One ‘camp’ says that neuroscience is the next great thing for business and can be applied to everything from marketing to training; and another camp warns that we should be wary of applying it because much of the science is, in fact, pseudoscience.
Business leaders could be forgiven for feeling a little confused. Who’s right?
Let’s take a look at what neuroscience CAN and CANNOT do for your business.
Limitations of neuroscience
Before we look at where neuroscience may be applied meaningfully to business, it’s important to consider the limitations.
Firstly, while the brain and nervous system has been studied for centuries, it’s only in the past decade or so that imaging techniques (functional MRI or fMRI) have become widely enough available to consistently image the brain. This has, in many cases, replaced observational neuroscience, and the use of surveys for gathering information.
It’s worth remembering that the main impetus behind the growth of neuroscience has been to better treat illnesses and to understand the workings of the brain for clinical purposes – not to help motivate staff, improve business strategy, or to sell more products.
The science should be considered to be still in its infancy – and even the most positive of neuroscientists would tell you that we only know a fraction of what there is to know about the workings of the brain.
Neuroscience may be limited by the high costs involved in running studies, as well as the quality of the set up and purpose of the studies themselves. But there is another limitation in the interpretation of the data from the studies.
Few of us are trained in neuroscience, so business leaders are reliant upon those with enough grasp of the science to ‘translate’ it into a business context. Are the conclusions realistic or are they being ‘stretched’? It is easy for information to be manipulated, lost in translation, or simply misinterpreted by the receiving party.
For these reasons, a healthy wariness of neuroscience in a business context is advisable.
So where can neuroscience help?
The temptation for organizations is that, because clinical studies provide hard, objective data to back up the conclusions, these conclusions are new ‘truths’ that can confirm or deny past business approaches, suggest new strategies, and be applied universally.
As already stated, neuroscience is in its infancy, and studies just ten years old are often superseded by new findings.
Neuroscience, however, can be very useful in the hands of entities that understand the science AND appreciate its limitations. They are often is able to draw reasonable conclusions about the nature of human behaviour and may be able to ‘bridge’ the considerable gap between the science and its application in the real world.
For instance, working with leadership to improve teamwork, meetings, and workplace culture all comes down to one key factor: addressing what motivates people’s behaviour. Neuroscience has helped identify some common needs that people require in differing amounts in group situations. Understanding these, and applying methods to ensure that these needs are met, has been shown to produce real, tangible team results: a good example of neuroscience helping in the workplace.
Neuroscience also has plenty to say about the decision-making process. Daily life essentially consists of a long series of decisions, so we can see why this would be of interest. In a business context, leaders can learn to make better decisions if they are more aware of the typical processes that their brains go through before arriving at a decision; and, of course, businesses are always interested in customer buying decisions and how they can influence it.
The best advice is to be careful who you deal with. Check the credentials of the organisations you work with, make sure they are ethical, and ensure they can bridge that gap between the neuroscience and its application.