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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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Cognitive Surplus


I’ve recently been switched on to the writings of Clay Shirky, internet commentator and all round good egg. If he’s new to you, check out this as one example, but there’s loads more at

He has coined the phrase ‘cognitive surplus’ to explain the huge brain power available to humanity which he would argue has been lost because of the insidious effect of mass media – not least time spent in front of the TV. He notes that Americans last year spent a collective 200bn hours watching TV – a thousand times more hours than have so far been invested in the creation of wikipedia.
However, he also notes that current teenagers in the USA and elsewhere watch less Television than the immediate previous generations and that much of the explanation for this is that they have diverted their time  – and in Shirky’s terminology, their cognitive surplus – to online activity and especially making contributions to web discussions and writing comments on everything from their friends’ status to the new You Tube video via the wonders of web 2.0.
Shirky’s central point is that outside of work we have a cognitive surplus – spare brainpower – which is already being used in ways which traditional media and traditional institutions are only just beginning to wake up to. The answer to the question “how do they find the time” is simple – they watch less TV!
However, what about using social media within the work environment and especially as an adjunct to training and development activity in organisations?
It seems to me that there is a significant disconnect here. The question “How do they find the time?” is not so easily answered in the world of work. In a working environment where everyone is desperately trying to achieve more from less is there a significant ‘cognitive surplus’ to make the social media argument compelling in a modern organisation?
There may be space for some to contribute, comment and engage with an audience via web 2.0 tools on corporate intranets, but in my experience that’s because it’s their job. I was working with a client the other day and looked through their community space for people based all round the world who worked in similar roles – interestingly within the training arena. What I saw was a familiar experience. The web 2.0 tool had been established allowing everyone in the community (indeed in the organisation) to post information and comment on the posts of others. In an organisation with over 53,000 people, the wisdom of crowds argument would expect there to be a significant number of people contributing, debating and coming up with an organically developing set of ideas, concepts and principles. 
Not the case.
True there were twenty plus posts on the site – many of them with useful information, content and shared documents. However,  my client who ‘owns’ the site had posted nearly all these – in fact all save one. There was one other contributor and one comment on that contribution – from guess who? Yes, the site owner. Every other post remained unsullied by community comment.
Is this just an isolated incident? Look through my blog posts – they attract a reasonable number of readers in the context of Training Zone. How many comments do you see? Now delete the ones from people trying to sell me wedding outfits. Yes, not that impressive.
The reality is that in a work environment, there is little cognitive surplus and so we are, for the most part, recipients of the outpourings of those who have a role which involves the space and time to contribute. The great democratisation of content, the sharing of learning, the wisdom of trainee crowds, is a holy grail which remains lost. 
What’s more it won’t be found unless a) there is cognitive surplus at work, i.e. they are not fully employed within their roles, or b) organisations begin to accept and expect that everyone will spend part of their working day contributing to the collective knowledge of the organisation and that they should be employed to do so.

Author Profile Picture
Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

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