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Charles F. Munat for Paperhat, Limited

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Cognitive footprint matters

The thinner you spread yourself, the harder to win

Cognitive “footprint” is the total cognitive effort required to sustain an enterprise. In short, it is all the thinking, reasoning, learning, remembering, etc. necessary for success.

The larger an organization’s cognitive footprint, the greater the cost to maintain it. If you can achieve the same outcome with a smaller footprint, you’ll save time and money — freeing up resources for other priorities.

To minimize cognitive footprint, making your organization leaner and more competitive, you’ll first need to recognize it and interrogate it.

Contributors to cognitive footprint

  • The difficulty of processes: if two processes achieve the same outcome, but one is more difficult, then the more difficult process increases the cognitive footprint without benefit.
  • The scale of the skills and knowledge required to keep the business running: the greater the number of skills needed or the more complex those skills, the greater the cognitive footprint.
  • The difficulty to acquire and maintain the necessary skills and knowledge required to run the business: slow to learn means a bigger cognitive footprint.
  • The cognitive load carried by the work force: cognitive load translates directly to cognitive footprint, which could be considered the sum of cognitive load over time.

If you’re not aware of and attentive to your organization’s cognitive footprint, then odds are it is much bigger than it needs to be. An oversized footprint wastes resources — including time and money — and hurts agility and competitiveness.

Why compete in clown shoes when you can wear a pair of Mizuno Wave Riders?

Clown shoes may look cool, but they’re not anything you’d want to run while wearing.

How to minimize cognitive footprint

The first trick to minimizing cognitive footprint is to recognize it in your organization. Begin by cataloguing everything that contributes to it. There are many things to consider:

  • How much knowledge do new employees need to learn to be able to come up to speed in their jobs? Is that information well documented? Well indexed for rapid access? Easy to understand? Tightly focused on exactly what they’ll need rather than an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach?
  • Look for duplicated effort. Do different divisions use different applications, frameworks, libraries to accomplish the same tasks? Why maintain incompatible stacks unnecessarily?
  • Perhaps you keep it lean, but do you apply that to learning as well? Do your workers employ just-in-time learning or are they regularly acquiring knowledge and skills that they don’t truly need and may never use? And are you paying for it under the assumption that all learning is useful?

There is much more to recognizing, measuring, and minimizing cognitive footprint. I’ll address specific issues and techniques in upcoming essays.

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