Batten Institute

John Seeley Brown


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Bio: John Seely Brown, former Chief Scientist of Xerox Corporation, was Director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) for 12 years. While head of PARC, he expanded the role of corporate research to include such topics as organizational learning, complex adaptive systems, microelectrical mechanical system (MEMS), and NANO technology. His personal research interests include digital culture, ubiquitous computing, Web service architectures, and organizational and individual learning.

He is a member of the National Academy of Education, a Fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Brown is a Trustee of Brown University and the MacArthur Foundation, and he also serves on numerous boards of directors and advisory boards. He has published over 100 papers in scientific journals and was awarded the Harvard Business Review’s 1991 McKinsey Award for his article, “Research that Reinvents the Corporation,” and again in 2002 for his article (with John Hagel), “Your Next IT Strategy.” In 1997, he published the book Seeing Differently: Insights on Innovation (Harvard Business Review Books). He received the 1998 Industrial Research Institute Medal for outstanding accomplishments in technological innovation and the 1999 Holland Award in recognition of the best paper published in Research Technology Management in 1998. With Paul Duguid, he co-authored the acclaimed book, The Social Life of Information (HBS Press, 2000), which has been translated into nine languages with a second edition in 2002.

He received an A.B. from Brown University in 1962 in mathematics and physics and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1970 in computer and communication sciences.

Expertise: Learning in the Innovation Process– organizational learning, complex adaptive systems, microelectrical mechanical system (MEMS), NANO technology, digital culture, ubiquitous computing, and Web service architectures


Fellowship Focus: John Seely Brown’s Batten Fellowship involves collaboration with Elizabeth Teisberg on exploring, learning, and innovating. In an age of discontinuity, some of the greatest barriers to innovation are “wisdom” and defensive routines. He and Professor Teisberg are looking at how learning by doing, learning by waiting, learning to explore, and unlearning can be more effectively incorporated in the innovation process.

While the business world focuses on exploiting opportunities, it may be missing the chance to explore them. Learning is usually thought of in terms of exploitation: learning curves, TQM, efficiency improvement, or operational improvement. These have been powerful approaches. But the stone has been squeezed; there is little waste left in organizations. Firms are now facing the “Red Queen effect” of having to run faster to stay in place. The paradox in this environment is how to increase profits when there is increasing uncertainty and less room left to increase efficiency. Stretch accounting is not a good answer. The alternative is to explore rather than exploit.

Learning to explore is more radical. It involves unlearning wisdom and routines that block new paths. It requires the daunting task of welcoming new ideas. John Seely Brown and Elizabeth Teisberg are looking at how the perspective of options thinking supports organizations in this pursuit. This mindset suggests a different implementation of stage and gate innovation processes, a different view of project selection, and a new focus on learning in the innovation process.

Contact Info

Appointment: 2002 

Publications & News


Seeing Differently: Insights on Innovation (Harvard Business Review Books)

The Social Life of Information (co-author) (HBS Press, 2000)

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