Malcolm Ryder
7 min readJul 13, 2023


Is thinking inherently a distributed phenomenon?

[Image: As displayed in A fusion of minds, 31 Jan 2013,]

We want, these days, to encourage open-mindedness, inclusion, collaboration, and other potential interactivity as tactics, if not strategies, for achieving outcomes that are better and sooner than without these approaches.

But that doesn’t equate to unilateral effort suddenly being a myth, illusion, oversight or error.

As we already know from our beneficial experiences with expertise, better, faster thinking is certainly a high-worth goal. And with so many companies scrambling for position in the “VUCA” world, compensating for lacking a resident genius is a idea whose time has definitely come.

So when we experience benefits from interactions, which by definition means that there is something shared or “distributed” in the effort, it makes that multi-actor model attractive, even argues against relying on solo production, and we like the idea that (AHA!) “distribution” might be generally essential in “how things work”.

If distribution is a fundamental property of effective production, then avoiding the silo becomes a theme of good advice, because it is counterproductive to work against the true nature of something that we’re using. (Does this mean that as a default, all operation should be CO-operation?)

The most familiar things that maintain a steady state of distributed operation are of course organizations and teams that we locally control; but now we’re mostly attracted to turning them into systems and networks that have their own rules of dynamic order, bigger than our local control.


I’m seeing more frequently now that “thinking” — at least while it is happening — is viewed as a state, like being “conscious” instead of being unconscious. It’s kind of like saying that the game is in progress rather than in time out, and what we want to be working with is the game-in-progress.

In distinction from other activities, thinking is the intentional effort to derive meaning from what paying attention yields.

It begins with consciousness, proceeds with attentiveness, develops further with evaluation, and matures as a cognitive disposition.

Let’s consider what is NOT “thinking”…

Observation, whether with or without recording, is not thinking. Inspection is thinking.

Reacting, whether tacitly or explicitly, is not thinking. Responding is thinking.

Describing is not thinking. Explaining is thinking.

Functioning is not thinking. Organizing is thinking.

What the above comparisons are trying to do is point out that when we use the term “thinking”, the value of using it (instead of some other term) is to point at the deliberate activity of doing something about thoughts.

This distinction is significantly different from just “having” thoughts occur, which is an event that is an outcome of a systematic brain function. And it should not be necessary to say that without a brain there is no “thinking”.

Also we can add that information processing is functional and includes a variant that we call “thinking”. Normally this is not intended to indicate a concern with this other major thing that is generated from experiences — “feeling”.


These days, it is never surprising when we go down the glide path that takes “process” as a synonym of thinking, and “system” as a host architecture of processing, and “organization” as a form of system. Doing that ultimately makes it pretty interesting to observe spontaneous organization, or reactive organizational behavior, as if they were additional manifestations of the dynamic operational model underlying what we already call “thinking”.

That “as if”, that simile, encourages us to compare observed complex adaptative behavior as if we were watching thoughtful decisions being made in runtime.

This might actually be recognized as a culture, but it is les tricky to think of it as a “system”

[Image: as displayed at, Networking, A Form of Change Management, 2021]

And the more we are inclined to see groups as organic systems, the more we are interested in the parallels of organic functions with thinking. That is, organic function coheres and directs groups (collections, aggregations) into “organizations” that “behave”, just like conceptual functions cohere and contextualize clusters of thoughts into heat-of-the-moment ideas.

The ground zero targeted in comparing organizational behavior with thinking is the metaphor of “process”. Process, as a model, always involves inputs, affects, operations, and outputs. We love being able to both discover and manage what inputs catalyze what affects that trigger what operations that shape what outputs. We love process as a tool for getting what we want.

And we know that in a heterogenous environment, some processes will affect other processes by constraining or contributing to their respective inputs, affects, operations or outputs.

As we map those constraints and contributions, we model a distribution of factors that account for the complex set of observable influences on where the activity (e.g. thinking or behavior) goes and why it goes that way.


“Interaction” by definition involves a “distribution” of actors and factors. Calling it out seems insightful. What we don’t want to lose sight of is vocabulary that already clearly expresses things we already know.

For example, influencing, planning, and developing are each things that can be highly sensitive to distributed actors and factors; but they are three different things and it is always worth not using them interchangeably because they don’t all create the same expectations.

What is also always worthwhile is to point out whether any particular case of influencing, planning or developing is a type that does not have sensitivity to multiple concurrent actors and factors. Doing that means we might start identifying (and circumstantially preferring) types that are not effective in a distributed scenario versus those that are. Or, likewise, types that are more effective with such distribution than without. As a manager, why would you not want to know this?


Finally, to reel in the preoccupation with “process”: pretty much any observable dynamic that can be described in terms of what accounts for the dynamic can be embraced as a “process”.

But this emphasizes that a process is fundamentally a way of seeing things. And guess what? the mode of accountability will predetermine how the process gets defined.

There is also huge importance in the realization that what we may call a process is a dynamic that may have no type of “conclusiveness” — no significant outcome — other than that it keeps happening. In which case, calling the dynamic a “process” is potentially dis-informative, directing our attention to a presumption of a transformation to an output that does not have any bearing on why the dynamic occurs.

Additionally, there is a universe of dynamics that is completely indifferent to whether we can recognize them as a process or not.

So, let’s back up in that chain of implications that went function/behavior/process/system/organization.

Thinking is about thoughts, and thinking essentially “organizes” (verb) thoughts. It’s not supposed to do, nor be, anything else. To organizae something, you need to find it, identify it, understand how it can associate with other things, and use some way to do and sustain the association that matters. (In that sentence, the two key words are “you” and “way”. What is in the role of “you”, and what is in the role of “way”?)

In an environment that allows interactions of multiple discrete actors and factors, we can examine this about thinking: how distributed participation works in the behavior that organizes thoughts. No process, system, or other organization (noun) is required as subject matter in the examination

But that will give an awareness of how a certain type of thinking (distributed) occurs. That type is not a definition of all thinking, any more than all rectangles are squares.

Philosophically, we could assert that (a.) no thought can occur without some kind of interaction and that (b.) all interactions feature distributed participation in some form.

But practically speaking, the best reason to have an understanding of how a dynamic’s functional architecture is distributed is to know how to use it.


To recap: the dynamic that we can identify as “thinking” begins with consciousness, proceeds with attentiveness, develops further with evaluation, and matures as a cognitive disposition.

Thinking is not a steady state. It is an activity, with elements that may obtain from distributed sources. Continuous thinking — a sustained dynamic — is a steady state.

One discussion that I ran across is about whether the coincidence of functions of distributed sources can organically integrate as a thinking dynamic.

I wonder about that when I’m watching futbol (soccer) and a team’s offense loses the ball and suddenly has to generate a group solution to defend themselves, from however the different players happen to be positioned at the moment. It’s great to watch; but I know they are trained to do it.

Practically speaking, a model of “distributed thinking” called “the University” first got permanent traction in the year 1088, in Bologna Italy.

© 2023 Malcolm Ryder

This article was instigated by the collaborative thinking of two colleagues at the Emergent Future Lab who posted an article in LinkedIn on a view of distributed thinking. The article you have been reading here does not represent their views.



Malcolm Ryder

Malcolm is a strategist, solution developer and knowledge management professional in both profit and non-profit companies across business, IT and the arts.