Passport to the 21st Century
John Seely Brown, Steve Denning, 
Katalina Groh, Larry Prusak: 
Some of the world's leading thinkers
explore the role of storytelling in the world

 I Introduction to storytelling I John Seely Brown on science I Steve Denning on change I Katalina Groh on video
Larry Prusak on organization I Discussion I | Contact us | Bibliography on storytelling

Storytelling: Scientist's Perspective: John Seely Brown
Open source development: 
the case of Linux
   Now this all sounds kind of obvious in a way. It sounds kind of obvious because we have also seen it play out in this slightly different set of social dynamics. That has to do with open source development. I donít know how many of you follow open source. But go back and look at Linux. 
   Linux was a whole consortium to build an operating system, by thousands of people, using their own free time around the world, led by a guy out of Helsinki, Finland, to create an operating system that was so much better than Microsoftís operating system that it would really challenge the power of Microsoft. Now you could argue whether it is so much better because it hasnít really challenged the power of Microsoft. Whatever you want to think, this is becoming one of the dominant server operating systems on the servers, running the servers on the internet today. 
   Whatís interesting to me is now to go back and try to understand the social dynamic of the open source consortium. What you basically had was a small center of people, and a czar. And that czar was going to determine what was going into that operating system and what wasnít. But the code was completely open. Anybody could pick up chunks of it. Anybody could improve it. You could map those improvements, and take them back to the central committee. If this central czar liked it, it would go into the operating system with your name attached to that code. 
   And what became interesting to some of us studying this thing, first of all, for the first time in my life that computer scientists started to write code that was meant to be read by others. Unless your colleagues could read the code, they couldnít pick it up and learn from it. They couldnít pick it up and modify it. So the open source consortium, although it was never talked about this way, became a massive learning community, in terms of sharing of best practices by being able to make code transparent, readable, experimental and changeable. 
   So not only was it a learning community, but it was a knowledge creation community. Because basically these kids would pick up this code, modify it, see if it was better, pack it, and ship it back in. And if it made back in, you became a hero. And so it was a very interesting dynamic. 
   It led to a new way of being which I think is going to become much more dominant as we move into the 21st Century, itís a sense of engagement, not just  narrative construction but by what I call bricolage. Bricolage, again moving from worshipping the abstract to working with the concrete. Working with the concrete, in terms of here is a concrete piece of code. For those of us who write systems, code is concrete, not abstract. The algorithm may be abstract but the code is concrete.  And you take this chunk here and you start tinkering with it. Bricolage has to do with tinkering. Tinkering with a piece of concrete code, seeing whether you can make it better. Engaging in that bricolage until you have something that you think is better and then ship it back into the debate, and then if it is accepted, you increase the social capital for yourself. So this whole phenomenon is pretty interesting.
   I have talked a lot about learning and knowledge captured in a very simple way. Thatís not the whole story. The really interesting question to me is: if you capture and share incremental knowledge, whatís the ability to be able to stimulate radical knowledge, the creation of radical innovation, and so on and so forth. 
Books and videos on storytelling 
*** In Good Company : How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work
by Don Cohen, Laurence Prusak (February 2001) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown, Paul Duguid
(February 2000) Harvard Business School Press
*** The Springboard : How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations
by Stephen Denning (October 2000) Butterworth-Heinemann 
*** The Art of Possibility, a video with Ben and Ros Zander : Groh Publications (February 2001)
Copyright © 2001 John Seely Brown 
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