learn from the cognitively diverse?

An unchecked digital world encourages mindlessness; we check emails, devices, and apps all day, often without realising.  With every scroll and click, these digital drugs light up our brains’ frontal cortex and elevate dopamine levels. Obviously addiction is a complex process which also involves behaviour, genetics, learning and the environment.

Our brain function is not static - it has to be harnessed differently in the future.  Having ADHD pushes me to adapt recognising my brain doesn’t generate ideas, energy, or positive emotions lead me to leaving Facebook and Twitter years ago.

I’m not alone in experiencing the online world this way - a study by UCLA found that 93 percent of communication effectiveness is determined by nonverbal cues, such as tone, facial expression, and body language.

Daily life has become an ocean of digital characters, so spare a thought for those with another neurological difference - dyslexia.  Reading, spelling, and writing is not an automatic ability for everyone. A deficit in one area can mean an advantage elsewhere, but is this volume of communication effective, and who exactly is thriving?

Against this backdrop it’s inevitable communication errors will occur, especially with wellbeing in decline.  But our always-on culture has limited our tolerance, and the cognitively diverse would welcome a reset.

Reframing difference

Our brain has two hemispheres - and despite misconceptions - it’s not just the left that processes language.  The left hemisphere uses written words precisely, but the domain of the right hemisphere includes tone, gestures, expressions, metaphors, and jokes in it’s storytelling repertoire.  The left prefers impersonal, abstract terminology, and explicit instructions, the right hemisphere prefers the opposite, but also provides context.

As we struggle to find an inkling of common ground, trust is on the line.  How much longer can we ignore the big picture?

As new technologies entered the fray, we deployed them with our machine-mindset, ignoring any trade offs.  This way of thinking - and the continued complacency which shrouds it - is akin to being trapped in a hall of mirrors.

Thankfully - a new generation will force us to escape this mindset, and when it comes to the digital chaos that permeates daily life, advice for the way forward can be neatly summed up by the historian - Yuval Hoah Harari - “in a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power”.

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