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If you think of the human body, what does our nervous system let us do? It lets us hear, see, take input. It lets us think and analyze and plan. It lets us make decisions and communicate and take action. Every company essentially has a nervous system: companies take inputs, they think, they plan, they communicate, they take action. The question is how does the nervous system in your company operate? Is the IT infrastructure really adding value?
Think of a “digital nervous system” as a metaphor for how the IT infrastructure of a company or business could be similar to the autonomic nervous system of a biological organism. Steve Ballmer, the former Microsoft CEO, put this concept brilliantly:
Ballmer goes further:
“Every enterprise, whether it’s large or small, will need to have its information in digital form and be able to take advantage of that to streamline decision processes to draw more people to make decisions, whether it’s people inside the company, or partners, or suppliers. ”
A healthy nervous system is what enables an organization to be agile, “quick on its feet”, capable of adapting to unexpected challenges, and overall empowered to make better quicker decisions.
However, this digital utopia can be more ideal than actual reality, if there are training issues limiting effective use, be it smartphones or apps that are used to “plugin” to this “digital neural network”. If there are problematic attitudes towards technology, or on another level, if dysfunctional communication habits also exist, any technology will only be limited by them.
I will use the metaphor of the “organization as a living organism” to point out how the many ramifications caused by “faults” in the digital pipelines can create costs beyond merely lost productivity.
The open and free flow of blood is crucial to any living being. It is essential for biological survival. No exceptions.
What is the lifeblood of an organization or business? A large cash fund? Positive word of mouth? Many eager volunteers? That all definitely helps. But that’s not the “lifeblood“ I’m talking about. It’s the free and open flow of information throughout the workplace and the company you work for as a whole.
Just as neurons need to build neural connections to consolidate learning and growth, so do dynamic teams must constantly cultivate new communication pathways to stay dynamic. That free and open flow of information and ideas is as crucial to a properly functioning digital nervous system, as oxygen and blood are to any living being.
Neurons are meant to form connections with each other. And in many ways, the nervous systems have similarities to the Internet, whose success in large part was due to the free and open exchange of information that it made possible, removing geographic barriers to forming new connections, plus adding a new dimension of interactivity not possible with traditional media.
The unrestricted free and open nature of the Internet was essential to the many innovations it spurred. Much the same way that a robust circulatory system is essential to a robust body and brain. This is the stuff of creative, dynamic teams. Now try doing that with clogged communication pathways and see innovation suffer, nerves get frayed, and team dynamism stagnate.
According to Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Haim Mendelson, “The system needs a way to effectively store and share its information so decisions take advantage of its total knowledge base rather than have each decision-maker (processor) limited to its own local data. It also needs to reduce processing bottlenecks — otherwise, it will suffer from information overload, leading to ineffective decisions and late response. Finally, rather than view the organizational network as a stand-alone, self-contained, closed system, it should operate as part of a larger collection of interconnected networks.”
The opposite of free flow is constriction,
The problems set in when there are “blood vessels” that are “clogged” or “blocked”, where the information pathways are concerned.
Here’s another thing to throw at you, but if the IT situation is fine but dysfunctional communication habits pervade the workplace culture, digital communication tools will only serve to highlight those problems without really fixing anything. This is called a “silo culture” when departments or management groups do not share information, goals, tools, priorities, and processes with other departments.
The silo mentality is believed to impact operations, reduce employee morale and may contribute to the overall failure of a company or its products and culture. It is a significant drain on both productivity and psychological well-being of team members as a whole.
Here’s a simple test to find out if silo thinking is pervasive. How often do you hear someone saying at your workplace,
“That’s not my job.”
“Why tell me this? That is your job.”
Has anyone told you this recently?
How often do you hear a person in a leadership position say this in one day?
Psychology Today writer Ronald Riggio, Ph.D. in “The 5 Warning Signs of a Toxic Work Environment” said this in response: “The smaller the company, the more important it is that employees think on their feet, adapt quickly to shifting priorities, and do whatever it takes, regardless of role or position, to get things done. When your leaders say that to you where you work, what they’re really saying is, “I care only about me.” That attitude quickly destroys overall performance because it quickly turns what might have been a cohesive team into a dysfunctional group of individuals, each looking out only for themselves.”
Organizations tend to underestimate how often and to what degree interpersonal conflict situations can be due to a faulty digital nervous system. Often, the faults have nothing to do with “digital” leakages at all, if the root cause is built into the culture. The “silo mentality” may be at the root of many of them.
Dynamic Signal, employee communication and engagement platform that surveyed just over 1,000 employees found that 70% of employees say they feel overwhelmed at work. The culprit? Dysfunctional communication.
Consider these other stats:
Stated simply: “Drama is costly.”
Look out for the recurring patterns or dynamics amongst your team, as they might be a message in disguise telling you that these are systemic issues left unaddressed. If it is at least partially caused by a “(faulty) digital nervous system”, it is one of the most preventable, and easiest to remedy.
The real bottom line is this: The leaders of a company are responsible for the well-being of its employees, and in order to do this, it must be responsible for the culture and how it affects more than the “visible indicators” of the bottom line, and that includes employee well-being and a safe, free, and open culture. If the causes of a significant brain drain on the team are easy to fix, can you think of a rational reason not to?