Cognitive reapportionment is a design concept for managers and academics alike, dealing with the allocation of decision rights and authorities in business and management processes. The predominate design paradigms of the past emphasize a static, passive role for technology in general and information technology in particular. Acts of cognition were firmly associated with the human element of the organization. In order to deal most effectively with an increasingly volatile business environment, to leverage existing talent, and to reap the most value from investments in information technology, we believe that managers and organizational theorists alike need new design concepts that reflect the growing cognitive capabilities of new information technologies. Our studies examine the cognitive reapportionment concept, discusses its intellectual roots, and gives specific examples of the concept at the individual, organizational, and inter-organizational level. Because the design and allocation of task responsibilities has always been a central function of management, a portion of our inquiries examine the implications for managers.
Information technology is one of mankind's most malleable inventions. Unlike bridges, rockets, printing presses, or cars, information technology is vastly plastic and rarely constrained by physics, chemistry or physical limitations. When managing such a fungible device, the soundness of design concepts and management principals is paramount. Many a manager has hoped for an intelligent, dynamic and adjusting information system, just to find that the possibilities of the technology were eroded by current patterns, behaviors and expectations of the technology--based on old design paradigms.
In our studies, we examine the idea of "cognitive reapportionment," a concept which draws upon ideas from organization design, decision support systems and model management. In cognitive reapportionment, we suggest the idea that the organization can be conceived of as bundles of decisions and these bundles can be allocated across humans, systems, or combinations of humans and systems. Also, we suggest that the allocation of these cognitive responsibilities can be dynamically allocated--taking into account the user, the system status, and the decision environment.
In the business environment of tomorrow, pressures will continue to grow for skills needed to capture, filter, use, and convey useful information and knowledge more precisely and more quickly. Organizations need the right mixture of human and machine based intelligence available to respond to the volatile business environment. Volume, volatility, velocity and veracity (the four vs) of information in the emerging business environmment demand skills that have historically eluded the organization of the past that had depended on people to perform all interpretation of policy and values of the firm.
Given the huge and ever growing invested base of information technology (IT) in which many decision policies are tacitly enacted, managers need a way to understand these assets. Looking forward, organizations are under extensive pressures to monitor and distill external data, leverage internal expertise in decision making, and modify and update current systems. In such a demanding information environment, managers need to begin to off-load cognitive responsibilities onto systems. Thus this concept should have applicability for existing as well as future management of systems within organizations.
This is not an information age that raises this challenge. Rather it is a knowledge age that extends beyond the management of facts and truths. Skills, understanding, expertise and experience are reflected in the capabilities required in this emerging era. The continuous change of the firm in response to the increasing dynamic in the marketplace are an accepted reality. Productive use of the skills and capabilities of human and systems is no longer a desired condition, it is essential for effective market and management performance.
Managing becomes designing. We can expect that as the capabilities increase to relocate judgement and decisionmaking, the managers role will change from coordination and development of the portfolio of people talent, to one of continuous organizational design. It is true that the "organization" we refer to is a local, temporary arrangement of human and system cognitors . This has been ever true, but never more important a general management role as local autonomy, less rigorous job descriptions, increasing reporting responsibilities and other pressures bear of teams and business units.
Cognition deals with acts of thinking that are associated with judgement and decisionmaking. At the core of the cognitive reapportionment concept is the idea that cognitive responsibilities can be allocated to a human or humans, or to a system or systems. Most early automation efforts focused on taking thinking responsibilities from individual workers and putting them into information systems. The creation of the massive policy transaction systems that formed the back office of most life insurance companies saw tremendous substitution of computing power for human clerical work. Much of the early history of computerization was logged in accounting and finance--the factories of financial services. This automation was also largely static--that is, the dialogue between the system and the human cognitor was static. Regardless of the skill of the person interacting with the system, the machine always performed the same repertoire of cognitive acts.
This automation driven approach to the allocation of cognitive responsibilities is the predominant design paradigm in operation today. Despite the creation of flexible user interfaces, presentation capabilities, and advanced decision logics, there is still an overriding focus on gathering human cognitive responsibilities and placing them in the system. We suggest that this narrow view of cognitive reapportionment constrains the capabilities of systems, because system designers often limit themselves to those systems which can be "fully automated." Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, it creates a uniform system which does not sense its user or its decision environment. Any dynamic allocation of cognitive responsibilities must come from the user, or systems builder.
Emerging in some other domains, we already see dynamic allocation of cognitive responsibilities. There are, in the automation of decision processes, also examples in which the cognitive reapportionment has shifted from the machine back to the human being. In a range of avionics systems, the pilot is permitted to take over control and coordination responsibilities that will permit him/her to perform special maneuvers. In other words, depending upon conditions, the pilot, or the supporting avionic systems are both capable of performing critical decision tasks. Yet, there are situations where only one of the actors should be allowed to make the decisions--say critical trim controls at high speed for the avionics, and ejection decisions for the pilot. In a design paradigm driven by cognitive reapportionment, the design which provided the best set of decision outcomes wins out. In the avionics system, the trim controls are often left with the information system, but the ejection decisions with the pilot.
These and other activities present clear evidence that companies are trying to leverage information technologies for radical internal restructuring and competitive positioning. Furthermore, new management pressures suggest that the critical role of such technologies in day-to-day, hour-by-hour managerial decision making will accelerate.
Accentuating that "business as usual" is no longer feasible are the following modern business realities:
How can information technology help today's managers cope with the extraordinary pressure to deal with more information in a shorter time and increase the quality of the decisions? Fortunately for those in this environment, extraordinary information opportunities exist today that were unavailable just a few years ago.
The solution lies in taking advantage of these opportunities through new techniques in both the organizational and technology aspects of the enterprise. One such initiative -- the concept of information refineries -- may serve to address certain of these pressures.
To understand the concept of information refineries, consider that one of the early triumphs of information systems was simply to put a small portion of corporate information into electronic form. Success was often measured in terms of how much electronic information could be produced.
That, however, was a long time ago: today, less is more. Users' time and attention, not information, are in short supply. As organizations become flattened, networked and electronically integrated, the specter of information overload and gridlock threatens to undermine the expected benefits and savings.
Unless executives begin planning now on how to reduce their information overload problems, they will forever be playing catch-up -- one step behind the next technology wave -- with demand outstripping capacity. Our information systems will be similar to Third World telephone systems, in which the addition of each new phone creates an exponential increase in demand for capacity.
The IS executive, however, has an obvious advantage that the Third World telecommunications planner does not. New distribution technologies are not only reducing the cost of adding new bandwidth, but new software technologies can help eliminate unnecessarily heavy traffic and unwanted communications and documents. Just as data compression techniques can account for highly noticeable improvements in channel efficiencies, so can information-refining techniques dramatically reduce the volume of unwanted and unnecessary information.
A refinery is defined by the dictionary as a device for "removing impurities from a crude or impure material"; in the case of oil or sugar, it is defined as a "fractional distillation usually followed by other processing (cracking in the case of oil and crystallization in the case of sugar)."
Information refining is an electronic, computer-based process that takes undifferentiated volumes of raw information -- magazines, newspapers, reports, memos, newsletters, directories and databases -- converts them into electronic form, extracts the content units and recombines them into a new form that can be distributed in a variety of ways. The end product of information refining can be sold as a commodity, as a finished good or as an input for another refinery.
Just as a petroleum refinery takes crude oil and refines it into gasoline, motor oil, heating oil or aviation fuel and introduces it into various petrochemical processes, the finished product of an information refinery can take many forms: a database, a business letter, marketing report, electronic publication, directory, paper publication, voice message, graphic or even video animation. The salient point about an information refinery is that it not only separates out the impurities of raw information, but it breaks down the material into a basic form so that it can be further processed and recombined into new types of end products.
Most of the electronic information that today's professional consumes is still in its raw state. Often, it contains only a portion of the information that the user wants and either he has to search through a series of documents or reports to find what he wants or he has to query a variety of hard-to-access databases. The information is seldom organized in a fashion that is comprehensive and coherent.
In many such cases, the cost -- in terms of time, effort and intellectual overhead -- of acquiring the right information exceeds the usefulness of the information.
As the volume and velocity of corporate information continues its exponential growth, it will simply be impractical for users to cull useful data from useless information. Unless there are technological aids and intelligence amplifiers to assist the user, the information organization could become gridlocked by its own success.
As information overload and gridlock problems become more pronounced and visibly impede the effectiveness of organizations, information refineries -- actually a new application genre that will provide products within the next year or so -- will emerge to help IS cope.