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Does a company have a mind?

Posted: January 10, 2019 at 9:34 AM
By: Paul Stevens

I was recently reading the comments of the CEO of a failed Australian company. He said: "When I arrived at the company I found that it did not have an effective executive forum. No process existed to ensure that the whole of the intellectual resource of the management team was being used to arrive at the best decisions. The company appeared to operate in silos. There was little recognition of what was best for the company." This got me thinking about how much easier it is for individuals to apply their minds to what is good for them personally, and how difficult it is to apply one’s mind to what is best for an entity that is not a person, yet is made up of relationships between people.

When talking about relationships in the failed company the CEO said: "If my experience is anything to go by, companies with good relationships are more the exception than the rule. Good relationships are hard work. They are confronting, challenging and difficult." and he concluded by saying "I can’t begin to recount all the meetings I have been to in my long career where the real agenda was not being discussed. What was being discussed in these meetings was not being discussed honestly. And, at least half the participants had absolutely no intention of implementing whatever would be portrayed as being agreed. Matter of fact they would probably expend a great deal of energy and effort finding ways not to do what had been agreed. Just stop for a minute and think about the amount of valuable human energy that is wasted in such situations. Energy that could be used to further the company’s real goals."

Our brain is often used as an image of our mind even though the mind is much more than the brain as a physical organ. As an individual our mind gives us the ability to think, feel, observe, listen, taste, smell and breathe. Unlike an individual, a company does not have a brain, it is not a person, yet the law gives a company the legal status of a person for many purposes and reasons. Companies are, in sense a modern-day Frankenstein, put together in the legal laboratory. Companies can own assets, they can undertake activity, but if they have no brain, do they have a mind? Can a company think, feel. observe, listen, taste, smell and breathe? As that CEO observed, the company's intellectual capacity, the collection of brains and minds of the people working in it, was not functioning.

The University of Cape Town under the guidance of Professor Mark Solms, Chair of Neuropsychology have a short learning course called "What is a mind". In this program it is proposed that there are four mandatory properties for a mind: Subjectivity, Consciousness, Intentionality & Agency.

1. Subjectivity: Whilst our brain is objective, our mind is subjective. A brain can be observed externally but our mind can only be observed from an internal perspective. Only I can know my own mind, or feel what it is like to be my mind. Is a company objective or subjective? Can it feel what it is like to be a company? Does it have an internal perspective of itself?

2. Consciousness: In order for something to have a mind it must be sentient; it must be able to feel to be conscious. The reticular activating system in the brain structure is responsible for consciousness. These 'need detectors' convey the state of your body through feelings. Your consciousness motivates you to do things that are biologically good for you and avoid things that are biologically bad (Fight & Flight). Our body also operates in an unconscious state, how we breath, how we walk etc. Does a company exhibit consciousness, does it operate in an unconscious state?

3. Intentionality: This is about how we intend towards objects in the outside world and may not necessarily be conscious. The seeking or wanting system is foremost and may be as simple as eye movements, dreaming, searching of memory traces and trying to make meaning out of something. By engaging with the outside world you learn from experience. How does a company itself intend towards the outside world?

4. Agency: According to Jaak Panksepp there are seven basic emotional systems or instincts: seek, rage, fear, lust, care, panic/grief, and play. We feel something first and then make choices by thinking and this is where agency kicks in. Thinking can be defined as imagined or experimental action. It is the ownership of intentionality, enabling us to act or not to act. It is the ownership of your intentionality. Does a company have agency?

When I walk through the above high-level outline of "what is a mind?" I'm easily convinced that a company does not have a mind. So having created our modern day Frankenstein, how do we address this deficiency? How do we enable the individual, “unnatural’ person that is a company to operate as an individual ‘natural’ person does, so that it has the appearance of a mind? How is subjectivity, consciousness, intentionality and agency enabled within a company?

What this demonstrates is that creating a process or a forum to 'be the mind of a company' is a complex thing. It requires the minds of the individuals who have been selected / appointed to be the "collective mind" of the organisation to somehow operate as one. The collective mind of the company is not the same as "being" the mind of the company, but it is the only proxy for being the mind of the company.

It follows then that if the individual minds are focussed on what "they" can get out of their involvement and not what is best for the welfare of the company itself, then the situation will resemble that outlined by the CEO at the beginning of this article.

So the board and executive of a company should be the mind of the company, one mind, not split personalities. They must feel, think, observe, listen, taste, smell and breathe for the company in unison, not divided and not in conflict and competition. They must communicate clear messages to the body of the company for the health and wellbeing of mind and body, and so the company can interact with other natural and ‘unnatural persons’, ie. companies, in an appropriate manner.

In conclusion, a company does NOT have a mind. It has a mind by proxy (collective mind) only which gives rise to it's subjectivity, consciousness, intentionality and Agency and for the health and wellbeing (sustainability) of the company itself, not for benefit of the individual minds who are charged with the authority, responsibility and accountability for its decisions and activities. The challenge for all of us is to open our minds to the challenge and the possibilities of developing a collective mindset which has the capacity to ‘feel’ for the company and therefore allow it to perform ethically.