Alan Briskin: An interview by Bob Morris

Alan Briskin

Co-founder of the Collective Wisdom Initiative, Alan Briskin is an organizational consultant, artist, and researcher. His co-authored book, The Power of Collective Wisdom, won the 2010 Nautilus Award in the category of business and leadership.  One of his other books, Daily Miracles: Stories and Practices of Humanity and Excellence in Health Care, written with Jan Boller, was chosen as the 2007 Book of the Year by the American Journal of Nursing in the area of public interest and creative works. Briskin, honored by Saybrook University as its 1997 Noted Humanist Scholar, is a leading voice in the field of organizational learning and development.

In 1971, he was part of an international community in Israel, founded on the principals of the communal kibbutz.  As an educator, he helped in the start up and development of an alternative school in Maine (1973) and was the first Director of Education for the Vermont group home that became the model program for deinstitutionalization of confined youth (1978).  His interest in alternative educational settings continued for over 10 years (1995 – 2005) while he served as the principal consultant to the George Lucas Educational Foundation. Briskin’s work with human potential and organizational learning continued as a specialist in prison reform and health care.  He was the first person to research emerging theories of moral development with prison inmates and led a model program aiding inmates to bridge the chasm between cell block and useful employment. As a health care consultant in the mid 1990’s, he helped design programs for practicing physicians to deepen their communication skills with patients. He is a founding member of the Relationship Centered Care Network. Briskin has been invited to speak on his work throughout the United States, as well as in Canada, England, Japan, and South Africa. He has a doctorate from the Wright Institute in Berkeley, CA and is a Professional Associate of the Grubb Institute in London.  His love of photography opened his inner eye to the beauty that enfolds us. Briskin lives in Oakland, CA.

Morris: Before discussing The Power of Collective Wisdom, a book you co-authored with Sheryl Erickson, John Ott, and Tom Callanan, a few general questions. First, when and why was the Collective Wisdom Initiative founded?

Briskin: It was founded in 1991 and funded by the philanthropic organization, the Fetzer Institute, after research we conducted demonstrated a growing network of scholars and practitioners interested in the question of group practices leading to creative breakthroughs and transformative change.  Our initial task was threefold: to enable this diverse global group to see and connect with each other, to help each other gain access to useful ideas, and to notice patterns and make visible this growing network of people and ideas.  On our website, two years before Facebook began, we posted photos and personal profiles of each of our network members.  We also commissioned original papers from scholars and practitioners, asking them to write about a topic they themselves were wrestling with, ideas still emerging in their own personal and intellectual life.  We had tremendous diversity, ranging from a physicist who worked with the Dalai Lama writing about love and community to a Jungian scholar writing about the ecstatic darkness in groups.

Morris: Years ago, you became centrally involved with the education of children, first in Israel and then in New England (Maine and Vermont). Please explain your interest in alternative educational settings.

Briskin: Well I had a wild idea that educational settings were places where learning could happen.  My interest in alternative learning began in the late 1960’s when I read about a small program in the South Bronx that successfully worked with high school dropouts.  The curriculum was based on their personal life experience and it made me realize the importance of learning as something personal, something to be experienced, something to get excited about.  For those who watched the movie Precious, the alternative school the main character went to had that quality.  It was messy, at times chaotic, but the kids knew someone cared about them and knew an adult believed in their potential.  And they also learned from each other.

Morris: Please explain what the George Lucas Educational Foundation is and does. Also, when and why did you first become involved with it?

Briskin: One of the things I appreciated about the George Lucas Educational Foundation was that it was not set up as a traditional charitable foundation.  Rather, it seemed to be driven by a series of evolving questions.  How do kids best learn?  How will changing technology and the digital age affect learning and learning institutions?  What is already happening in public education that deserves our attention and support?  My role as a consultant was to support both group execution and strategic vision.  Lucas had a vision of giving educators, politicians, parents, and school administrators “swords” that would aid them in cutting through the bureaucracy, specialization, and stupefying language that creeps into discussions about learning.  The Foundation did this by becoming a media hub for storytelling about what was working in public education and hired a full time documentary filmmaker to showcase these model programs.

Morris: Please explain what the Relationship Centered Care Network is and does. What are the nature and extent of your association with it?

Briskin: This was another example of the power of partnerships, collective networks, and inspired conversations.  Provoked by fundamental questions such as “where is the care in Healthcare?” and “how might compassion and clinical excellence be joined?” the Pew Health Professions Commission and the Fetzer Institute joined forces to promote an integrated model of care.  In 1994, they published a report that emphasized the primacy of relationships – between caregiver and patient and family, among practitioners, and between practitioners and their community.  And then in 1996, they convened six separate groups of twenty-five or so people in diverse areas of health care.  We met in Kalamazoo, Michigan – where Fetzer is located.  And we talked, told stories, and addressed questions about illness and transformation.  It was eye opening and emotionally engaging and celebratory – we were simultaneously learning from each other and learning about how health care could be transformed.  Later we began having annual conferences for the combined groups and other interested professionals and eventually over 1,000 people were in the network.  My book, Daily Miracles, written with stories drawn from dialogues with nurses at a community hospital over a two year period was a direct result of this experience.

Morris: Now please focus on The Power of Collective Wisdom that you co-authored with Sheryl Erickson, John Ott, and Tom Callanan. In the Foreword, Peter Senge suggests four reasons why he thinks the book is so important…and I agree with each. Please share your own thoughts about the reasons he cites. First, that the book “corrects a misconception that wisdom is not developable.”

Briskin: What Senge does so well is that he challenges basic assumptions and misconceptions that often go unchallenged in the business community.  The first is that wisdom is not developable, as if it’s a matter of luck or personality or genetics.  Well it’s just not the case.  Wisdom involves our accumulated knowledge about a subject but also a reverence for life, for an understanding that our immediate actions have long-term consequences, and for an appreciation that there are different ways of knowing and understanding situations.  When I talked about the Relationship Centered Network, I was speaking about a group developing wisdom.  And we do this by joining contemplative practices such as the use of silence, prayer, and consideration of a higher purpose in life with dialogic practices which engage us with others – making us consider differences and allowing us to find what is common among us.

Developing wisdom in community is to constantly learn and relearn that expedience in the short term – whether for efficiency or profitability – can lead to disasters in the long term in financial, ecological, political, social, and spiritual spheres.

Morris: Senge also suggests that the book is “about the capacity of human communities to make wise choices and to orient themselves around a living sense of the future that truly matters to them.”

Briskin: He is addressing a basic misunderstanding that wisdom is only about individuals. We often associate wisdom with individuals – the ancient figure of Solomon or great leaders such as Lincoln, Gandhi, King, and Mandela. But Senge is pointing out that is misleading for two reasons.  First is that these leaders are known precisely for their ability to catalyze and mobilize the wisdom of large groups of people, often in times of great conflict and conflicting viewpoints.  Second, the focus on the individual misses the point that it is in partnerships, small groups, and communities of shared goals that anything of lasting value is created.  The group is the fuel for completing tasks and getting things done.  And people in groups can accomplish almost anything when they feel connection to a higher purpose and an understanding of how their individual actions affect each other and the larger whole.

Morris: Sense’s third reason for admiring the book is that you and your co-authors show that wisdom “is all about results, and especially what is achieved over the longer term” and what has substantial “tangible impact.”

Briskin: This was personally very important for me.  Collective wisdom is too often dismissed as a “feel good” concept or used as an expression for insights that can occur in well run groups. But this misses the larger point that wisdom is also about sound judgment, not just consensus, insight, or simple agreement.  Wisdom in groups is earned by gathering useful data, exploring diverse perspectives, respecting different viewpoints, and then shaped through critical reflection on behalf of tangible outcomes.  We show this in the book through stories ranging from indigenous people basing decisions on the seventh generation forward to the creation of the United States Constitution by a cantankerous group of people coming together in Philadelphia – not even knowing that a new Constitution was needed.

Collective wisdom is about our capacity to recognize interdependence and to make decisions demonstrating that we have a stake in each other, that we can indeed care for each other and the physical planet we share.

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To read the complete interview, please click here.

You are also cordially invited to check out the resources at these websites:

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