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Leatherbee Lecture: Seely Brown - The Crafts of Super Innovation

 
4/30/2001
What are the great keys to innovation? How do you create a seamless and rapid flow of knowledge? For companies as well as for communities of practice, says Xerox Chief Scientist John Seely Brown, guest speaker at HBS for the School's annual Leatherbee Lecture, the best innovations come when people put their heads—and their "crafts"—together.

Seely Brown
John Seely Brown

What fuels the incredible speed of change today? How does knowledge flow—and what makes it "stick"? These are the kinds of questions that badger John Seely Brown, chief scientist of Xerox.

In a wide-ranging talk delivered at HBS on April 19 at the School's annual Leatherbee Lecture, Seely Brown drew on everything from architecture to linguistics to hard-core science in describing his efforts to pin down some fascinating yet elusive concepts about interactions within and around organizations and technology.

As former director for twenty-four years of one of Silicon Valley's cutting-edge innovation kitchens, the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Seely Brown has published over ninety-five papers for scientific journals in addition to books. He's the author, most recently, of The Social Life of Information (HBS Press 2000) and the essay "Mysteries of the Region: Knowledge Dynamics in Silicon Valley" in The Silicon Valley Edge: A Habitat for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Stanford University Press, 2000), both written with Paul Duguid.

His dual role over the past three years—serving on the board of Corning while continuing to be involved with PARC—has given him the opportunity to step back and look over the whys and wherefores of change, he said. That effort has left him "simply astounded" at the speed of innovation today.

"How do groups of people really work together to create breakout ideas?" he asked the HBS audience of professors, students and staff. "That's the big picture I'm trying to understand myself."

His discoveries on that point, he said, are in one sense obvious but also "deeply not obvious." Given what he called the four fundamental driving forces today—computing, communication, storage, and content and community—the trick in innovation is to successfully recombine seemingly separate "crafts." In other words, mix together extremely complex practices from a great diversity of different fields.

To illustrate how crafts can be joined together to produce innovations, Seely Brown displayed several examples of what he termed "mind-boggling technology." One was a one-gigabyte disk drive the size and shape of a refrigerator magnet. It won't be long, he said, before PDAs (personal digital assistants) will be able to handle 1,000 gigabytes of memory. Every movie you've ever watched, every book you've ever read, will be easily portable on your handheld device, he predicted.

"When you start to carry your world with you, you do start to think differently," he said.

More than information
The keys for company survival are very simple in theory, he reminded the audience. Companies have to learn faster than anyone else, share the results of that learning across the enterprise, and constantly foster the development and sharing of new knowledge.

Quotation
How does knowledge itself flow, how does it meet other knowledge, how does it combine and so on…? On top of that, how do you think about this kind of thing being much more than just sharing information?
Quotation
—John Seely Brown

In his opinion, though, it is even more important for company leaders and individuals to take a step back and concentrate more on "the flows," not the stocks. "How does knowledge itself flow, how does it meet other knowledge, how does it combine and so on. ... On top of that, how do you think about this kind of thing being much more than just sharing information? If you look at what goes on in these crafts, this is not a question of sharing information," he said.

"Something else is going on. What is it? There is a difference between surface knowledge, which IT infrastructure allows us to share very readily, versus the deep structure that lies beneath the surface in some interesting ways."

The inability of B2Bs, for example, to grasp the difference between superficial information and deeper knowledge, he suggested, explains why B2Bs are failing "almost uniformly." Even the subtle textures of a person-to-person negotiation about products such as oranges are more effective than any online transaction could be.

The twin faces of knowledge
Knowledge has two dimensions, according to Seely Brown. The first is what he called explicit knowledge, which he said "lives in documents and heads." The second is tacit knowledge, or plain know-how, which resides in people and their practices.

Those two dimensions may seem obvious. But the way the two can intersect or work in parallel is fascinating, he said. It is "quite impossible," for instance, to convert the tacit into the explicit, he continued, offering the example of riding a bike to illustrate what he called "the rich interplay" between tacit and explicit forms of knowledge. Anyone who has tried riding a bicycle next to a right-hand curb, he said, knows that the curb acts almost with magnetic force when the rider tries to steer away from it.

"When you pull away you actually steer in to go left" though that's not what your brain would instruct you to do, said Seely Brown. "It's an interesting example of the rich interplay between the tacit and the explicit. Think about that in organizations, [in] our ability to actually spec out work flow, process flow. How much do we really capture?" There is an explicit and a tacit dimension in the social mind of the organization, too, he continued.

Seely Brown

Fluency on the court—and in the community of practice
A successful and effective community of practice is like an outstanding basketball team, according to Seely Brown. People who work closely together over a long period of time start to invent their own language and develop an ability to read each other instantly. They can count on each to improvise in a coherent way to take advantage of each moment.

"So that sense of being able to improvise, build, support each other on the fly whether on a basketball court or, of course, in an online community is going to have a lot to do with bringing these crafts together to create some of these innovations," he said.

"What we're really suggesting, though—the plus and the minus—is that a community of practice creates a boundary in which knowledge flows inside that boundary with spectacular speed. But as it flows spectacularly fast inside that boundary, it also sticks and doesn't move outside that boundary very easily."

Creating that kind of fluency not just in a space where people regularly interact, but in a widely distributed space, is the important task ahead.

Innovation also has everything to do with overcoming resistance, whether that means resistance to perceived boundaries among communities or, as in Seely Brown's last example, in the world of architecture. Frank O. Gehry, architect of the acclaimed Guggenheim Bilbao museum, was a case in point.

Good architects transform barriers into tools, observed Seely Brown. Gehry was offered a beautiful space in which to design Guggenheim Bilbao. Instead, according to Seely Brown, "He chose one of the worst places conceivable in terms of constraints: under a bridge, [in] a dump part of the city.

"He took those constraints and showed his architectural genius by transforming those constraints into resources.

"When you really work with a problem, especially materials or abstractly, it's the way things push back that tells you something. That's a key to design. ... The combination of meeting the world, the backtalk, the interpretation of that, is how I look at innovation."

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Related features in HBS Working Knowledge:
Balancing Act: Capturing Knowledge Without Killing It, October 16, 2000.
The Social Life of Information, March 28, 2000.

Photos by Martha Lagace

(approximate running time 10 minutes) For more of this lecture from John Seely Brown, watch the video. (To play this video, you will need to download the Free RealPlayer plug-in.)