Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Power of Pull - John Seely Brown

I'm sitting here at the keynote by John Seely Brown (JSB) and am I excited to hear him speak this morning. I picked up his recent book, the Power of Pull for my Kindle and each time I've picked it up for a reading burst, I've struggled to put it down. This is a packed house at this point and we haven't even gotten close to being started. We'll have to go through good old Brent Schlenker's conference kick off and then we have the opportunity to hear the man himself. JSB's keynote is about small moves, smartly made can set big things in motion. John wants to talk about a derivative of the power of pull - a new culture of training in a world of constant change. The ideas are around learning on demand, pull not push and the arc of life learning.

The Preamble

John believes that the old institutions aren't hacking it very well and nor are schools. Something has to give. For a long time the 20th century infrastructure was about scalable efficiency. The idea was to be predictable, hierarchical, controlling, process centric and variance free. This factory model made it's way into education with a predictable curriculum and a one size fits all approach. The 21st century has changed the game completely. The infrastructure is driven by the continual advances in computing, storage and bandwidth. There's no stability in sight. The S curve of the 20th century is now evolving into a rapidly punctuated exponential curve, with little blips that are s-curves in themselves. In a world of increasingly rapid change, the half life of a given skill is constantly shrinking and the predictability of future needs is increasingly less certain. We're having to move from stocks to flows. This means we move from protecting knowledge assets to participating in knowledge flows. This means that our learning strategy moves to having a strong tacit component as against a hoarding mindset of stocking knowledge.

We have a crisis of imagination. We need to embrace change, not fear it. We have an explosion of data that's almost incomprehensible. We're creating a lot of information everyday more in every two days than we did from the dawn of man to 2003. In a world of constant change we need to prepare our workorce to deal with this chance. We need to rethink how we learn and deal with the tacit knowledge. We need to think about what we need to learn and how new media is changing the came in fundamental ways. This is where we build a resilient mindset, with an ability to change, adapt, reconceptualise and engage in deep listening with humility. The mantra is - "If I aint learning, it aint fun." We have to create a context where people thrive on change and learning instead of fleeing from it.

The Stories - Hard Evidence

JSB is going to tell us about an encounter that helped him shape his thinking. These are stories that have helped him see amazing learning with the help of new media. I love these stories because they're straight from the book. The first story is about a bunch of surfing kids in Maui. No champion surfers ever came from Maui. This story is about Dusty Payne, a kid who wanted to be a hardcore professional surfer. Despite his dad dissuading him, Dusty wanted to put Maui on the surfing map. Dusty found four peers in the same age group and decided to build a scheme of collaboration - the likes of which the world has never seen. Dusty was the first junior champion ever in Maui and came up with a new genre - aerial surfing. Dusty's video of his surfing exploits is pretty darn awesome. This guy is the real deal, as JSB illustrates. Anywhere Dusty goes these days, there are professionals shooting videos of him or getting photographers. He is so incredible that in one of his shots he makes more than what his dad makes in a year. He deals with real estate, and is hugely successful. The serendipity of this is that Dusty is JSB's neighbour when he stays in Maui. The learning community is so strong that all five kids in the group are now world champion level atheletes in the surfing arena. Here are some things they did in their learning community:
  • They are willing to keep failing because they knew they could learn from failure.
  • They collectively analysed each frame of videos of the best surfers across the world.
  • The used video camera to capture and analyse their own moves. They deconstruct their own technique by watching each frame of their work on the beach.
  • They pulled ideas from various sports - windsurfing, skateboarding, mountain biking, motorcross, etc. The cool stuff is they've taken ideas from different domains and applied them to their own domain.
  • They've understood the idea of 'spikes', where they've travelled to the expertise hotspots for surfing across the world to learn their trade. Now they're a bit of a spike in themselves.
This is an example of deep collaborative learning with each other. They are people that are passionate about a trade and they chase extreme performance with a deep questing disposition. They learn themselves from the things that others are doing around them. They have a commitment to indwelling -- they soak up the world around them.

The second story JSB has is about WOW - The World of Warcraft. It's a massively multi-player online role-playing game (MMORPG). There's a reason we need to care. This is the first domain where we've discovered a place where we don't have diminishing returns, we have exponentially increasing returns. The sense of joint collective activity is pretty awesome as one of the TWU students pointed as well. The core of the game is really more the social life on the edge of the game. The edge is often called a knowledge economy. WOW is way too complicated to play without complex analysis tools and dashboards, but these dashboards are tailored to each player to measure their own performance and are a key to their mastery at the game. This is quite curious -- don't managers develop dashboards to look at their people? This is obviously a game changing way to self-reflect. The cool thing that goes is after action reviews -- this is very in tune with the Agile Retrospectives idea. This is an example of blending the tacit and the cognitive. This is collective indwelling and reflection. While they marinate and learn in a social context, they also reflect together when they're done, so they can learn from each other. This is the way grandmasters learn -- they practice with peers and then reflect on what they did. This is the way hackers practice their trade.

There's an incredibly rich knowledge economy around this game. On a typical night there are about 10-15000 new ideas coming up about the game. There are blizzard forums, databases, blogs, wikis, videos and what not. The way people absorb all of this is that guilds (player teams) self-organise into being a knowledge refining community to work together, curate content and then collectively learn amongst themselves. This is the idea of a personal learning network (PLN) IMO.

The Levels of Pull

We need to think about three ways of pulling learning:
  1. Access: The ability to find, learn and connect with people, products and knowledge to address unanticipated needs that hit us in the face! I have a problem, I search, I find, I learn, I'm happy.
  2. Attract: This is where we need to find something that we don't even know that we need to know. This is where Google fails and that's why I don't like it much for social learning in the enterprise, because it doesn't support serendipitous learning. This is where we get out of our comfort zone and get to expose ourselves to weird but interesting ideas.
  3. Achieve: This is where we pull out of each of us and our institutions our full potential. We need to harnessing network effects where the more people that participate, the more the global returns.
"Accessing and attracting have little value unless they are coupled with a third set of practices that focus on driving performance rapidly to new levels. These practices involve participation in, and sometimes orchestration of, something we call “creation spaces”—environments that effectively integrate teams within a broader learning ecology so that performance improvement accelerates as more participants join." - John Seely Brown

The purpose of the 21st century firm is to build talent. As we learn from others, they learn from us -- this accelerates bootstrapping in an ecosystem. The reason we join a firm today is because we get to learn faster than we would learn by ourselves. This is why people join Google or ThoughtWorks for that matter. HR/ Training shouldn't be an add on - we need to get a seat a the table and find a way to influence business through learning. Otherwise we and our organisations don't stand a fighting chance.


John Patten said...

I like Mr. Browns three "pulls," but ultimately they seem to relate to developing passion in an individual for a particular subject area, to borrow a school term. Without the fire in the heart for a particular skill, whether it be surfing, playing WOW, or otherwise, great strides in that "skill" will not be achieved, IMHO.
I'll have to check out his book, but I'm curious as to where he feels individual passions come into play, as they are at the heart of many ideas related to modernizing learning for both the learner and the learner (teacher). Thanks for the post!

John Patten said...

This video sounds very similar to what you describe in your post, and confirms what I was thinking too :-)

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