Sunday, October 02, 2022

The brain, expertise, and knowledge management

The brain undergoes rewiring after 40. No kidding. I would hope that the brain is constantly rewiring, but over time, the nature of the rewiring changes as we age.  And the employees within an organization who have the most expertise are likely to be over 40, the people who have decades of work experience, decades worth of learning, whether they stayed in one industry, one company, or they diversified their experiences.  These are also in many cases the people who are in the higher levels of management, making decisions. 

I came across this article:  The Brain Undergoes a Great Rewiring after age 40:  The aging brain is wired differently.  

"University in Australia swept through the scientific literature, seeking to summarize how the connectivity of the human brain changes over our lifetimes. The gathered evidence suggests that in the fifth decade of life (that is, after a person turns 40), the brain starts to undergo a radical “rewiring” that results in diverse networks becoming more integrated and connected over the ensuing decades, with accompanying effects on cognition."

The younger brain is partitioned and highly connected within the partitions.  It is building specialized networks.  The older brain is more connected across networks.  In the fourth and fifth decade of life is when you have the greatest within network and across network connectivity.  

The rewired brain is a function of the overall body's need to adjust to declining functions.  The body slows down and the brain needs to adjust.  Of course, exercise and a healthy diet can help slow down the decline.  I would like to think that continuous use of one's brain for intellectual pursuits is key to maintaining brain cells to.  By "intellectual pursuits" I mean more than sudoku and crossword puzzles, though.  My aging brain wants to connect things. Here we go:

How can emerging knowledge of how our aging brains are rewired impact how we understand expertise and knowledge retention in organizations?

A good understanding of how those brain cells are being rewired might also help put the remaining brain cells to good use and seeing where there might be some advantage to a widely-networked brain. In other words, while accepting the fact that one's brain is changing and decline is somewhat inevitable, perhaps a wiser brain is emerging.  Let's just assume this hypothesis is plausible, otherwise it's depressing.

Going back to knowledge management, how can we handle the knowledge of experts in their 50s and 60s, knowing that their neural pathways are changing?  Instead of thinking about it as declining brain functions, what are the strengths we can expect from broader connectivity among networks in the brains of the more experienced professionals in an organization?  

And are there any useful parallels between neuron networking in the brain and people networking in organizations?

A young brain is specializing within sections of the brain.  The equivalent in an organization might be specialized communities of practice.  They are building expertise within narrow knowledge domains but not connecting well with the broader system.  An older brain connects more across networks.  In an organization, the equivalent might be crosscutting networks that make much greater use of systems thinking and see how the narrowly defined communities of practice are or should be connected. 

To be more specific, the individual communities in a Yammer (enterprise social) network are the specialized segments of the organizational brain while the Yammer network itself is the more broadly integrated, aging brain.  The younger employees might feel more comfortable engaging in the specialized communities of practice.  The more seasoned employees might be at ease engaging across communities, or making the connections across the communities.

While this resonates personally, I can't say that I have any evidence that this is indeed happening.  Considering that the aging brain isn't very flexible, it makes it challenging to ask the so-called "experts" to engage in new ways, using new communications platforms like Yammer. Knowing that, how can we still leverage the aging brains' valuable expertise and strengths in seeing the bigger picture, the broadly networked picture, the whole system?

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