October 7, 1996

Computer Pioneer Works to Raise
the 'Collective I.Q.' of Organizations


If not for Douglas Engelbart, a great many of the technical innovations we consider integral to the personal computer revolution would not exist. While Dr. Engelbart was working at what was then called the Stanford Research Institute, during a remarkable run of creativity that began in the early 1950's and continued throughout the 1960's, he invented many seminal products and concepts that we take wholly for granted today -- the computer mouse, hypertext, groupware and many others.

Illustration by Tom Bloom

Today, his contributions are more widely recognized, but for decades the technologies he invented and demonstrated were largely ignored or misunderstood. And even now, with PC's and the World Wide Web as direct descendants of his pioneering work, these technologies have not had nearly the transformative effect that Dr. Engelbart had hoped.

Until recently most of his inventions, as the industry gradually adopted them, were built into stand-alone computers. But from the beginning Dr. Engelbart conceived his techniques with networked computers in mind. His motivating concept, still largely untested today, was that information technologies could serve as the connective tissue between people and information.

The result, he said, would be an exponential increase in what he calls an organization's "collective I.Q.," which would in turn supercharge a group's ability to improve itself over time.

In essence, Dr. Engelbart's theory separates work into three categories. A-work, as he calls it, is the primary mission of an organization, like building cars or operating a health care system. B-work involves ways of improving A-work, and it is likely to be basically the same among similar organizations, be they auto makers or hospitals.

C-work, in turn, is about improving the improvement process itself. Although an auto maker might be loath to share information about B-work with its competitors, Dr. Engelbart's hypothesis is that much good could come from their sharing information about C-work -- about how to improve the process of recording and responding to consumer complaints, for example, which might enhance processes all the way down the line.

And that exercise might be equally valuable to a software company, a car maker or a bookstore -- resulting in what he calls "high-performance organizations" that are much more capable of improving their work processes quickly and effectively.

The inventor of groupware seeks togetherness.

Dr. Engelbart's technology key is a giant hypertext handbook about a specific problem -- a "collaborative hypertext document," in his parlance -- in which E-mail, project reports and other relevant data are linked together electronically, much as they might be on a Web page. Such a document is built using various electronic tools, like shared-screen teleconferencing, sophisticated document repositories and E-mail that creates its own archive and index.

His strategy for changing how organizations work includes a company he founded in 1989 and runs with his daughter, Christina. The Bootstrap Institute (, as this company is called, makes its money from quarterly seminars and basic research into technology and organizations.

In addition, the Engelbarts are in the early stages of forming the Bootstrap Alliance -- a group of "thought leaders" from industry, government and universities. Such a broad-based initiative is critical because changing the way people work together is as critical as the technologies that connect them, according to Ms. Engelbart, a cultural anthropologist.

"The whole groupware push, for example, has been about how to simply share a document," she says. "What's missing is how you can work together inside a repository of information that ties everyone together. That's what a lot of our work is about. We're trying to figure out how dramatically -- and humanely -- we can change the organization."

And they are getting some powerful assistance: Sun Microsystems Inc. and the Netscape Communications Corporation have each assigned a top engineer to help the Engelbarts get the alliance running.

One is Jeff Rulifson, the director of technology development at Sun Microsystems who was the system architect for Dr. Engelbart's Stanford Research project in 1966 and who shares credit with him for the invention of hypertext. Back then, he said, they spent a lot of time looking at what he calls co-evolution -- the way people change how they do things in response to technology.

"But the real study of co-evolution never happened," Mr. Rulifson said. "Instead, we've been evolving technology and crossing our fingers, hoping that when it comes to processes and personal interactions and how we organize ourselves, we'll figure it out. But now, with the explosion in the World Wide Web and collaborative tools, Doug's wisdom can get out."

Thought is given to personal interactions.

Another of the engineers is Martin Haeberli, a member of Apple Computer's original Macintosh team who has since joined Netscape as director of technology. He has been helping translate Dr. Engelbart's academic constructs into ideas that can be more easily understood by the wide variety of people whom the Engelbarts hope to draw into the alliance.

"Doug has made profound contributions, and one of my assignments is to help him achieve broader recognition," Mr. Haeberli said. "His vision is an intellectual challenge to understand, but it shouldn't be. We want to find a larger group of people who are willing to engage in wrestling with the angel -- the angel in this case being Doug."

And the benefit of wrestling with the angel would be an opportunity to be in the first group that helps design and put into use the tools and systems to make Dr. Engelbart's system a reality.

The major obstacle, of course, is that most broad-scale efforts to get companies and institutions to work together have been disastrous. Despite the fact that many consortiums have been formed to solve common problems, the self-interest of each company almost always ends up taking precedence and stops participants from truly contributing.

"Consortiums are tough," Ms. Engelbart concedes. "But this whole topic of discussion is exactly what's needed to make organizations run better."

DIGITAL COMMERCE is published biweekly, on Mondays. Click here for a list of links to other columns in the series.

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