See John Seely Brown’s biography
Learn more about The Social Life of Information. J.S.Brown, P.Duguid, 2000
Go to Social Life of Information Website
Join the discussion about the Social Life Critique
Other Books and Chapters
Art and Innovation: The Xerox PARC Artist-In-Residence Program. C. Harris(Preface), John Seely Brown (Intro) 1999
Seeing Differently: Insights on Innovation. J.S.Brown (ed) 1997
Situated Learning Perspectives. H.McLellan (ed), 1996. Three chapters by J.S.Brown. 1996
: How to build your company around your people. J.S.Brown, E.Solomon Gray. Fast Company, Premier Issue, November 1995.
Balancing Act: How to Capture Knowledge Without Killing It. J.S.Brown, P.Duguid. Harvard Business Review, May/June 2000.
J.S.Brown, P.Duguid. Industry Standard.
Brainstorming the Future: Xerox's famed Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) exists to invent the future. E. Weil. Fast Company, April 1997.
To Dream the Invisible Dream J.S. Brown, Communications of the ACM. August 1996.
Stolen Knowledge J.S. Brown and P. Duguid. Educational Technology, 1992. [Republished in Situated Learning Perspectives, H. McLellan (ed) 1996.]
The University in the Digital Age J.S. Brown. Change: The Journal of the American Academy of Higher Education.
. J.S. Brown. First appeared in Release 1.0, Esther Dyson's Monthly Report (10/11/95). [Also published in , May 1996.]
Organizational Learning J.S.Brown, P.Duguid. Organization Science, 1991.
Universities in the digital age. J.S. Brown and P. Duguid. Heldref Publications, 1996
Stolen knowledge. J.S. Brown, P. Duguid. Educational Technology, 1992. [Republished in Situated Learning Perspectives, H. McLellan (ed) 1996.]
Situated cognition & the culture of learning. A. Collins, J.S. Brown, P. Duguid. Educational Researcher, January-February, 1989. [Republished in Situated Learning Perspectives, H. McLellan (ed) 1996.]
When John Seely Brown told Upside Magazine in late 1993 that, “The modern knowledge economy turns on the better use of knowledge,” and “The key is the ability to learn. The more learners as employees you have and the faster you and they can learn, the more you can capitalize on this,” my heart smiled and I knew I had found a friend. The following interview was conducted from that same place, one of appreciation, admiration, and thanks for the now Chief Scientist at Xerox who still finds time to talk about, write about, and work at the intersection of learning and knowledge, society and hope.
Conner: You’ve done quite a bit of writing, thinking, talking about both organizational learning and communities of practice, but at different times. In reflecting on those two topics, I wonder if they are not, to some extent, at odds with the topic of elearning, learning on-line, or learning through the mechanism of technology. The first questions I have for you are: Where do you see organizational learning and the topic of communities overlapping or in conflict? Are they at odds with one another or are they complimentary?
Brown: Well I think they are complimentary. Let me lay out a miniature topography for the moment. My own work with Paul Duguid has evolved over the decade. We see four quite distinct levels from which to analyze learning. First, there is the individual level where the kind of individual learning that we are all familiar with takes place. Then there is the level that invisibly exists between the individual and the organization that involves how communities of practice learn. This level is where Paul and I have focused our attention in the last few years. The next level concerns the firm or, more generally, organizations that we tend to analyze as being a structured community of communities of practice. This level is usually the focus of those studying organizational learning and knowledge management. And finally, there is the level of the region—the local region such as Silicon Valley. At this level, we have found the notion of learning ecologies to be most useful. It’s interesting if you think about a firm, itself, as a knowledge-ecology with a collection of communities of practice all interacting. It’s even more interesting when you think about, “How does a place like Silicon Valley, as a knowledge-ecology, really learn?” It’s clearly an ecology of companies all learning with and from each other. Does that make sense?
Conner: Absolutely. So in those four levels (individual, community of practice, company and region) where does elearning really fit best?
Brown: In quite different ways I think elearning applies to all four dimensions, all four levels, but it applies differentlynone of which has any direct bearing on distance learning by the way, although I could redefine distance learning so that it does. Think about it for a moment.
At the individual level, there’s a sense of linking, lurking, learning and acting or leading. It’s wonderful to think we have a new form of cognitive apprenticeshipwhere no matter how niche your interest (for a kid of any age from 8 to 80)there are virtual communities of interest forming on the web that we can link to, we can lurk on the periphery of, we can move from the periphery to the center and back again. This was the very essence of our notion of apprenticeship learning, which we picked up from Jean Lave. Then you are able to explicitly engage in reflection on that as another form of learning.
At some point, linking, lurking and learning all become seamlessly integrated. Together, they powerfully permit you, as an individual, to enculturate or apprentice yourself to a community of practice. A distributed community of practice even allows you to extend your reach so some of the time you’re physically present, some of the time you’re virtually present and so on. But also note that a community of practice can sometimes get very inwardly focused so linking it to more global e-resources is oftenenough to shock you from a particularly parochial point of view. Linking and even lurking can bring diversity from outside into the center of the community of practice and that has to help you learn. Finally, at the regional level, we are beginning to examine how one might overlay the virtual (i.e., the web) on top of the physical region so as to get the best of both worldsthe richly textured social learning that comes from shared physical experiences, but now can be augmented by a diverse set of virtual experiences.
Conner: Can you come back to why you see distance education or distance learning separate from this discussion?
Brown: Well if classical distance learning is thought of as just delivery of information, it really should be called distance education. From that point of view, knowledge is the substance (called information by everybody else) being transported to the receiver. Delivery, by itself, doesn’t help you construct your own understanding of the material. Learning has to do with integrating information into your own internal framework so you own it within your own conceptual space. That means you have to engage in some kind of action with the knowledge being transferred to you. The easiest way to do that is to join something like a discussion group so within the discussion group you mostly constructa constructivist theory I might addyour own understanding. In that group, somebody else’s partial understanding compliments your partial understanding and together you start to weave a coherent kind of interpretation of the information.
Conner: I haven’t heard you mention constructivism, explicitly, for a long time. Care to elaborate?
Brown: Constructivism has always been implicit in many of the things we have written. What really blew my mind a little while ago was the recognition that in a conversation we are socially constructing something together where one fragment of the conversation scaffolds another person’s fragment of the conversation and so on. This generates a virtuous spiral that reflects a profound sense of constructivism—one that is socially generated and socially scaffolded. The result is incredibly powerful. Such constructivism pertains not just to any conversation, but also to conversations grounded in experience or in conversations where one is trying to make sense of some given information.
Conner: It seems to me that constructivism has become so timely because education has for so long been focused on the known. Now, to excel, we must move on to understanding new thingswhat is unknown or what we are discovering together. For that reason, I find it much easier to talk with people about constructivism now because they feel it; they understand that education can’t just provide behavioral sheep dip. Education has to help a person do something, or construct something that hasn’t been there before...
Brown: ...And that you come to a joint understanding, a joint construction if you wish. Curiously, we now live in a chaotic world where everything seems new so we need to try to make sense out of it. We tend to forget that learning and sense-making go hand in hand: we tend to forget that for the learner, the student, there’s always this sense-making going on even if we, as teachers, think everything is clear. Now, suddenly, teachers have been thrown into the same kind of chaos as their students. This has created a symmetry that really focuses on how we need to jointly learn together.
Conner: I’ve felt this first hand and suspect you have too. In many ways, it changes everything.
Another one of your ongoing themes has been simplicity and helping people deconstruct the world around them to truly reach a stronger level of understanding. I wonder, though, if our society is so programmed for success that we’ve made online programs almost too simple sometimes. As you’ve often pointed out, we shouldn’t make things so apparent that we skip actually struggling with them, searching for them, and working with them in a meaningful way. Can things be too simple? Can we deconstruct too far?
Brown: Those who are successful in the e-age are learning how to deconstruct our landscape either by deconstructing new beliefs or new conceptual lenses. By constantly seeking out patterns and by not denying what we find jarring, we can actually learn to deconstruct our current ontology—the one we use to make sense of the world. Once we can deconstruct something, we can reconstruct it in a way that Ockham’s Razor* can now be freshly applied to in this new context. For example, the search for simplicity, after an act of deconstruction, becomes key to radical business-concept breakthroughs and where major value creation is going to be in the next ten years. We all agree that in the next five to ten years, the game will be changing and we could try to layer on new modifications to old beliefs or we could actually step back and deconstruct our beliefs so that we could then reconstruct them in a new way.
Having said all that, in this new world the search for simplicity is tantamount to coming to the core understanding of how something is. I find the old cliché, “You don’t really understand something until you can say it in a simple way,” to be incredibly true and unbelievably useful. And I think today, in the era where the economy of attention reigns supreme, the ability to get to the very essence of what’s going on very rapidly also provides tremendous business leverage. The power of saying something simply makes all the difference in the world.
The key to me is learning how to craft evocative objects: they could be metaphors, sayings, or experiences which then help the other person rapidly construct their own understanding. Again, not provocative as much as evocative, so that it evokes the right kinds of ideas in the listener.
Great learners are, of course, great listeners and if you learn how to listen to and through an evocative object you learn how to leverage your emotional side as well as your cognitive side.
Conner: Another theme that evokes meaning for me is that of context. As I introduce the idea of context to people, I point out that context will replace content as king over these next five to ten years. I come to that from you. What does context offer that content never will?
Brown: It’s clear that information takes on meaning relative to the context it’s rendered in or emerges from. In this era of multimedia, one has to be extremely careful about thinking that content can simply jump between different mediachange contextand still preserve the same meaning. Here’s a trivial little example. People have become used to writing “flaming” email, but if you take that same flaming message and reformat it and then print it out as an office memo on formal office stationery, it can permanently damage the sender’s career.
Changing the context can completely change the meaning because we use context to help guide how we interpret the text. For example, when I read The Wall Street Journal I interpret the stories quite differently than when I scan the front page of the National Inquirer (as I go through the check out at my grocery). From course-grained examples, all the way down to when we interact with others in situ, we create a shared context that helps give meaning to that event. Context and content come together creating meaning.
I think it’s interesting to look at the etymology of the word context: context means weaving together, so we get the idea of the central text woven with its supporting context, or the surrounding texture of an event providing focus and perspective on central or formal content. In all, we make meaning by aligning with the center.
A very practical example that often moves this intellectual notion to something you can act and reflect involves in situ learning, too. For instance, if I’m talking to an employee about some way that he or she happens to act, I can only describe it abstractly. If later I see the employee has just done that act, but is relatively unaware of it, I can stop the interaction and comment on what’s going on and get the person to reflect in situ on what has just transpired. The conversation is then anchored in the context that carries most of the meaning. This kind of concrete conversation is much more likely to lead to a real change in the person. Presenting context actually enables the learner (the employee) to move from having an intellectual event to one that has experiential meaning.
Conner: So how, in the work that you’re doing now, does the topic of learning force the discussion beyond intellectual pursuits to behavior and how people actually change what they are doing based on what they know and how they bring meaning to what they do?
Brown: Let me deconstruct a couple of ideas from this. We actually separate very carefully, at least in some of our writings, the difference between knowing and knowledge. Knowing has to do with knowledge in action or being in action. The distinction is interesting because we know a hell of a lot more than we have knowledge. We know more than we think we knowbecause action takes place in a context, which, itself, scaffolds or affords knowing.
I can’t remember how to do a certain thing on my motorcycle if I haven’t been driving it for the last few weeks, but as soon as I get on it, it instantly comes back as I start to participate with it in the world of action. That participation actually evokes this type of knowing and that’s one aspect of practice of riding—like in a professional practice. So, knowing, practice, and experience get much more interwoven in a contextualized way. That’s pretty critical.
One of the troubles we have now, as we go into the e-age, is that experiential learning is key to meaningful learning. In the virtual world, the notion of experience becomes stripped away from many of the social resources of everyday life. That’s one of the reasons why we think of our book as providing the first steps toward framing a “social life critique” of the digital age.
Even in the virtual world, you have information that has a social life in terms of how it gets kicked around in discussion groups, in chat rooms, in email, in list servers and so forth. So what we’re trying to develop in our book goes beyond the concerns of classical sociology. Our own analytic stance is that things you haven’t thought of as fostering a social life (such as a book or information) really do have a social life that provides all kinds of invisible resources for sense making, whether one is in a physical or virtual world.
As a result, it’s becoming increasingly important to pay attention to the invisible flow of social experiences around the information and then how it can be reinforced, etc., by the e-age and the web. This is especially important when moving to the virtual world because the transformation to the virtual often has unwittingly removed our access to many of these resources—resources that have become so second nature to us that we hardly are aware of them. And when they are removed, we end up feeling frustrated but we don’t quite know why. Just think about what it is really like telecommuting from home rather than being in your office, surrounded by folks, one of whom invariably knows just what you need to know at that moment to get on with your task.
Conner: For a richer explanation of the social life critique, as well as your overview of learning in theory and in practice, I encourage people to look at your most recent book, The Social Life of Information.
As we wrap up, most of all, I want to say thank you. Not only has it been a pleasure to talk with you in real-time, but also you have really helped in my own personal education over the years. I’m not sure I would have taken certain roads without your introduction to topics and attention to matters beyond the common ways.
Brown: You know it’s interesting. I don’t think of learning as something that I study. It’s just that if you look at what’s so important, day in, and day outit’s learning. If we stop learning, we die. Therefore, what really makes things fun for almost everyone is the ability to accelerate one’s learning. I’m very unpopular in certain circles for saying that we are all inveterate learners, but when we go to school, we get our passion for learning turned off. I keep hoping we can change schooling to amplify our innate passion for learning and that we can change the workscape into becoming a true learningscape. Thank you, too.
* Ockham’s Razor: Principle that one should pursue the simplest hypothesis. Adoption of this principle leads to questions about the role of simplicity in science, however, especially when choosing between hypotheses that are not equivalent. Also known as the Principle of Parsimony in philosophy.
John Seely Brown is the chief scientist of Xerox Corporation. He was the former director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). A major focus of John’s research over the years has been in human learning and in the creation of knowledge ecologies for creating radical innovation. He is also co-author of The Social Life of Information with Paul Duguid. You can visit their web site at www.slofi.com Marcia Conner is editor in chief of LiNE Zine and CEO of the Learnativity Alliance. You can send her email at email@example.com.
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