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Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business theory, with an emphasis on creativity - not just the creativity of the artist, though, but rather the creativity necessary for a business to survive and thrive.

There's plenty about things like the impact of AI on jobs or the gig economy. Sometimes, I'd have liked to see more from the science side. So, for example, he describes survey reactions to driverless cars. But the much bigger issue is going to come as they kill lots of people. At the moment over 1 million people a year die worldwide on the roads - imagine all cars were driverless and this reduced the mortality figure by 75%. Amazing, 750,000 lives saved! But people would hate it. This is because it would mean driverless cars would be killing 250,000 people a year. And the families of the people killed would all be complaining about this horrendous technology, while the families of the 750,000 saved would not know it had happened and would not be supporting the technology. There's going to be a huge acceptance problem that needs exactly the kind of thinking that Cook is advocating.

One thing that shocked me was the assertion that 'there's a popular belief that millennials are somehow genetically different,' - clearly scientifically speaking this is rubbish, and Cook explains why, but I couldn't believe there was any truth in the assertion an assumed this was just metaphorically speaking. I checked with the author and apparently it's a widespread belief in Human Resources departments to explain the difference in attitude of many young adults to work (which perhaps says something about the nature of HR).

It's unlikely that you will agree with everything Cook has to say, but that's part of the fun. For example, at one point he says the disastrous Sinclair C5 electric bike/car might have have done better in today's more eco-friendly world. Nope - it would still be dire and dangerous. However, the important thing is that Cook gets the reader to think about these issues which are absolutely central to how we work, earn money and generally get on with life in the future. And by business book standards, it's loaded with scientific arguments and logic, as opposed to lightweight, make-it-up-as-you-go-along baloney. I don't think I've ever seen a business book with so much actual content.

The only real failing of the book is that it seems to lack internal structure, jumping around a lot, something that wasn't helped by a relative lack of editing - so, for example, at one point the text reads  'this presents leaders with the dilemma of taking sometimes having to take sub-optimal action'. I'd also, given the stress on the gig economy and the changing nature of business, like to have seen more about how individuals can stay individual but can also network (both on a single project and long-term relationships) to achieve things that they can't alone.

Brain Based Enterprises is a book anyone in business - or interested in the science behind business - should take a look at.


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Review by Brian Clegg


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