| SPEAKING | PUBLICATIONS
| ABOUT JSB | CONTACT
Lurking, Listening, and Learning: Interview from Upside Magazine
with Marcia Conner
Marcia is finalizing her book, Learn
More Now: 10 Simple Steps for Learning Better, Smarter, and Faster
(John Wiley & Sons), in bookstores January 2004.
John Seely Brown told Upside Magazine in late 1993 that,
“The modern knowledge economy turns on the better use of knowledge,”
and “The key is the ability to learn. The more learners as employees
you have and the faster you and they can learn, the more you can capitalize
on this,” my heart smiled and I knew I had found a friend. The
following interview was conducted from that same place, one of appreciation,
admiration, and thanks for the now Chief Scientist at Xerox who still
finds time to talk about, write about, and work at the intersection
of learning and knowledge, society, and hope.
You’ve done quite a bit of writing, thinking, talking about
both organizational learning and communities of practice, but
at different times. In reflecting on those two topics, I wonder
if they are not, to some extent, at odds with the topic of e-learning,
learning on-line, or learning through the mechanism of technology.
The first questions I have for you are: Where do you see organizational
learning and the topic of communities overlapping or in conflict?
Are they at odds with one another or are they complimentary?
Well I think they are complementary. Let me lay out a miniature
topography for the moment. My own work with Paul Duguid has
evolved over the decade. We see four quite distinct levels from
which to analyze learning. First, there is the individual level
where the kind of individual learning that we are all familiar
with takes place. Then, there is the level that invisibly exists
between the individual and the organization that involves how
communities of practice learning. This level is where Paul and
I have focused our attention in the last few years. The next
level concerns the firm that we tend to analyze as being a structured
community of communities of practice. This level is usually
the focus of those studying organizational learning and knowledge
management. And finally, there is the level of the region—the
local region such as Silicon Valley. At this level we have found
the notion of learning ecologies to be most useful. It’s
interesting if you think about a firm, itself, as a knowledge-ecology
with a collection of communities of practice all interacting.
It’s even more interesting when you think about, “How
does a place like Silicon Valley, as a knowledge-ecology, really
learn?” It’s clearly an ecology of companies all
learning with and from each other. Does that make sense?
Absolutely. So in those four levels (individual, community of
practice, company and region) where does e-learning really fit
In quite different ways I think e-learning applies to all four
dimensions, all four levels, but it applies differently —
none of which has any direct bearing on distance learning by
the way, although I could redefine distance learning so that
it does. Think about it for a moment.
At the individual level, there’s a sense of linking, lurking,
learning and acting or leading. It’s wonderful to think
we have a new form of cognitive apprenticeship — where
no matter how niche your interest (for a kid of any age from
8 to 80) — there are virtual communities of interest forming
on the web that we can link to, we can lurk on the periphery
of, we can move from the periphery to the center and back again.
This was the very essence of our notion of apprenticeship
learning, which we picked up from Jean Lave. Then you are
able to explicitly engage in reflection on that as another form
some point, linking, lurking and learning all become seamlessly
integrated. That applies powerfully to the individual in terms
of enculturating or apprenticing yourself to a community of
practice. A distributed community of practice even allows you
to extend your reach so some of the time you’re physically
present, some of the time you’re virtually present and
so on. But also note that a community of practice can sometimes
get very inwardly focused so linking it to more global e-resources
is often enough to kind of shock or lurch you from a particularly
parochial point of view. Linking and even lurking can bring
diversity from outside into the center of the community of practice
and that has to help you learn. Finally, at the regional level,
we are beginning to examine how one might overlay the virtual
(i.e., the web) on top of the physical region so as to get the
best of both worlds — the richly textured social
learning that comes from shared physical experiences but now
augmented by a diverse set of virtual experiences.
Can you come back to why you see distance education or distance
learning somewhat separate from this discussion?
Well if classical distance learning is thought of as just delivery
of information, it really should be called distance education.
From that point of view, knowledge is the substance (called information
by everybody else) being transported to the receiver. Delivery,
by itself, doesn’t help you construct your own understanding
of the material. Learning has to do with integrating information
into your own internal framework so you own it within your own
conceptual space. That means you have to engage in some kind of
action with the knowledge being transferred to you. The easiest
way to do that is to join something like a discussion group so
within the discussion group you mostly construct — a constructivist
theory I might add — your own understanding. In that group,
somebody else’s partial understanding compliments your partial
understanding and together you start to weave a coherent kind
of interpretation of the information.
I haven’t heard you mention constructivism, explicitly,
for a long time. Care to elaborate?
Constructivism has always been implicit in many of the things
we have written. What really blew my mind a little while ago
was the recognition that in a conversation we are socially constructing
something together where one fragment of the conversation scaffolds
another person’s fragment of the conversation and so on.
This generates a virtuous spiral that reflects a profound sense
of constructivism — one that is socially generated
and socially scaffolded. The result is incredibly powerful.
Such constructivism pertains not just to any conversation, but
to conversations grounded in experience or in conversations
where one is trying to make sense of some given information.
It seems to me that constructivism has become so timely because
education has for so long been focused on the known. Now, to excel,
we must move on to understanding new things— what is unknown
or what we are discovering together. For that reason, I find it
much easier to talk with people about constructivism now because
they feel it; they understand that education can’t just
provide behavioral sheep dip. Education has to help people do
something, or construct something that hasn’t been there
...And that you come to a joint understanding, a joint construction
if you wish. Curiously, we now live in a chaotic world where everything
seems new so we need to try to make sense out of it. We
tend to forget that learning and sense-making go hand in hand:
we tend to forget that for the learner, the student, there’s
always this sense-making going on even if we, as teachers, think
everything is clear. Now, suddenly, teachers have been
thrown into the same kind of chaos as their learners. This has
created a symmetry that really focuses on how we need to jointly
I’ve felt this first hand and suspect you have too. In
many ways, it changes everything.
one of your ongoing themes has been simplicity and helping people
deconstruct the world around them to truly reach a stronger
level of understanding. I wonder, though, if our society is
so programmed for success that we’ve made online programs
almost too simple sometimes. As you’ve often pointed out,
we shouldn’t make things so apparent that we skip actually
struggling with them, searching for them, and working with them
in a meaningful way. Can things be too simple? Can we deconstruct
Those who are successful in the e-age are learning how to deconstruct
our landscape either by deconstructing new beliefs or new conceptual
lenses. By constantly seeking out patterns and by not denying
what we find jarring we can actually learning to deconstruct
our current ontology—the one we use to make sense of the
world. Once we can deconstruct something, we can reconstruct
it in a way that Ockham’s Razor* can now be freshly applied
in this new context. So, for example, the search for simplicity,
after an act of deconstruction, becomes key to radical business-concept
breakthroughs and where major value creation is going to be
in the next ten years. We all agree that in the next five to
ten years, the game will be changing and we could try to layer
on new modifications to old beliefs or we could actually step
back and deconstruct our beliefs so that we could then reconstruct
them in a new way.
said all that, in this new world the search for simplicity is
tantamount to coming to the core understanding of how something
is. I find the old cliché, “You don’t really
understand something until you can say it in a simple way,”
to be incredibly true and incredibly useful. And I think today,
in the era where the economy of attention reigns supreme, the
ability to get to the very essence of what’s going on
very rapidly also provides tremendous business leverage. The
power of saying something simply makes all the difference in
key to me is learning how to craft evocative objects: they could
be metaphors, sayings, or experiences which then help the other
person rapidly construct their own understanding. Again, not
provocative as much as evocative, so that it evokes the right
kinds of ideas in the listener.
learners are, of course, great listeners and if you learn how
to listen to and through an evocative object you learn how to
leverage your emotional side as well as you cognitive side.
Another theme that evokes meaning for me is that of context. As
I introduce the idea of context to people, I point out that context
will replace content as king over these next five to ten years.
I come to that from you. What does context offer that content
It’s clear that information takes on meaning relative
to the context it’s rendered in or emerges from. In this
era of multimedia, one has to be extremely careful about thinking
that content can simply jump between different media —
change context — and still preserve the same meaning.
Here’s a trivial little example. People have become used
to writing “flaming” email, but if you take that
same flaming message and reformat it and then print it out as
an office memo on formal office stationery, it can permanently
damage the sender’s career.
the context can completely change the meaning because we use
context to help guide how we to interpret the text. For example,
when I read The Wall Street Journal, I interpret the
stories quite differently than when I scan the front page of
the National Inquirer (as I check out my groceries).
From course-grained examples, all the way down to when we interact
with others in situ, we create a shared context that
helps give meaning to that event. Context and content come together
think it’s interesting to look at the entomology of the
word context: context means bringing together the text
— the texture of the event with the text of the content,
i.e., merging the periphery with the center. A very practical
example that often moves this intellectual notion to something
you can act and reflect involves in situ learning.
For instance, if I’m talking to an employee about some
way that he or she happens to act, I can only describe it abstractly.
If later I see the employee has just done that act, but is relatively
unaware of it, I can stop the interaction and comment on what’s
going on and get the person to reflect in situ on what
has just transpired. The conversation is then anchored in the
context that carries most of the meaning. This kind of concrete
conversation is much more likely to lead to a real change in
the person. Presenting context actually enables the learner
(the employee) to move from having an intellectual event to
one that has experiential meaning.
So how, in the work that you’re doing now, does the topic
of learning force the discussion beyond intellectual pursuits
to behavior and how people actually change what they are doing
based on what they know and how they bring meaning to what they
Let me deconstruct a couple of ideas from this. We actually
separate very carefully, at least in some of our writings, the
difference between knowing and knowledge. Knowing has to do
with knowledge in action or being in action. The distinction
is interesting because we know a hell of a lot more
than we have knowledge. We know more than we think
we know — because action takes place in a context which,
itself, scaffolds or affords knowing.
can’t remember how to do a certain thing on my motorcycle
if I haven’t been driving it for the last few weeks, but
as soon as I get on it, it instantly comes back as I start to
participate with it in the world of action. That participation
actually evokes this type of knowing and that’s one aspect
of practice of riding — like in a professional practice.
So, knowing, practice, and experience get much more interwoven
in a contextualized way. That’s pretty critical.
of the troubles we have now, as we go into the e-age, is that
experiential learning is key to meaningful learning. In the
virtual world, the notion of experience becomes stripped away
from many of the social resources of everyday life. That’s
one of the reasons why we think of our book as providing the
first steps toward framing a “social life critique”
of the digital age.
in the virtual world, you have information that has a social
life in terms of how it gets kicked around in discussion groups,
in chat rooms, in email, in list servers and so forth. So what
we’re trying to develop in our book goes beyond the concerns
of classical sociology. Our own analytic stance is exploring
ways that “Things that you haven’t thought of as
fostering a social life (such as a book or information) really
do have a social life around them that provides all kinds of
invisible resources for sense making whether one is in a physical
or virtual world.” As a result, it’s becoming increasingly
important to pay attention to what the invisible flow of social
experiences around the information really is and then how it
can be reinforced, etc, by the e-age and the web. This is especially
important when moving to the virtual world has unwittingly removed
your access to many of these resources—resources that
you have become so second nature to you that you hardly are
aware of them. And when they are removed you end up feeling
frustrated but you don’t quite know why. Just think about
what it is really like telecommuting from home rather than being
in your office, surrounded by folks, one of whom invariably
knows just what you need to know at that moment to get on with
For a richer explanation of the social life critique as well
as your overview of learning in theory and in practice, I encourage
people to look at your book.
we wrap up, most of all, I want to say thank you. Not only has
it been a pleasure to talk with you in real-time, but you have
really helped in my own personal education over the years. I’m
not sure I would have taken certain roads without your introduction
to topics and attention to matters beyond the common ways.
You know it’s interesting. I don’t think of learning
as something that I study. It’s just that if you look
at what’s so important, day in, and day out— it’s
learning. If we stop learning, we die. Therefore, what really
makes things fun for almost everyone is the ability to accelerate
one’s learning. I’m very unpopular in certain circles
for saying that we are all inveterate learners but when we go
to school we get our passion for learning turned off. I keep
hoping we can change schooling so as to amplify our innate passion
for learning and that we can change the workscape into becoming
a true learningscape. Thank you, too.