John Seely Brown on knowledge creation and storytelling

I’ve also been a long time fan of John Seely Brown. There’s been a recent spate of references to him and his work showing up in my aggregator. Most important, perhaps, is a pointer to his own website where much of his published work is available.

John Seely Brown.

I’ve long been a fan of John Seely Brown. His views of how knowledge is shared, how people work, and how digital media are impacting society are visionary. Thanks to Maish for providing a link to JSB’s website.


Much of Seely Brown’s work focuses on the processes and dynamics by which knowledge is created and shared. Seb Paquet points to and excerpts from a recent interview with Brown that talks about his work and about the crucial role of storytelling in the realm of knowledge work:

John Seely Brown on stories and knowledge flows

Jay Cross points to a terrific Seth Kahan interview with John Seely Brown, touching on storytelling, innovation, creative abrasion, and the dissemination of ideas. He quotes this incredibly clear paragraph on the connection between stories, emotion, and personal change:

“Why storytelling? Well, the simplest answer to your question is that stories talk to the gut, while information talks to the mind. You can’t talk a person through a change in religion or a change in a basic mental model. There has to be an emotional component in what you are doing. That is to say, you use a connotative component (what the thing means) rather than a denotative component (what it represents). First, you grab them in the gut and then you start to construct (or re-construct) a mental model. If you try to do this in an intellectual or abstract way, you find that it’s very hard, if not impossible, to talk somebody into changing their mental models. But if you can get to them emotionally, either through rhetoric or dramatic means (not overly dramatic!), then you can create some scaffolding that effectively allows them to construct a new model for themselves. You provide the scaffolding and they construct something new. It doesn’t seem to work if you just try to tell them what to think. They have to internalize it. They have to own it. So the question is: what are the techniques for creating scaffolding that facilitate the rich internalization and re-conceptualization and re-contextualization of their own thinking relative to the experience that you’re providing them? Put more simply: how do you get them to live the idea?”

On why, somewhat counterintuitively, strong internal social capital in a group is not always all good because it can result in the buildup of a membrane around that group and push members into “us vs. them” thinking:

“We all talk about social capital, but some of the worst labs that I’ve ever been in had extraordinarily high social capital within the lab. But social capital can create the feeling, “I’m better than anybody else,” and this creates dysfunctional work relationships. It creates the idea that “you’re a bad guy.” One of the best ways to build social capital is to have a common enemy. If that enemy is in the outside world, then guess what? You’ll have a very hard time transferring ideas from the inside to the outside. So, social capital can work against you. Communities of practice are not necessarily very open. They can become very rigid structures, just as rigid as hierarchies. Look at the guilds in medieval times, like the stonecutters. They were very exclusionary. They were seats of absolute power. They were evenable to challenge the church!”

Speaking of JSB and stories, there’s a page I’ve been meaning to link for months now. I figure if I don’t do it now I’ll never get around to doing it. It’s a great bike-riding story he told that illustrates tacit knowledge. Read it – I promise that you’ll be surprised. [Seb’s Open Research]

Finally, Seely Brown shows up in today’s Technology Review blog thinking about the connections between storytelling as learning tool and how online games extends the power of storytelling:

Why study Rome when you can build it?

…focus on the game itself which involves all the players building and evolving a complex world, and you see a new kind of nonlinear, multi-authored narrative being constructed…


In the past, I had tended to think of narratives as being basically linear and but they arent necessarily. As Steve Denning has pointed out part of the power of a narrative is its rhetorical structure that brings listeners into an active participation with the narrative, either explicitly or by getting them to pose certain questions to themselves. [Technology Review RSS Blog Feed]

The power of story then is twofold, at least. One, stories connect at an emotional level making action a much more likely outcome. Second, storytelling that engages a group in creating a tale collectively, also imposes a thought structure that helps the group organize its thinking.