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John Seely Brown keynote address at KMWorld 2012: The entrepreneurial learners

In a keynote address at the 2012 KMWorld Conference in Washington, D.C., in October, John Seely Brown, a visiting scholar at USC and independent co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge, spoke on the topic, "The Entrepreneurial Learners."

That term has nothing to do with learning to become an entrepreneur, he says. Rather, it has everything to do with how you foster a disposition of constantly looking around and understanding how to see new resources, grab new resources and do new things, developing what he calls a "questing disposition." The essence of entrepreneurial learning is being constantly alert, aware and interested in the resources available and in how we build connections.

In beginning his talk, Brown says, "I want to talk today about a strange mixture—a mixture of what we might call a new culture of learning and how that intersects with perhaps some new points of view on knowledge management, and also some old points of view, to see if we can blend all of these together."

Brown says that in past centuries, the infrastructure has largely been stable, but that the 21st century is driven by continual, exponential advances in computation, with no stability in sight. We're moving, he says, from a world of stocks (i.e. fixed assets) to the world of flow. In a world of stocks, we look to protect and deliver authoritative knowledge assets and to transfer old knowledge to other people. But in the world of exponential change, it's not a question of looking at fixed assets. It's more a question of how we participate in knowledge flows and of how, from that participation, we can pick up new ideas and create new knowledge.

In mentioning changes in recent years, Brown talks about how he grew up in a client-server environment. Then about 10 years ago, cloud computing was invented and threw the client-server architecture out the window.

"KM just got a lot more tricky," Brown says. And one thing is clear: Corporate training programs of the 20th century, with a push-based model of education and training (i.e. authority-focused, standards-based, mechanistic) will no longer suffice. Consider instead a "social view of learning," in which understanding is socially constructed, often through stories, and continuously refined.

Brown cited the case of a large New York City law firm whose young attorneys—fresh out of law school—were solving their cases "in blinding speed." It turned out that the new lawyers were tweeting requests for suggestions on their cases, And by tapping that feed, they were tapping the collective knowledge of the entire cohort group. Brown suggests, "Maybe we should combine the notion of mentorship and reverse mentorship."

Brown suggests that we imagine a learning environment:

  • where learners build a massive network of databases, wikis, websites and thousands of message forums, thereby creating a large-scale knowledge economy;
  • where they constantly measure and evaluate their own performance, even if they must build new tools to do so; and
  • evaluation is based on after-action reviews to continually enhance performance.

Brown uses the World of Warcraft as an example of a massive learning (KM) environment. The game is too complicated to play without complex analytical tools and dashboards, he says. The dashboards are nearly always handcrafted by individual players for themselves and are constantly tinkered with (i.e. mashed up).

Another example Brown provides is the SAP Developer Network (SDN), which was created as a learning platform and as an environment to foster interaction through forums, wikis and blogs for people not employed by SAP. SDN's scale and richness have the potential for exponential learning, he says. It started in 2002 with 100,000 members and now has more that 2 million.

Brown also mentions Google+ Hangouts as in interesting concept in which you can build a discussion group. Only 10 people can participate in a conversation, but everyone can listen in; it is both intimate and huge scale. Google understands the notion of "legitimate peripheral participation," according to Brown. In such an environment, nothing is planned, but the impact can be amazingly powerful.

In concluding his keynote, Brown talks about the shift in identity that exists today. In the past, our identity was defined by what we wore, what we owned and what we controlled. Young people today, Brown says, see their identity as what they create, what they share and, most importantly, what others build upon.

To view the full presentation, watch the video below.

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