(Excerpts from Engelbart’s keynote address to the World Library Summit in Singapore 2002)

The key to developing an effective improvement infrastructure is the realization that, within any organization, there is a division of attention between the part of the organization that is concerned with the organization’s primary activity – I will call this the “A” activity – and the part of the organization concerned with improving the capability to perform this A-level function. I refer to these improvement efforts as “B” activities.

The investment made in B activities is recaptured, along with an aggressive internal rate of return, through improved productivity in the A activity. If investments in Research and Development, Information Technology infrastructure, and other dimensions of the B activity are effective, the rate of return for a dollar invested in the B activity will be higher than for a dollar invested in the A activity.

Clearly, there are limits to how far a company can pursue an investment and growth strategy based on type B activities – at some point the marginal returns for new investment begin to fall off. This leads to a question: How can we maximize the return from investment in B activities, maximizing the improvement that they enable?

Put another way, we are asking how we improve our ability to improve. This question suggests that we really need to think in terms of yet another level of activity—I call it the “C” activity—that focuses specifically on the matter of accelerating the rate of improvement.

Clearly, investment in type C activities is potentially highly leveraged. The right investments here will be multiplied in returns in increased B level productivity—in the ability to improve—which will be multiplied again in returns in productivity in the organization’s primary activity. It is a way of getting a kind of compound return on investment in innovation.

The highly leveraged nature of investment in type C activities makes this kind of investment in innovation particularly appropriate for governments, public service institutions such as libraries, and broad consortia of different companies and agencies across an entire industry. The reason for this is not only that a small investment here can make a big difference—though that certainly is an important consideration—but also because the investment in C activities is typically pre-competitive. It is investment that can be shared even among competitors in an industry because it is, essentially, investment in creating a better playing field. Perhaps the classic recent example of such investment in the U.S. is the relatively small investment that the Department of Defense made in what eventually became the Internet.

Investing wisely in improvement

Let’s keep our bigger goal in mind: we want to correct the current bias, emerging from over-reliance on market forces and the related obsession with ease of use that get in the way of developing better computing tools. We want to do this so that we can use computers to augment the capabilities of entire groups of people as they share knowledge and work together on truly difficult problems.

The proposal that I am placing on the table is to correct that bias by making relatively small, but highly leveraged investments in efforts to improve our ability to improve—in what I have called type C activities.

The proposal is attractive not only for quantitative reasons—because it can produce a lot of change with a relatively small investment – but also for qualitative reasons: This kind of investment is best able to support disruptive innovation—the kind of innovation that is necessary to embrace a new, knowledge-centered society.

The acceleration in movement away from economic systems based on manufacturing and toward systems based on knowledge needs to be reflected in accelerated change in our ways of working with each other. This is the kind of change that we can embrace by focusing on type C activity and on improvement of our ability to improve.

If the organizations want to support and stimulate this kind of investment, where do they begin? The answer to such questions has two different, but complementary dimensions.

• The first dimension has to do with process: How do you operate and set expectations in a way that is consistent with productive type C activity?

• The second dimension has to do with actual tools and techniques.

Process considerations

At the C level we are trying to understand how improvement really happens, so that we can improve our ability to improve. This means having different groups exploring different paths to the same goal.

As they explore, they constantly exchange information about what they are learning. The goal is to maximize overall progress by exchanging important information as the different groups proceed. What this means, in practice, is that the dialog between the people working toward pursuit of the goal is often just as important as the end result of the research. Often, it is what the team learns in the course of the exploration that ultimately opens up breakthrough results.

At the C level, context is tremendously important.

We are not trying to solve a specific problem, but, instead, are reaching for insight into a broad class of activities and opportunities for improvement. That means attending to external information as well as to the specifics of the particular work at hand. In fact, in my own work, I have routinely found that when I seem to reach a dead end in my pursuit of a problem, the key is usually to move up a level of abstraction, to look at the more general case.

Note that this is directly counter to the typical approach to solving focused, B-level problems, where you typically keep narrowing the problem in order to make it more tractable. In our work on improving improvement, the breakthroughs come from the other direction—from taking on an even bigger problem.

So, the teams working at the C-level are working in parallel, sharing information with each other, and also tying what they find to external factors and bigger problems. Put more simply, C-level work requires investment in integration—a concerted effort to tie the pieces together.

That is, by the way, the reason that the teams that I was leading at SRI were developing ways to connect information with hyperlinks, and doing this more than two decades before it was happening on the web.

At the C-level, then, the approach focuses on:

• Concurrent development (See Engelbart on CoDIAK)

• Integration across the different concurrent activities though continuous dialog and through constant cross checking with external information·

• Application of the knowledge that is gained, as a way of not only testing it, but also as a way to understand its nature and its ability to support improvement.

As a mnemonic device to help pull together these key features of the C-level process, you can take “Concurrent  Development,” “Integration,” and “Application of Knowledge” and put them together in the term “CoDIAK.” For me, this invented word has become my shorthand for the most important characteristics of the C-level discovery activity.

We need to become better at being humans. Learning to use symbols and knowledge in new ways, across groups, across cultures, is a powerful, valuable, and very human goal. And it is also one that is obtainable, if we only begin to open our minds to full, complete use of computers to augment our most human of capabilities.


One Response to “Engelbart Explains the ABCs of Improvement Infrastructure”

  1. […] more than project management – it is the skill set needed in a networked world to harness Capability Infrastructure, what people are beginning to call “Digital Public Goods”. You’re not telling people what to […]

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