October 7, 1996
DIGITAL COMMERCE / By DENISE CARUSO
Computer Pioneer Works to Raise
the 'Collective I.Q.' of Organizations
<Picture: I>f 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.
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
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.
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 (http://www.bootstrap.org), as this company is called, makes its
money from quarterly seminars and basic research into technology and
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
"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."
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."