Visiting Scholar, University of Southern California and Co-Chairman, Deloitte Center for the Edge

John Seely Brown (also known as JSB) is an expert in organizational learning, radical innovation, and the organizational impact of technological invention. As co-chairman of the Silicon Valley-based Deloitte Center for the Edge, JSB conducts research that helps senior executives make sense of and profit from emerging opportunities on the edge of business and technology.

Prior to his work with the Center for the Edge, JSB was the chief scientist of Xerox Corporation and the director of its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). In 2004 he was inducted into the Industry Hall of Fame, and in 2009 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. JSB will be a keynote speaker at ASTD's 2013 International Conference & Exposition.

You call yourself the chief of confusion. What does this title mean to you, and how does it define your professional identity and purpose?

The ability to ask penetrating questions is often more important than providing answers. When working with organizations and people, I try to get individuals to start to question some of their assumptions. I have found that the problem most people present is never the real problem. Rather, it's a surface manifestation of a much deeper issue.

How can you help people unpack the surface problem to uncover its deeper structure? The ability to ask probing questions that get people to reflect on their assumptions is increasingly important in today's world, and that's what I like to think that I do.

Describe your work at the Deloitte Center for the Edge.

The Center for the Edge is a small group that John Hagel and I formed (we're both co-chairs). It explores issues that are going to be on the desks of CEOs in two or three years. We're identifying and investigating future challenges now so we can provide advice when the time comes.

At the center, we formed a point of view about what is transforming today's world. We call it the shift from a world of push to a world of pull. A world of push is one obsessed with operational efficiency made possible from the predictability of customer needs, manufacturing processes, and marketing techniques, while a world of pull is one in which predictability has gone out of the window.

We're shifting from a world of scalable efficiency to one of scalable learning and listening. The former is a world of diminishing returns while the latter has a chance of being a world of increasing returns.

Our approach recognizes that we're past the time when corporations come up with big plans, big shake-ups, big revitalizations, and so forth. Instead of thinking about huge change efforts, it's possible to use digital technology, social networks, cloud computing, and global reach to make small moves that snowball.

Large corporations have not been very effective in exploiting the power of cloud, social, mobile, and big data to create new markets or bring about disruptive innovations—not disruptive change that blows everything up, but nevertheless substantive change accomplished through a rapid sequence of small changes that have natural coherence and momentum, small changes that tap the exponential power of our emerging digital infrastructure.

In the past, corporations like IBM, Bell Labs, AT&T, and Xerox PARC created amazing inventions and spectacular prototypes on "the edge" of the organization and pushed these new ideas and technologies into the core of the organization, trying to get the core to accept them and take them through manufacturing and into the market. This is an example of a push mentality: The edge invents, and the core does the rest of the work to get the product to market. And we all know what is likely to happen—the core immune system will kick in and suppress the innovation.

In terms of innovation today, the edge of the corporation cannot only create but can also take these ideas and prototypes and interact directly with the market. For example, this is how Google approaches both new products and new services. If you structure the edge correctly, it can start pulling people from the core, and you begin to see a shift of power from the core to the edge. So we're moving from a model of pushing ideas into the core to a model of pulling people and their capabilities to the edge.

With this much more open and direct innovation model, we have to start to think about our position in a broader ecosystem, and how we can accelerate learning with and from others (both partners and competitors). Suddenly we're finding that the walls of the corporation are becoming more permeable, and ideas can flow in and out, if done right.

Now we're pulling resources from around the world into relationships with the edge. Edges are being coupled with other edges, and we see an ecosystem of edges coming together to produce something innovative. Needless to say this approach also accelerates talent development as well.

As for learning and development, I find that it's much easier to learn from people on the edge. Whenever I can find a smaller company that knows how to do one particular thing really well, I can learn all kinds of skills from interacting with people in that company.

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So the development of my own capability comes from my interactions with all of these resources around the world. For example, I've spent a surprising amount of time in Asia, learning new tools and mindsets that are quite different from those I grew up with in the Western world.

So, said simply, at the Center for the Edge we're trying to understand these naturally occurring forces or trends and how to use them to empower small moves, smartly made, to make big differences.

What do you think organizational learning will look like within the next decade, and how must the learning function change as a result?

I think it will move from a nice buzzword to a strategic asset for the corporation. Learning is going to come as much from outside the corporation—from networks of partners—as inside, and it is going to challenge the corporation's status quo. A corporation's strategic essence in the future will be its ability to grow talent faster than anyone else.

As I explore in my latest book, A New Culture of Learning, the half-life of a given skill today is about five years. This means we must constantly be reinventing our skill base. How do we do this?

Some people might point to college or corporate training programs. But by the time you get through these programs, those "new" skills are becoming outmoded again. There's a need to lose the old techniques used for reskilling because we can't keep pace with the challenges facing us.

Again, with this shift from optimization in terms of scalable efficiency to amplifying organizational and personal learning, you grow serious talent inside the company by having deep connections outside the company and learning from people who are doing things differently from you and who see the world differently. Scalable listening and scalable learning are the coin of the realm.

Take a place like Google, for example. In three years young professionals can pick up more skills there than they learned in college—and often more cutting-edge skills than any university currently teaches. This is because the world is moving so fast, and, sadly, academic fields are moving relatively slowly.

So the frontier of learning is the workplace. And if you know how to leverage learning in the workplace in terms of talent development, then you can't keep people away.

I like to think about how workscapes can become "learningscapes." Given that most learning is social—peer-based learning and learning from things going on in the world around us—the workplace should be a fantastic player in the broader ecosystem, connecting with other groups that are supremely good at what they do, and then bringing new skills into play inside the corporation.

Those talent officers that understand this and do it well will not only win the war for talent but will become the strategic force of the corporation. Said more directly, if you win the war for talent, then you're going to win almost everything else.

Are you working on any new books or special projects?

I'm particularly interested in cracking the education and learning problems we face in the United States because if we don't figure them out, we're in deep trouble. Also, I'm looking at how to attack wicked problems that don't really have a solution in the engineering sense, but are basically complex adaptive systems that keep changing as you attempt to "fix" them.

Often these problems require one to think ecosystemically, not mechanistically. Ecosystems can be smartly probed and nudged into new states. This approach leads to a new field of what might be best called ecosystemic design.

What do you like to do for relaxation or fun?

I like to walk on the beach. I spend a fair amount of time in Maui and the summertime in Colorado, so taking walks is a great pastime. And I enjoy being with people. I tend to learn in and through conversations where one's whole self is engaged.