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Improving Your Organization's IQ

Published in Leader to Leader Magazine, a Publication of the Drucker Foundation and Jossey-Bass Publishers, Premier Issue, Summer 1996, pages 41-42. (AUGMENT,133193,). Copyright ©1996 Leader to Leader Institute. See About the Author. Reprints of this Premier Issue article can be ordered from Jossey-Bass [Wiley].

In some of the most innovative companies in Silicon Valley - Apple Computer, Sun Microsystems, SRI International, 3Com, Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center - the name Douglas Engelbart is spoken with reverence. The 70-year-old electrical engineer is credited with inventing the mouse, hypertext, multiple-window screen displays, and computer conferencing, among other staples of computer technology. But his greatest innovation has been largely ignored. It is a vision of people using technology to "improve the collective IQ of organizations," and "build a collaborative community of knowledge workers." 2

Engelbart developed high tech tools not because they were nifty or marketable (most went unused for decades), but because he felt the world was in trouble. He was driven by his assessment 35 years ago that the "complexity and urgency [of world problems] are increasing exponentially, and the product of the two will soon challenge our organizations and institutions to change in quantum leaps rather than incremental steps." The real power of computers, he believes, lies not simply in automating work processes but in "augmenting human intellect" to address environmental and social problems that are "reaching the point of no return." 3

Work Engelbart did 25 years ago
is still on the cutting edge.

His formula for organizational change involves terms only a technologist could love: "open hyperdocument systems" and CoDIAK (concurrent development, integration, and application of knowledge) capabilities. For the rest of us, that translates to human and technical systems that allow people to enhance an organization's improvement process. 4

In Engelbart's model, most organizations operate in at least two dimensions - "A" work, or the development, support, and delivery of its essential product or service; and "B" work, or systems and activities, such as e-mail or quality management processes, intended to improve the performance of A work. But while companies spend millions on such improvement processes, they seldom think about how to make B work, itself, more effective. That's the purpose of "C" work, says Engelbart. C work - anything from attending a TQM conference to forming a consortium for enhancing an organization's "improvement infrastructure" - gives organizations an opportunity to "compound the return on your process-improvement investment." 5

"Ask yourself how big an investment it's going to be over the next 20 years for your organization to totally transform itself - as it will have to, to survive," says Engelbart. "Do you have a strategy for that? To address complex, urgent problems you have to say, 'I can improve not only my product cycle time, I can improve my improvement cycle time.'" 6

Key to this process is compiling a "handbook" - the body of knowledge comprising everything the organization has learned. That knowledge is dispersed throughout every organization - in business plans, product designs, procedures manuals - and people's heads. The odds of meaningful improvement and collaboration increase as that information is made available to all who need it; hence the need for open, electronic hyperdocuments that allow everyone to seamlessly share what they know. 7

Engelbart's esoteric ideas are grounded by a gift for metaphor. He founded the Bootstrap Institute, named for both Paul Bunyan - who, of course, lifted himself by his bootstraps to see above the trees - and for the engineering concept in which a small electrical charge ignites a larger and faster reaction (as in "booting up" a computer). The institute, based in Fremont, California, seeks to build a "collaborative C community" through conferences, publishing, and research. Engelbart foresees organizations establishing jointly funded "exploration outposts" to help "settle the frontier" of group innovation. 8

Educator and longtime Apple Fellow Alan Kay, called by some the father of personal computing, says that the title really belongs to Engelbart. "We were all influenced a lot by Engelbart," he says of the early pioneers of the industry. "Work he did 25 years ago is still at the cutting edge... and his organizational ideas are at least as profound." Engelbart's theories of collaboration address a particular weakness of American business: "Most corporations state their objectives and try to reach them directly," says Kay. "The problem is, they don't see the larger context. The fastest route from point A to point B is sometimes through C." 9

But Kay identifies a related weakness of organizations - and individuals - that makes Engelbart's message unwelcome: "an immunological response to new ideas." The rejection of the new has doomed a lot of enterprises and, says Kay, turned people like Engelbart into "intellectual outlaws who refuse to be socialized as conventional thinkers. Instead, they grew up to be scientists whose new ideas are adopted 30 years later." 10