Most of us can relate to examples of when customer service organisations have driven us completely bonkers: being passed off to another department that does not answer your call and drops you into a black hole; getting through to an Indian call centre that has not a clue how to address your problem; orders placed and fulfilled incorrectly……the list is endless.
With the so-called customer relationship being such a fundamental component to the success of any business, why do companies behave in such a maddening way? The answer may well lie in some interesting new research from psychology. It describes a model that helps to diagnose the roots of certain common mental health problems but can also be extended to help us understand some of the more general dysfunctions that we see within organisations.
The New Psychology of Caetextia (or Context Blindness)
Recent psychological research in the UK has come up with a new model for us to understand better what is going on with people suffering from a range of mental health conditions such as Asbergers’ syndrome, Autism and schizophrenia. In summary, these symptoms are best expressed by the inability of people to switch easily between several foci of attention – and to track them against the history and context that relates to them. This new line of research has been called ‘caetextia’ by the researchers: coming from the two Latin words caecus, (meaning ‘blind’) and contextus, (meaning ‘context’). Further details can be found at www.caetextia.com.
It would appear that organisations can also demonstrate the symptoms of caetextia (or context-blindness). Organisational Caetextia (or OC as we will call it from now on) can help us understand why some organisations exhibit a sort of madness when dealing with their customers and employees – yet give us a clue as to why they remain blind to the significant consequences of acting in such a crazy way.
In cases of caetextia in individuals, the new research has uncovered two types of context blindness – and OC can also be observed in two distinct types of dysfunctional behaviour. Before we look at these two types, though, it is worth looking in more detail at the part of the brain that allows us to process context.
Parallel Processing in the Human Brain
In order for us to have context, we need to be able to see events from different points of view. Recent research into how the brain works has revealed that all mammals have a part of the brain that can process masses of information at the same time – similar to the new ways that we configure parallel processing in computers. This part of the brain developed millions of years ago to guage the risks associated by processing multiple streams of information and unconsciously comparing them to previous experiences. This is something we take for granted today, but millons of years ago it was the key to any mammal’s survival and conserve energy by not reacting to every stimulus that came along.
The research has concluded that this parallel processing part of the brain can become impaired – and this is particularly prevalent in people who demonstrate symptoms on the autistic spectrum. In such cases the brain cannot do the parallel processing necessary to keep separate streams of attention, switching effortlessly between each of them to assess their relevance to what is actually happening in the here-and-now. This form of parallel processing requires the brain to dissociate: in other words to be able to to review what it knows about something that it has come across before, whilst also paying attention to that something in the present. It is no wonder that such people often suffer from learning difficulties!
Two types of Organisational Caetextia (OC)
The research has also uncovered two types of Caetextia: front-of-brain or straight-line thinking blindness and back-of-brain random association blindness. What is interesting is that these types of caetextia can also be applied to organisations and can help us understand why some organisations are so disconnected.
The first type can be called “Process OC”. This is where an organisation processes work in logical straight lines without taking into account the wider organisational implications of doing so. This type of OC is fixated in the front of the brain. Examples might be a call centre agent who does not know which person or department to hand-off someone to and simply puts them into a telephone black hole. Another example might be an agent who says “I am really sorry that this has happened to you, I will get someone to ring you back” – and they never do.
Organisational Caetextia of the process type tends to happen lower-down organisatons (for instance someone in the back-office saying: “that’s not my job, I only process this type of transaction”. Front line workers will often be encouraged to adopt to this type of thinking with phrases such as “You are not paid to think. Just do what I say”. This dysfunctionality is exacerbated by outsourcing arrangements where the supplier organisation fulfills its minimum service level obligations and is very much driven by the mantra “if it is not in the contract, then I can do it, but it will cost you more”.
The second type “Informational OC” tends to be found higher-up in organisations. This type of OC is based in the back of the brain. The symptoms of this type of organisational madness is driven by managers and “leaders” defining a whole world of information they need to run the business that is of very litle value other than to those managers holding their jobs down or playing the politics of the given day. Often the amount of information needed expands without any understanding on the cost associated with gathering it. The information is then dressed up as targets to “motivate” those lower down the organisation to stretch themselves to meet those targets and get a bonus. Vast parts of the organisation chase numbers that have no bearing on the reality of what is actually happening to customers on a day-to-day basis.
In times of stress, the information will often be used to create random associations between the data sets, coming to rapid conclusions to reinforce otherwise illogical assumptions and then finding it rather difficult to justify their decisions after the event. The whole saga of justifying Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq is a good example of this. Organisations also use such pools of information to get rid of people lower down in the organisation who are not “conforming”… even if the data bears no resemblence to reality and the people are doing valuable work with customers.
Successful organisations use back-brain (information = innovation) with front-brain (process = delivery) in a combination that drives continuous improvement. A well-known example of this is Google who allow each employee to spend 20% of their time on their own projects.
In less successful organisations, these two frameworks of OC might be useful in alerting organisations, managers and employees or service workers to the madness that is around them – and perhaps give them a perspective to stop some of the maddening things they are doing at the moment!
More on the basic and ongoing research at Mindfields College at: www.caetextia.com
These main ideas in this article first published in an article for the CRM evaluation centre. Paper can be downloaded by following the link to their briefings.