Book Worming: ‘A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change’

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Occasionally we find a book worth mentioning. We’ll do our best to share both the good and the bad, with a healthy dose of interpretation of how you can leverage the concepts as an Osmotic Innovator.

Douglas Thomas and John Seely Browns’ take on changing ways of learning and educating might seem like a stretch for the Osmotic Innovator, until one considers the fact that innovation is at its heart all about learning in order to explore and combine disparate items to create something new. Thomas and Brown realize this, beginning the book by calling out the fact that learning is no longer confined to the classroom – that ‘it is happening all around us, everywhere, and it is powerful . . . it is grounded in a very simple question. What happens to learning when we move from the stable infrastructure of the twentieth century to the fluid infrastructure of the tweny-first century?’

For the Osmotic Innovator, this seems like a potentially powerful concept. If learning has been reassessed as advertised, how can this be leveraged to better enable your current employees and how will this change the way that the next generation of recruits to your team works? And further, given that the pace of change in learning has grown exponentially faster, how can firms cope, not only surviving a potential onslaught of innovation but thriving and growing with it?

Unfortunately, the book fails to deliver fully against some of the most exciting questions and possibilities from this perspective. It does however give the reader a new frame of reference to view the process of learning. This new point-of-view could be very valuable in the hands of the Osmotic Innovator.

Thomas and Browns’ description – backed up consistently through the book – that ‘The new culture of learning actually comprises two elements. The first is a massive information network that provides limitless access and resources . . . The second is a bounded and structured environment that allows for unlimited agency to build and experiment with things within those boundaries. . . It is the combination of the two, and the interplay between them, that makes the new culture of learning so powerful’ is a particularly compelling notion.

Building on this, the authors seek to support the case that ‘teaching’ is no longer the predominant mechanism for growth. Instead, ‘learning’, where students play, interact, and create a culture from and through the process of learning, is the new effective environment for growth. Importantly, and recognizable to the Osmotic Innovator, is that the new culture derives its strength from its focus on learning through engagement with the world. It is this outward looking view that makes most sense through the book and resonates with changes in our world culture (see The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century). The notion that to succeed in this era one needs to look outwardly, engaging with consumers, suppliers, and potential competitors, aligns with much of what we understand about Open Innovation. In calling out the biggest dysfunction with the previous worldview Thomas and Brown could be describing the old era of innovation equally well; ‘the major pitfall of the twenty-first century’s teaching model – namely, the belief that most of what we know will remain relatively unchanged for a long enough period of time to be worth the effort of transferring it.

Though Thomas and Brown make a few connections between this new model for education and the world of business through the remainder of the book, often connecting with insights that would be recognizable to anyone spending time seriously thinking and considering innovation, they fail to really expound on the model and directly connect it to much of the world outside the classroom. This is where the book seems to miss an opportunity; by becoming overly bound to trying to prove the existence of the model through repetitive examples of it they miss the opportunity to apply it (or project how it could be applied) to the larger world they give the occasional nod to.

It should be rather easy though to apply the lessons of this book. The arguments made in the book could well be reframed as calls to action for the innovator; power isn’t in knowing the answer, but where to find the answer; you can learn more from taking the wrong approach than the right; inquiry is the process of asking “what don’t we know.”

The message and codification of ‘play’ as a learning technique for the 21st century is a powerful one, Beyond the realm of education it gives direction to the Osmotic Innovator about the bounty to be reaped for those who learn how to connect play and imagination in fruitful ways. As Thomas and Brown say themselves ‘the culture that emerges . . . is a culture of collective inquiry that harnesses the resources of the network and transforms them . . . only when we care about experimentation, play, and questions more than efficiency, outcomes, and answers do we have a space that is truly open to the imagination.’


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