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.’

The Role of Psychological Priming in Innovation

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I have a rather unique ability.  I have the power to potentially alter your behaviour and perception of others by simply showing you a list of words.  Impressed?  Don’t be.  In actuality I am simply applying a psychological technique called priming.  Academically, priming is defined as “the process by which recent experiences increase the accessibility of a schema, trait, or concept.”  Sounds confusing, but in reality it is very simple to understand.  Imagine if I were to provide you with words like rude, intrude, and disturb to unscramble and then ask you to come get me when you were done.  Upon completion of the task, you find me but notice I am having a conversation with a colleague.  Would you immediately interrupt me or wait a few seconds?  What if the words were patiently, appreciate, and polite?  Would that alter your behaviour?  Surprisingly, in a study performed by John Bargh and his associates, participants primed with aggressive and rude words overwhelmingly interrupted the conversation faster than people primed with either neutral or calmer words[1].  This is just one example from Social Psychology that demonstrates how our actions and thinking can be skewed based on how we are primed prior to encountering an event.

If we now think about the potential application to innovation, there is something rather interesting that comes to light.  In any innovation session there exists a potential struggle between Management and the Employees.  Management oversees the resources needed (e.g.: funding, personnel, allotment of time) while the Employees are the ones who will do the innovating.  Should we consider a negative primer to something like the phrase “This is a very difficult innovative challenge and we may not get a lot of ideas”, a positive primer would then be along the lines of “This will be a rather easy innovation challenge and we should be able to get lots of ideas”.  What if we were to use the negative primer for Management and the positive one for the employees?  Would that provide a better innovative atmosphere?  How about changing the combination and providing management with the positive primer and employees with the negative one?  If we were to map out all the possible combinations, we obtain the following diagram:

There are several situations that can result from different combinations of positive or negative priming.

Management Positive Primed:  Trying to impress Management by informing them the innovative challenge will be easy counter intuitively produces a negative outcome as there will be limited funding and personnel.

Management Negatively Primed: This produces a positive result, as Management will now think the task is rather challenging and in order to successfully complete it, will provide extra funding and personnel.

Employees Positively Primed or Negative primed produces the results we would expect.  Telling Employees they have been selectively chosen for the challenge due to their skill level and creativity will obviously produce a group that is very motivated and enthusiastic to take on the challenge.  As one can easily guess, the opposite will occur if Employees are told the challenge will be rather difficult, many problems will be encountered along the way, and they were randomly selected.


Clearly there appears to be a combination that is optimal for an innovative environment: more resources are provided and the employees are very enthusiastic.  This lies in priming management in a negative way and priming Employees in a positive way.  As mentioned, this paradoxically should result in a situation where funding and/or additional resources are provided to an eager bunch of innovative employees waiting to take on the challenge.  Imagine if all your problems were approached in this way!

There is also a situation that should be avoided.  If management is positively primed, and Employees are negatively primed, low levels of resource and funding will be provided and you will end up with a bunch of Employees who do not want to take on the innovative challenge.

It can be agreed upon how either of the remaining two combinations (e.g. positive primer to both Management and Employees/negative primer to both Management and Employees) is what a typical company usually faces when an innovation challenge is encountered.  Either there will be excited management ready to give money, time, etc to unmotivated and overworked employees, or very excited employees who want to work on a particular challenge will be told they have very strict limitations.   However, as demonstrated above, perhaps utilizing psychological priming may decrease this tendency and help to promote a more positive innovative culture.

[1] Bargh, J., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996).  Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype priming on action.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 230-244.