A while back at an eLearning Guild event (DevLearn 2010), I was fortunate to attend a keynote by John Seely Brown, who at the time had just published his Power of Pull. Among my takeaways? His advice to “expand your surface area.” One great way to do this is to increase your nonfiction reading, or join in conversations, in areas perhaps not directly connected to your immediate work interests.

Naming names is bound to get me into trouble, especially when so many of my friends are industry authors, but here are some suggestions that might prove useful in helping you push past the boundaries of your daily line of sight. Please do use the comments area to offer suggestions for other resources.

Interested in eLearning and/or training design?

Try Joel Katz’s Designing Information. With hundreds of images and explanations of successes and failures, Katz offers ideas for getting at the heart of information and presenting it in a concise, useful way. I love the way he, in terms that should be plenty familiar to the average instructional designer, breaks information into the categories “probably true, probably not important, and possibly interesting.”

Stanford’s Design School’s Bootcamp: Adventures in Design Thinking class has spawned a fabulous, free, cookbook-ish resource, the Bootcamp Bootleg. It’s an evolving curated view of activities to support human-centered design. Available as a free PDF at http://dschool.stanford.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/BootcampBootleg2010v2SLIM.pdf.

What about social learning?

There are a number of fields that can help inform understanding of community and how we learn in communities. Take a look, for instance, at material from social anthropology and social psychology. I’m partial to Li & Bernoff’s, Groundswell, Peter Block’s Community, Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, Heath & Heath’s Made to Stick, and Dan Pink’s Drive.

Or learning in general?

I’ve said for years that we need to spend less time asking, “How can I teach that?” and more asking, “How can they learn it?” A couple of first-person books tightly focused on how a learner learns are:

  • Atul Gawande, Complications. This is an excellent account of learning in work. This is what happens in the spaces between and after formal training events. The title suggests the reality of work, which despite protocols and processes and decision tools is still often fraught with exception handling. Gawande is unusually cognizant of recognizing about his own learning as it is happening and reflecting on it later.

  • Stephen King, On Writing. There’s a movement in current popular business literature away from the idea that talent is less important than practice or attitude. King’s work, his own musings on how he learned to write, begs the question “Can everything be taught?” This one also highlights the way other experiences, events, and beliefs, often from far back in a person’s history, may be brought to bear on thinking and performance.

Other ideas?

I love to pop in on Twitter chats that are beyond my usual world with people I rarely, if ever, see elsewhere. For instance, the #CustServ chat hosted by Marcia Collier, Greg Orbach, and Roy Atkinson (Thursdays, 9 pm ET) often discusses ideas relevant to my own work, such as whether empathy can be taught or learned and whether humans in empathy-requiring roles can really be replaced by machines. Educator Joe Mazza hosts #PTChat Wednesdays at 9pm ET, offering a conversation space for those interested in helping parents and teachers connect. Talk is largely focused on ways to build bridges using social tools. I don’t even have kids and I find the chat incredibly useful. Twitter’s not your thing? Look around for a LinkedIn or Facebook group or some such where conversation stretches beyond your usual walls.

What ideas do you have, or what are you currently doing, to expand your surface area? Please offer your ideas in the comments section.

Note: New #lrnbk chat coming! From time to time some Twitterers with L&D interests join up to host a #lrnbk chat. This happens asynchronously with a number of questions posted every few days over a couple of weeks. Everyone can join in regardless of time zone, and as we’ve learned, people often want a bit of time to reflect and go back to the book rather than just participate in the usual rapid-fire Twitter chat format. We’re launching a new #lrnbk chat starting Monday, January 19, based on Kio Stark’s Don’t Go Back To School. Mark Britz (@britz) and I (@JaneBozarth) are thrilled to be joined by Australia’s Helen Blunden (@activatelearn) and Michelle Ockers (@michelleockers), and England’s Rachel Burnham (@BurnhamLandD). Follow the @lrnbk Twitter account and the #lrnbk hashtag for details. Plenty of time now to get the book before we begin!