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
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?
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
Absolutely. So in those four levels (individual, community of
practice, company and region) where does elearning really fit
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.
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.
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.
Can you come back to why you see distance education or distance
learning separate from this discussion?
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.
I haven’t heard you mention constructivism, explicitly, for a
long time. Care to elaborate?
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
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...
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.
I’ve felt this first hand and suspect you have too. In many ways,
it changes everything.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright (c) 2000-2004 LiNE Zine (www.linezine.com)