John Seely Brown


Geeking out

John Seely Brown‘s new book with Douglas Thomas is A New Culture of Learning, available via Amazon print-on-demand on January 15. It explores new paradigms in education: tinkering as a mode of knowledge production, peer-to-peer learning and collective indwelling. Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out is the title of Chapter 8 and it’s fair to say that I did a bit of geeking out in the design of the book. I paired a 1906 all-caps American grotesk (Railroad Gothic) for the headlines with H&FJ’s turn-of-the-millennium Mercury Text, a real workhorse for body copy. The 6 x 9 inch printed page was divided into a stretched 9 x 9 grid that allows for generous white space and a headline shift that appears to break the grid but in fact helps to define it.


The power of pull.

This is not a design post, but in a way it is.
I recently had the privilege of attending a launch event for the new book The Power of Pull, by the Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation guys: John Seely Brown, John Hagel III and Lang Davison. This wasn’t just another book signing — Seely Brown and Hagel were interviewed by John Heilemann on stage at the Times Center and we had access to an in-depth conversation about how the world is shifting from push to pull — from 20th century strategies of total predictability and stabilization to knowledge flow. Here are my notes from the interview (I haven’t read the book yet).
What is pull? John and John identify three ways to get into the discussion: access, attraction and achievement. Access is about orchestrating the best of the best. They use the obvious (and already dated) example of the iPod — how Steve Jobs created something new by drawing out extraordinary people and resources towards a goal. Access is getting easier everyday, and today the idea of pulling powerful resources on demand is almost expected.

  • Spikes So interesting: the paradoxical idea that if the world is flat and everything/one is accessible, why does talent tend to come together in “spikes?” If you’re in a spike, you have more unexpected encounters. Where you place yourself — physically and virtually — is a choice. And if you find yourself in a spike, how do you stand out? Putting out beacons: going to conferences, hanging out in the in-between spaces and encouraging unexpected encounters. Today, attraction is about shaping serendipity.
  • Making 20th century institutions are running faster and faster in place, and losing position. The power of pull means turning the performance curve on its head by creating spaces for “making.” They use World of Warcraft as their primary example here. Fascinating — that the “guild” in WoW is the kind of space that encourages productive friction, that yields achievement, problem solving and creativity. That institutional innovation might be about finding (or creating) these spaces, and that this may be more important than technology development (a somewhat radical idea). 20th century technology was all about stabilization — sediments that accumulate over time. But there is no stabilization in today’s innovation: social media and cloud computing are more like shifting overlays, quickly changing spaces for creative engagement at the edge.
  • Edge/Flow The old model of “push” innovation was all about total predictability: find and invest in proprietary knowledge (knowledge stocks), hold closely at the core, and then extract. Umair Haque explains this so well. Today, your knowledge stocks are depreciating. To be in the flow means a big shift from the core to the edge — from knowledge stocks to knowledge flows. Flip the ideas of core and edge and you find a new source of economic value (of course, the art world learned the value of the edge long ago). Not just taking from the edge, but creating something new (making). Today, knowledge is sustained and valuable when it’s created (and co-created) and shared — when one edge engages with another. John Seely Brown says: “Be in the flow!”
  • Passion John and John identify passion as a key ingredient in pull. How do you measure passion in the workforce? The 20th century model was to leave your passions at home. Don’t bring them into the predictable workplace. This breeds disengagement (just collecting a paycheck) and if you’re faced with an unexpected problem, it’s terrible. Those with passion seek out new ways to engage. You welcome unexpected opportunities and look for them to drive performance to new levels. Cultivate passion in the workforce. John and John call this: “Up with People.”

So where are you in terms of knowledge nodes? Do you have a privileged view? Are you just a participant, or passionately creating and sharing? John and John focus on institutional innovation but I think there’s tremendous value here for the individual, for the small business. Especially designers.
If you made it this far and you want more, you should probably head on over to the Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation “Edge-themes” area, where you can download some great PDFs.
Side note Anyone can learn to be a good interviewer (if I can do it, anyone can). But watching someone conduct a talk on-stage as a media performance is really impressive. I’ve never seen anyone do it as well as Paola Antonelli but John Heilemann comes close. He’s got charisma and brought a kind of intense interest and knowledge to the discussion (not only seeming to have read the book but able to converse on the fly with the Johns). I imagine this could be faked, but does it matter? The trick is to appear engaged, to stay on top of the subject, to lead the discussion. This makes for a great performance.