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Why learning how to learn (and unlearn) is the new competitive advantage

November 19, 2020 - 15 min read


John Seely Brown, or JSB, is a BetterUp Science Board member and organizational learning researcher. He is a visiting scholar and former advisor to the Provost at University of Southern California, former board member at Amazon, and former Co-chairman of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge. He has authored numerous publications on business strategy and management issues, learning practices and technology. I recently sat down (virtually) with JSB to explore what it means to be a learner in a dynamic tech-mediated world, and why a new type of “learning in action” is so important now. In our discussion, edited for length and clarity, JSB shares his experiences with humility, mentorship, learning how to “be”, and trying to think like an electron.“

This does not mean how to become an entrepreneur. This really means, how do you constantly look around you all the time for new ways, new resources to learn new things? That’s the sense of entrepreneur I’m talking about that now, in the networked age, gives us unlimited possibility.”

John Seely Brown

Hasn’t learning always been important – what’s changed now? 

The types of problems are fundamentally different. Predictability is gone. So are long-term solutions. Our current leaders, including you and me, have come through a schooling mechanism where we were taught that there are truths, there are facts. That period of enlightenment that we all came from had wrapped things up in pure form. We thought we had to take the problem out of the world, formalize it, make it a beautiful round ball and then apply learning and knowledge to attack the problem. We were taught to optimize stable problems – look for commonalities and ignore externalities. Now it is all externalities, and there is no equilibrium.

Today, in my terminology, we have moved from the age of enlightenment to the age of entanglement. Everything that really matters in a problem is now in tangled with everything else. Each has layer after layer of consequences in different ways. There's some sense that understanding these entanglements requires empathy,  getting a feeling for the problem, and the people involved, in a fairly robust way. Then the real learning question is, how do you play with entanglement? 

So if you look at our notion of a whitewater world not only is it rapidly changing, everybody talks about that, but it is hyper-connected and radically entangledThose two things destroy a past idea. So you better have people you can learn with, or you're in trouble. Of course, you’ve also got to have an environment where it doesn't feel like helping you learn hurts my chance of getting ahead. 

In the whitewater world, the skill that matters most is a sense of authenticity. Authenticity in this case means profoundly understanding your own center of gravity and your own capability, so that you really know yourself, because when you do a roll in kayaking, if then you start to think, it's probably not going to go well for you. You have to have the authenticity that comes from doing real things. You don’t get it by sitting in a classroom or doing corporate training. You get that in the rough, so to speak, and with people whom you respect that you can learn with and from. The further removed from stasis we are, the less and less formal training matters, and the more the ability to play with a context and then understand how you are learning from it and with it. 

When we hear “learning how to learn” it’s tempting to jump to, “ok, we all need to get better at learning new technologies, using microlearning content and various learning platforms more effectively, and managing our own learning.” That’s not really what you’re talking about, is it? 

Teaching is on the way out; learning is on its way in. We have equated those and smeared the boundary. I think now we have to go back and redraw the boundary to say real learning is in action, through a form of effective practice or a form of coaching.

Learning by doing anything is okay. It's a kind of dialectic conversation between me and the context: I try this and I look at X response. If the environment and the problem itself is changing in response to every action on it, spending a huge amount of time before action is only useful if I have a good reflective practice group to think about what worked yesterday and what didn't work today and so on.  The catch is you really need a new tool set and strategies for working on these types of problems. 

So “learning how to learn-in-action” can be thought of as:

  • Learning how to find and put yourself into the action where you can learn fastest (how to step into the problem)
  • Learning how to notice what is interesting and relevant (how to open your mind) 
  • Learning how to make sense of what you “see” and learning how to test your understanding, and the connections between parts (how to play with the problem) 

I think in some ways frontline workers already understand this as much or more than one or two levels up. We’ve talked about Special Ops and first responders, but think about the ways that some inner city kids read intelligence and read what's going on in the street with blinding speed and total accuracy. They live in a context with real consequences, and they learn how to work with the environment in solving a problem. I call it bricolage: the way you work with the perception gaps and the tools in front of you. Essentially, you’re reinterpreting the resources around you to help get the job done. That ability to repurpose, to rethink, to replay your imagining, to say how can I use this in a brand new way

Forget the facts. Let's look at the contexts and how we make sense of them? How do you come to realize what part of that you want to really act on? And that is that sense of moving from fact to context from content to context. 

When I say this to top managers, at first they’re appalled and then they say: Well, you know, John, my job is reading context. That is how I got to where I am. Okay, now that opens up a new conversation about strategies for this type of learning. Why do you believe that you've read the context, right? How do you probe that? How do you test that yourself? Because if you think now that truth comes from reading context, I'd like to know more about how you are so confident that you’re reading it accurately.  

But learning to learn isn’t entirely separate from using technology to learn faster, either. I’ll tell you a story: You know, I’m still trying to be on the edge of AI, deep learning stuff, which changes upside down almost every third week. Somebody said to me: John, given your age, how do you learn anything new? I said, first of all, I don't wait for textbooks – they're already three years out of date – and I don't read published papers – they're a year out of date.

What I do instead: I look at YouTube. I’ve picked out interesting groups that have come together and I  follow them and listen to their discussions. There is this Wild West going on around me, and I’m learning how to not get lost, not to get overwhelmed, and zeroing in on what may be useful stuff to attend to now. There were people out there to talk to and listen to, and they’d been solving real problems as well, so you had a very powerful learning environment. Then I had my own little learning circle for AI, these guys I talk to, out of the country or on the other side of the world, but we can take advantage of being in a hyper-connected world. I say, help me understand X because I know you've been through something similar. So our learning radically accelerates and our aperture for learning radically expands.

Everyone loves the phrase “unlearning” – what does that mean?

Unlearning is a cute phrase – it doesn’t really happen explicitly. It’s about being generous enough to not think that there is only one solution. Somebody comes in from a different discipline that approaches the problem differently – do I listen to how they are looking at the problem? Or, do I pull out a rote solution or framework? Am I willing to engage in probing the system together? You’re expanding your own aperture for how you think about solutions, expanding the sources and resources you use, and approaching problems in new ways that you never believed in, but suddenly you see them in action. Then you start to unpack that a little bit and see, oh, that's interesting. More and more unlearning is just learning how to play with a problem, using your imagination to fill in the gaps, and to some extent, even be willing to expand the gaps before you try to close them. It's also, in some funny sense, a bit of empathy to understand the problem. For instance, how does an electron figure out how to go around a corner? I kind of put myself in the electron, and of course, I was instantly lost. I suddenly realized that I have no way to probe what an electron knows. And, that's what led to then a willingness to understand something about quantum waves that I had never known about.

We hear about younger employees wanting mentors, and many companies try to establish mentoring programs, especially for underrepresented populations. You’ve also talked about reverse mentorship – what is the role of mentorship in this new learning?

We tend to think about mentors being so important. But today's mentors are already out of kilter a little bit with what's going on, right? The irony is the kids that we think are just starting out have tremendous insights that, a) seem important to them, and b) are important to us because we have to learn how they see the world, how they parse things, how they decide what matters and so on. There is, I think, a fantastic opportunity to say, you know, there's something new going on. It's a new symbiosis. 

Receiving reverse mentorship is a key part of learning how to learn. Senior people, the traditional mentors, don’t realize that their job now is not just to be a mentor. Their job is to be a new kind of “learner in action,” getting tremendous insights from the people that they think they are supposed to be mentoring and teaching. They need to be taking the time to really understand the younger person’s point of view, and how they are making sense of the world. 

We forget that every one of us has a set of biases that we grew up with conditioned by our social embeddings. In the world now, it’s about how you work with the discrepancies between our perceptions – yours and mine or between a mentor’s and mentee’s. It's one thing to say, you’re biased and it's hard to talk to you, so let me tell you what's going on. That's not exactly effective. So now we're in a new game. Both of us have to rethink what actually are our biases, and how we: a) move from thinking about facts to thinking about contexts; and b) make sense out of a context. We have to realize that in reading a context, we're always filling in stuff. 

Back to reverse mentorship, leaders and managers can learn a lot more from understanding how the different types of people in their organization read and understand context. 

All of this seems to require a lot of attention and energy, even courage. Why is it hard? Where do leaders and managers struggle to make that leap to becoming a different type of learner?

In a world of constant change what is exciting is a sense of agency. If I have a sense of agency then learning can be an adventure because what I learned I can try out. 

So, to some extent, what makes this game so interesting is how do we enhance a sense of agency for ourselves and our people? How do I, as an individual operating in my microcosm, have a sense of being able to feel that I am contributing value, that I matter what I do matters? I'm just not a cog in a wheel, but in fact, I am actually capable of taking my own point of view, of listening deeply, but at the same time, figuring out what could be done and then being free to do it, to try it. 

I think we are returning to, what does it mean to be. And how do you constantly rethink learning to become

Now for leaders, this is trickier. Managers believe that there are formal procedures that you should be using. They've been taught these procedures. It's not the what, it's the how. Let me show you how to solve that, you know, as opposed to, take the what, and now improvise. Saying “go improvise” is scary.

With leaders who have been trained in “the right way” and specific tools, how do you actually get them to understand that now they have to empathize with the tension in a problem? Now they have to learn how to play with the tensions to figure out what is really significant at that moment in time. I co-led this executive MBA course (with Ann Pendelton-Jullian) on wicked problems, and it was horrifying. The students had zero ability to play with a problem. They had a frame resolving everything to one element, oblivious to the things that they pushed aside. It made me realize the importance of coaching for a whitewater world because there is something quite fundamentally different about how we approach it relative to the world in stasis. 

Embedded in that story about the electrons is the need for humility and vulnerability. If you're going to learn from, and with, others, you're going to reveal that you don’t know what you're talking about. A lot. 

A hundred percent. I think we are returning to, what does it mean to be. And how do you constantly rethink learning to becomeFirst of all, that's why reverse mentorship is so important. And maybe it starts with talking to their kids in a new way, or the people who’ve joined the company in the last two years and being profoundly curious about how they see the world. Being an entrepreneurial learner means always questing, connecting, probing, deeply curious and listening generatively to others, always learning with and from others, reading context, and reflecting on performance with the help of cohorts. Each of those challenges – knowing how to connect, learning how to listen or reflect – those things require humility. 

You asked where learning fails in the organization – there’s no real humility in the leadership. There’s very little humility throughout the organization. You can’t learn without humility. 

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Published November 19, 2020

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