Shifting Boundaries

The “big shift” that could disrupt business for years to come.

In today’s tumultuous business world, everyone must become a white-water kayaker who is able to read the rapidly changing currents. So says industry watcher John Seely Brown, who will discuss this essential skill in his plenary speech, “From Scalable Efficiency to Scalable Learning in a White-Water World,” at AACSB’s Deans Conference. The theme of the conference, which will be held January 31–February 2 in Miami, Florida, is “Innovations That Inspire.” In his talk, Brown also will describe the “big shift” that he expects to disrupt business for years to come—the intertwined trends of new technology and more liberal economic policies that allow people and resources to move across boundaries.

Brown is the independent co-chairman of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge and visiting scholar and advisor to the provost at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Previously, he was the Chief Scientist of Xerox Corporation and director of the company’s Palo Alto Research Center. His plenary speech will be given on Monday, February 1.

You say that when the “big shift” occurs, business will be more fluid, global, and competitive. How can business schools teach their students to operate in this new environment?

In the era of predictability, scalable efficiency was the holy grail. The pursuit of scalability dominated organizational strategy and led to the development of enterprise resource planning systems to manage the inner workings of the firm.

Today, we need to replace the pursuit of scalable efficiency with the pursuit of scalable learning. In this era of constant disruption, we all must learn faster than our competitors, we must be constant learners, and we must learn at every level of the firm! So easy to say, yet so difficult to do.

We also must be skilled at unlearning and reframing.It’s a daunting challenge to turn our backs on past successes and hard-earned skills, particularly when we must abandon tacitly held knowledge, skills, and assumptions. And yet we all must learn to see the world afresh through new lenses.

You carry the title “Chief of Confusion.” It sounds like a fun role, but in fact it’s a very serious one, isn’t it? You’re trying to help people overcome the confusion of the current marketplace and develop different ways to frame problems. What’s your approach?

Here’s the origin of that phrase. At Xerox, I had been the Chief Scientist; I was supposed to provide answers to tough issues. When I stepped down from that role, I realized that, especially in the age of “the big shift,” asking good questions was much more important than providing good answers. Good questions can cause people to step back and realize that they might be approaching a problem in the wrong way or that they’re wrong about what the problem actually is. Good questions can help people develop the right frame—and if they can get the right frame, they’re 90 percent of the way to a good solution.

You were previously involved in the management of “radical innovation” at Xerox. How does radical innovation differ from ordinary innovation?

Much like Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation, radical innovation changes the game. Radical innovation happens when a company opens up an entirely new market (such as laser printing or ether networks or personal computers) or creates a product that’s significantly faster or cheaper (such as solid-state lasers or systems on a chip). Often radical innovation involves breaking the frame, whether it’s the frame of the existing technology or the prevailing business model. Radical innovation also tends to shape an entire ecosystem.

Higher education is facing its own onslaught of disruptors. How can university leaders identify threats and react in such a way that they don’t get left behind?

I think it’s key that they get out of their own comfort zones and explore several edge examples or precedents so they can see what metaphors or deep structures unite these examples. In other words, they shouldn’t just copy or become fixated on one idea, but discover what emerges from the ensemble. They must practice deep listening and encourage the play of imagination.

For instance, I am intrigued by architectural design and the roles of architectural studios in training and educating students. I am particularly interested in the backtalk that occurs as groups try to make something happen; I like to hear how and why something is resisting. (Yes, that resistance occurs in material systems as well as human ones.) In essence, learning emerges from action, not just thought.

When you’re speaking to an audience of deans at the upcoming conference, what are the key takeaways you hope they’ll learn from your presentation?

I hope they will recognize the need to explore and master new skill sets that turn on four areas.

The first is imagination. Creativity was key to the 20th century, but as we envision new worlds, imagination will be key to the 21st century. Welcome to the imagination economy!

Second is authenticity. In turbulent times, we must count on instinct and live in the moment.

Next is collaboration. Solo players and heroes no longer will save the day, especially if we are tapping into the powers of an ecosystem.

Finally, there’s humility. We will need to learn rapidly from others who inhabit strange cultures and think weird thoughts, and humility will enable us to do that. It also will allow us to learn across generational, cultural, political, and epistemic boundaries. We all must become boundary jumpers.