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Narrative thinking and innovation: John Seely Brown

Engineering and ecological viewpoints

If God thought like today's engineer, our head would be a giant block of steel in order to stabilize our eyeballs. But what does God do? He says, "I've got a noisy system here. Can I cancel the noise?" That's God. Clever God. God says, "Well, sure, I could cancel it by a lot of neurological structures and so forth, but can I use that noise to good avail?" Lo and behold, our visual system takes these high-frequency vibrations in our eye and does a vernier computation over a random distribution of rods and cones and enables us to resolve distances less than half the diameter of a rod or a cone.

Interview in Wired magazine, August 2000 with John Seely Brown, Chief Scientist, Xerox Corp, coauthor of 'The Social Life of Information'

Research on the nature of knowledge in Xerox PARC, at Lotus Institute, and at the Institute for the Future, has led to a clearer understanding of the differences between engineering and ecological points of view. Narrative thinking provides easy and direct access into the ecological thinking, the home of novelty and innovation, while abstract analytic thinking is the home of the traditional engineer intent on control.

a. Knowledge by Design

Knowledge by design is everything that engineers have learned about innovation in the past century. It is the aggressive application of scientific discovery to practical invention. It is rationally optimistic. It asks: How do we get from here to there? And it believes that there's a logical path--a more or less straight line to the goal--if not now, then next year or the year after.

From this point of view, knowledge is something you can measure (even if not absolutely). It's something you can trade for a certain value, an asset you can put on the balance sheet and track from quarter to quarter. It's a resource, too, something you can extract from stores of information, the way you extract a precious mineral from rock. Or you can create it from scratch, the way chemists invent original molecules. It is, in fact, an object.

The pursuit of intellectual capital is well within this camp. So are many of the guidebooks on creativity and innovation, which share the designer's love of posing problems and finding unique solutions. The artificial intelligence of the 1970s, which attempted to capture human expertise in a machine, starts from this point of view. So do more modern taxonomical approaches to organizational knowledge, from structured databases to structured Web sites to structured conversations.

Knowledge by design focuses on figure and foreground. Its great appeal is the sense of control--of making sense out of no-sense, of making something out of nothing. Its great vulnerability is that it creates knowledge by exclusion, by drawing boundaries. Sometimes the boundaries are mis-drawn. Sometimes what's outside the boundaries is actually more important than what's inside. Ultimately, the boundaries may inhibit innovation--and exclude novel points of view.

Economically, knowledge by design may produce diminishing returns. The overhead to design knowledge, to capture it intentionally, and to impose structures on complex processes reduces the profit margin on knowledge--as well as other products and services. Also, knowledge by design may simply fail. As much as humans like to create novel structures, they resist submitting to them.

b. Knowledge by emergence

Knowledge by emergence begins with both faith and humility. It sees humanity as a limitless source of novelty and invention that suffers when constrained by too many limits. It invokes higher processes--complexities beyond the scope of human minds. It champions freedom, interaction, organic growth in a multitude of directions. It's as interested in the unknown as it is in the known--maybe more.

Analogies: knowledge is a wave, a flow, a process. It's an ecology, a whole system of interacting patterns. The patterns are inseparable from the whole. It's impossible to extract knowledge from anything. Instead, one gardens. Knowledge grows. It emerges out of a fertile field, tended by people interacting with people, with their environment, with ideas. Even when technology enters the picture, this point of view is human-centered. It wants the technology to adapt to people and not the other way around.

Those who see knowledge as an ecology also tend to see organizations as living systems. They are interested in questions of evolution, of the deep, enduring patterns that drive change and provide continuity. One of their primary tenets is that organisms at all levels are self-organizing. Here is the faith--that order emerges spontaneously out of chaos.

Knowledge by emergence honors background--the tacit, the mysterious, the unformed. Its best trick is to sense what isn't obvious, to gather insights in the periphery and let these insights feed clear vision. This can be a transformational insight, a leap to a new level of intelligence. Knowledge by emergence is vulnerable, however, to the chaos it respects. It's difficult to direct, and it may not deliver on a deadline.

This uncertainty doesn't bother the faithful. They have a longer view and are frustrated by those who want to control. (From the Institute for the Future)


Stephen Denning: The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative (Jossey-Bass: October 2007)

Stephen Denning, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. Boston, London, Butterworth Heinemann, October 2000, chapters 4, 12

Stephen Denning: The Leader's Guide to Storytelling (Jossey-Bass, 2005) chapter 11 on innovation.

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