Human mRNA

10/7/2023 ☼ designstrategyinnovation

When I worked at Google literally decades ago (😱) I noticed something which I now call human mRNA — the human analogue of the messenger RNA that does the vital work of moving genetic information around inside cells and translating it into a form that can be used for protein synthesis.

mRNA moves genetic information from the cell nucleus to the cell cytoplasm in a form that ribosomes to synthesise proteins. Image from the NIH National Human Genome Research Institute.mRNA moves genetic information from the cell nucleus to the cell cytoplasm in a form that ribosomes to synthesise proteins. Image from the NIH National Human Genome Research Institute.

Gerry was human mRNA. Gerry’s real” job (name changed to protect the innocent) was in the technical writing team, but he would show up at a staff meeting for the Geo products data and legal team, in a biweekly lunch group of bioinformaticians, huddled in a cube with a bunch of engineers working on infrastructure for collaboration products, at a Friday afternoon party with a pod from the Ads inside sales team. That kind of thing.

Each of Gerry’s groups was far removed from the others, and not just in the sense that they were in different buildings on campus. They were contexts which were conceptually far apart: they worked on different things and in different ways. Gerry somehow was welcomed as an insider in each context. And he often brought some useful piece of information to each context that wouldn’t have been available otherwise — for instance, that the bioinformatics group had developed a repurposable storage infrastructure which solved a similar problem faced by the collaboration products engineers.

The information Gerry moved around formed connections that bridged gaps in Google’s internal structure of people and teams. Sociologists would say that Gerry bridged structural holes in the internal network. The image of a static, unmoving bridge over a chasm makes it seem as if anyone who shows up periodically in a bunch of otherwise disconnected teams can become a good conduit for information to flow from one place to another. This is a version of the too-seductive idea that even accidental meetings (such as conversations at the proverbial water cooler) can help connect organisations internally and dramatically increase innovation. Accidental meetings are better than none at all, but this shallow reading misses most of what’s actually going on.

Here’s my view of what’s happening: Gerry was invaluable as an information conduit because he made it possible to see and absorb information that was would otherwise be hidden in plain sight. Every group — anywhere, not just at Google — inevitably develops an internal language and system of meaning which outsiders find hard to fully understand. This is part of the emergence of group culture and is how groups hide information from outsiders without meaning to, or even when they’re working hard to share it with others.

Gerry made this hidden information available because he spoke” the internal languages of both the collaboration products engineers and the bioinformaticians. Speaking both languages allowed him to see that storage infrastructure built in one context could solve a problem in the other context. He understood the meanings of the problem and solution in both contexts, and could translate those meanings from one (internal) language to the other.

Bridging structural holes is about being an effective information conduit. An information conduit shouldn’t just be a static bridge between source and recipient — to be effective, it must also translate the information into a form that is meaningfully useful for the recipient. (Imagine, for instance, sending a refrigerator servicing manual written in Mandarin to a technician who can only read in English.) Translation is particular important when information is trying to move across a big or poorly understood gap in contexts, which is also when it is most likely to be simultaneously new and useful in context. Humans are still the best way to build effective information conduits between distant contexts.

Knowledge management systems and other technology-first solutions for increasing this kind of internal connectivity are always well-intended, but invariably fail at the translation part of the job because good translation is fundamentally about meaning-making.

I’ve written before about the difficulty and importance of meaning-making in translation. Humans are capricious and unreliable, but they’re the only ones who can do the work of translating meaning across contexts because making meaning is ultimate a uniquely human capability. In some form or other, humans have always translated meaning across contexts. It rarely gets named and examined, so I call it human mRNA work to call attention to the fact that it is work and that it can really only be done by humans for now.

Where human mRNA work is encouraged and supported, it creates environments where ideas (or people/teams/companies) meet when they should … especially when it isn’t obvious that they should meet. Whatever name you give human mRNA work, supporting it intentionally is vital for building innovative companies and ecosystems.

At Google, human mRNA work got little credit or support. I knew a handful of Gerrys at Google. They drew connections between people and projects, useful connections which should have existed but didn’t until a Gerry came along and made the connection happen. This valuable work was always informal and rarely recognised as part of their real” jobs — sometimes, they were even penalised for doing it.

Google didn’t design itself to encourage human mRNA work but it’s cheap and easy to design systems that identify people who are good at doing human mRNA work, and encourage them to do more of it.

Why aren’t more leaders, planners, and policymakers doing this?