The real difficulty…is in escaping from old ideas

Or to give you the full quote: “The real difficulty in changing any enterprise lies not in developing new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones” (John Maynard Keynes)

If you have twenty minutes, make a cup of tea and take a peek into the future. In this short video, John Seely-Brown (JSB) – a futurist, formerly of the XEROC-PARC research centre – highlights the many ways in which the intersection of people, information and technology is transforming how we understand knowledge.

In the video, JSB begins with the above quote from J.M. Keynes to illustrate how we struggle to move away from old, trusted ideas and into new, uncertain times. Although delivered at a conference on the future of Libraries JSB goes far beyond this to grapple with knowledge management and innovation, highlighting that progress in the 21st century now follows a rapid series of 18-month s-curves driven by exponential advances in computation. The implication of this is that we no longer have the time that we had in the 20th century to reinvent social practices and adapt to change – today, change is rapid and unrelenting.

I’ll do my best to provide a summary of the key points (please note that although I wish I was as smart as John-Seely Brown, almost all the ideas that follow are his…)

We are moving from knowledge ‘stocks’ to knowledge ‘flows’

As change speeds up, we are moving from a paradigm where we ‘stored’ knowledge to one in which we participate in ‘knowledge flows’. Perhaps the most important implication of this is the difficulty in storing the tacit knowledge created by these flows – we no longer have the time to identify this knowledge, make it explicit, and store it. This poses significant implications for organisations who are investing significant capital in trying to capture and store knowledge (an example of how we have difficulty escaping from old ideas).

The half-life of our skills is shrinking to about 5 years

The speed of change potentially renders our skills obsolete every 5 years. This highlights the major problems this poses for formal schooling and the need to move away from education that is based around learning content. Instead, we need to learn the critical skills that enable us to dip into relevant knowledge flows in order to find and apply relevant content to a given problem. We also have to learn how to participate effectively in the vast, complex networks in which we increasingly find ourselves.

Homo Sapiens is becoming Homo Faber
Or rather, ‘Man who Knows’ is becoming ‘Man who Makes’. The default mode of operation in networked societies increasingly involves making and sharing knowledge, not simply consuming it. But rather than just building content and things, we are now able to build contexts as much as content. JSB highlights how maker culture, blogging and remixing enables us to change the context of a message or a piece of content. Millenials with increasingly sophisticated devices now expect to be able to remix and adapt content, and the implication of this is that we have to learn how to read ‘context’ as well as simply ‘content’. Maybe ‘context marketing’ will soon be on the horizon…

‘Effective play’ is needed to help us un-learn

If our skills will become obsolete every 5 years, JSB points out that ‘unlearning’ will become just as important as ‘learning’. He argues that our ability to learn through play is integral to helping us unlearn and develop a new, flexible and creative mindset. At the heart of the triangle of knowing, making and playing, are ‘imagination’, ‘curiosity’ and ‘agency’. This need for millenials to learn through doing, playing, and making should be shaping how we conceive of the future of work.

How imagination, curiosity and agency are shaping how we work (adapted from John Seely-Brown)

Reverse mentorship is a source of innovation

We may have instructed those young graduates we just employed to make the tea and hang out on social media. But instead we should be creating opportunities for them to mentor us so that we can learn about how they see and understand the world. If ‘yesterday’s cutting edge is today’s dust bin’, as JSB argues, then we need to be embracing the mindset, energy and inquisitiveness of those new to the workplace in order to stay as close as we can to the s-curve.

We need to ‘leverage the edge’ in the exponential age

Echoing the practice and language of lean startups and entre/intrepreneurship, JSB highlights the need to create now and seek forgiveness later. Leveraging the exponential power of social media, easy access to computing power and micro-financing and crowd-funding, JSB argues that the aim should be to excel on the edge and use this success to draw the core towards us. This is another way of escaping old ideas and making sure we are at the start of the new s-curve rather than on the tail of the old one.

So there you have it, a whistle-stop tour of some of the concepts and ideas that will shape – and are already shaping – our future. It’s scary to think that my skills are already slightly more out of date than they were when I began typing this article…

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