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ABC Level Activities and the Bootstrapping Framework

July 31, 2009

In those early years of creating the first graphic user interface, keyboard and mouse, the team at Engelbart’s ARC was following the Bootstrap Strategy precisely. As they were developing the tools, they were improving them and reflecting on the process and improving it.

As part of reflecting on their own processes, the group challenged traditional assumptions about the workplace and knowledge work. They researched new infrastructure (desks, chairs, offices) and attire. They tested new protocols, new cultural paradigms, and new approaches to engineering and knowledge work. While most engineers wore starched white shirts and ties, there was no dress code at the ARC lab. (Many team members had long hair, and wore jeans and T-shirts.)

They designed experimental work-stations. They created workplace PODs and lined the walls of the lab with paper, and kept copious notes of their work process. Some team members used open space, some used semi-private space, and others sat cross-legged with pillows on the floor. They routinely invited psychologist and sociologists to comment on their work process. They were the vanguard of collaborative activity that others are carrying forward.

An essential part of Engelbart’s “Bootstrapping Framework” is what he calls the ABC process for improving capability. Engelbart believed that at any given time there can be three levels of improvement activity working in parallel. The first level of improvement is done by a Networked Improvement Community (NIC), reflecting on improving its own capability. This A level activity is typically performed by people who are engaged in the actual task. The second level of activity, B, examines how the infrastructure, process and procedures can be changed so that the A level activity can be more effective. This task might be done by trade associations, communities of practice or other such groups. The third level of NIC (the NIC of NICs or meta-NIC) improves the process by which we improve the process of improving the process. The latter is a more scholarly process, and rarely accomplished within businesses.

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