“I’m just giving you a brain dump.”

Please don’t. Not to me, not to your colleagues, and especially, no matter how dire the circumstances, not to your manager.

Start with the prevalent but inaccurate distinction between data and information. Data are, supposedly, meaningless until processed into meaningful and useful information.

Not to nitpick or nuthin’ but “information” already had a definition before this one came along. It comes, appropriately enough, from information theory, which defines information as the stuff that reduces uncertainty.

As long as we’re being annoyingly pedantic, far from being worthless, data consist of indisputable facts: A datum is a measurement of some attribute of some identifiable thing, taking measurement in its broadest sense — if you observe and record the color of a piece of fruit, “orange” is a measurement.

So a fact can, in fact (sorry) reduce your uncertainty, as in the case where someone has asserted that something is impossible. If you observe and document it happening even once, you’ve reduced everyone’s uncertainty about whether the phenomenon in question is possible or not.

As long as we’re being metaphysical, let’s add one more layer: Meaning isn’t something information confers. Meaning is a property of knowledge — something a person develops, over time, by interpreting their experience, which is a combination of raw data, information, and logic, and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, no shortage of illogic as well.

(If, astonishingly, you’re interested, Scott Lee and I covered this topic in more depth in The Cognitive Enterprise.)

Back to brain dumps. You might think the problem is that the dumper is providing data, not information. Au contraire, mes amis. In my experience, brain dumps contain precious little data. They are, instead, a disorganized jumble that does include some information, interspersed with anecdotes, opinions of varying degrees of reliability (the brain-dumper would consider these to be knowledge), and ideas, which, as we’re being definitional, we might think of as hypotheses only without the supporting logic that makes good hypotheses worth testing.

And so, now that I’ve thoroughly buried the lede, the reason brain dumping is generally worse than useless is that it’s an exercise in reverse delegation.

Brain dumps happen when one person asks another person to figure something out and then explain it so they’ll both be smarter about the subject at hand.

But instead of making the delegator smarter, the brain-dumper has instead de-delegated the hard work of organizing these bits and pieces into a clear and coherent narrative.

It’s as if I were to assign you responsibility for baking a cake, and to satisfy the assignment, instead of returning with my just desserts, you were to dump a bunch of raw foodstuffs on my desk, some of which might be useful as cake ingredients and others not, along with 23 recipes for pies and cakes, plus commentary about how eating too much sugar causes cavities and adult-onset diabetes.

When receiving end a brain dump I often conclude the dumper has lost track of the explanation’s purpose. Instead of trying to make me smarter about a subject, the presenter is, instead, trying to show me how smart he or she is.

But it’s more likely I’ll reach the opposite conclusion, due to one of Einstein’s dicta: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Bad meta-message.

How can someone keep themselves from becoming a brain-dumper? Here’s one approach: Start by carefully choosing an entry point.

Imagine I’m supposed to explain something to you. Presumably I know quite a lot about the subject at hand or you wouldn’t ask. I know so much, in fact (this is, you understand, hypothetical) that I can’t explain anything I know about it until you understand everything I know about it.

And as you won’t be able to understand anything I have to say about it until you’ve heard everything I have to say about it, my only choice is to dump the contents of my brain onto your desk.

But if I choose a good entry point I’ll be starting my explanation with something about the subject you can understand immediately, like, “We have a problem. Here’s what it is, and why you should be concerned about it.”

Then comes the second-hardest part: Leaving out everything you know about the subject, except what helps explain what the problem is and why your listener should be concerned about it.

Leaving out any of my precious knowledge out hurts.

But that’s better than the pain I’d inflict by leaving it in.

“It sounds like your organization suffers from Not Invented Here Syndrome,” I commented to a client a few years ago.

“Oh, no, we don’t,” he told me. “We have the Not Invented Here by Me Syndrome.”

Which brings us to this week’s Insight from the Biological Sciences for Business Managers.

Stay with me.

Biologists think in terms of species — populations of organisms that are genetically isolated from one another. In general, members of different species can’t interbreed at all. Offspring of the exceptions, such as mules, offspring of a horse and a donkey, are infertile.

Research into human evolution suggests this is an overly simplistic perspective. In our own distant past, members of different hominid species — like Homo sapiens, Homo neanderthalensis (Neanterthals), and Homo denisova (Denisovans) — could and did interbreed, producing fertile offspring whose genetic traces can be found in modern humans (“Denisovans Emerged from the Shadows,” Bruce Bower, Science News, 12/21/2019).

Our theory of the corporation is something like the older, more simplistic view of species. Substitute formal knowledge, informal ideas, and well-honed processes and practices for genes, as Richard Dawkins proposed when he originally coined the term “meme.” Then substitute patents, trademarks, copyrights, non-compete and non-disclosure agreements for the biological barriers to interspecies gene sharing.

Back in the halcyon days of the Microsoft vs Apple wars, Apple was the more innovative of the two. Under Steve Jobs it “innovated” the borrowing of Xerox Parc Labs’ research into GUIs years before Microsoft borrowed the idea from Apple.

But following that initial borrowing, Jobs established a core business culture that was rooted in all innovations having to be Apple inventions.

Meanwhile, Bill Gates’ business culture endorsed adopting any and every good idea that wasn’t bolted down … and, if we’re all honest with each other, good ideas that had been bolted down, but with too flimsy a bolt.

Apple’s aficionados were and are more passionately loyal than Microsoft’s customers. But in IT, Microsoft matters. Apple’s products? They connect to the IT portfolio but aren’t important to it.

Which leads to the question, has the corporations-as-species, IP-as-gene business model outlived its value?

The answer, as Scott Lee and I proposed in The Cognitive Enterprise, is yes. It’s time to replace it with a more fluid model of corporate evolution.

Some of this is making a virtue of necessity. Organizations are increasingly permeable. It’s luck that permeability has more advantages than disadvantages.

New and promising ideas, methods, and practices are readily available on your nearby internet. But there are barriers to adapting and adopting them. Based on my unscientific sample, it appears the most important are cultural. More specifically:

Incuriosity: Some people find new ideas intrinsically interesting. More fall on the other extreme. They figure they’ve learned what they need to know. It works. Learning something new, especially if I don’t need to know it to do my job? That takes far more mental energy than I’m willing to expend.

Fear: The way we do things now works well enough. The new alternative might fail. The personal benefit from championing a successful improvement is dwarfed by the punishments imposed on those whose names are on a failure.

Internal disqualification: One reason I’m a management consultant is that I’m allowed to be an expert. Employees rarely are, for two probable reasons. The first is peer pressure (“Who do you think you are, telling the rest of us you’ve thought of a better way of doing things?”).

The second is pricing. Companies pay outside experts more than employees, whether the outside experts are consultants or industry analysts like Gartner and Forrester. The chain of logic: The more I pay for something, the more it must be worth.

Channel erosion: Once upon a time, associations were popular. They met regularly, providing social outlets for like-minded professionals, opportunities for personal networking, and the ability to exchange ideas from and to credible sources — peers who had actually tried these things, made them work, and had no need to hide the potholes they hit on the road to success, or the limitations they discovered when they finished implementing.

For one reason or another, few of these associations are still flourishing, and the virtual alternatives — on-line discussion groups — haven’t filled the gap. Why? Probably because they’re neither local nor sociable.

And, they’re limited to what participants can express by typing.

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To be continued next week.