John Seely Brown

Visiting Scholar, Annenberg Center at USC

Co-host of the BIF1 Collaborative Innovation Summit, John Seely Brown, Chief of Confusion, is the former Chief Scientist of Xerox Corporation and Director of its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) as well as Research Advisor to the Business Innovation Factory.

Part scientist, part artist and part strategist, JSB's views are unique and distinguished by a broad view of the human contexts in which technologies operate and a healthy skepticism about whether or not change always represents genuine progress.

As former director of Xerox PARC, Brown was involved in most of the radical innovations that have shaped today’s world including the invention of laser printing, the entire graphic user interface [GUI], distributed computing, artificial intelligence, smart job performance aids, social software, ubiquitous computing and so on.

These days, he finds himself focused on developing the next frontier of business innovation - how can companies develop a sustainable competitive edge that keeps them ahead of the pack?

"For more than a hundred years we've been driving towards efficiency,” states JSB, “creating larger and larger organizations with replicated processes and automation, but we're approaching the end of what efficiencies can give us.”

According to JSB, sustainability will come not from a pursuit of further efficiencies but rather from developing a constantly evergreen set of capabilities.

JSB has a history of turning a lot of traditional management theory inside out. Counter-intuitively, he suggests that firms should look beyond ways to reduce transaction costs and instead, create a learning environment that accelerates capability building.

To achieve this requires developing new kinds of ‘open process networks.’ Innovation is no longer a closed game. The key, according to Brown is to understand ways to couple ecosystems together and then figure out how to harness the innovative spirit and talents inherent in process networks.

“We need to go beyond the treatment of just individuals to realize that value is created in our interactions with one another,” a mantra JSB says he successfully instilled in PARC.

According to Brown, one of the questions we should ask ourselves is how do I learn as much from a partner as I would learn from creating something myself? “This puts a new spin on why distributed collaboration around the world might be critical in creating this sustainable edge,” says Brown.

Some firms today are beginning to embrace a more flexible approach to mobilizing resources within and outside the company. Brown calls this new approach the “pull” system of resource mobilization.

When needs can’t be easily determined in advance, companies are both creating and seeking out platforms to mobilize distributed resources readily. “This is a classic pull system,” says Brown. To exploit the opportunities that uncertainty presents, “pull models help people come together and innovate by drawing on a growing array of specialized and distributed resources.”

“Cocreation is a powerful engine for innovation”, explains JSB. “Organizations such as the Business Innovation Factory represent a creative approach to mobilizing resources. Instead of being limited to what companies can devise within their own borders, BIF throws the process open to many diverse participants, whose input can take product and service offerings in unexpected directions that can serve a much broader range of needs.”

Pull platforms harness their participants’ passion, commitment, and desire to learn, thereby creating communities than can improvise and innovate rapidly. At a time when traditional sources of competitive advantage are disappearing, companies can find unlikely heroes through exploring open-ended approaches to innovation. Greater control is not the answer to growing uncertainty says JSB. “Uncertainty is not a threat, it’s an opportunity.”