Most businesses these days are knowledge businesses, concerned with solving problems of thought. In such businesses, scale doesn’t come from investing capital in infrastructure, from building new factories or developing new technological processes. The ability of knowledge businesses to scale hinges on their ability to solve larger problems, faster and more effectively. As both the scale of problem and the size of the organisation increase, these problems rapidly balloon in complexity, and become harder to manage – crushing people under mountains of institutional knowledge, documentation, and know-how.
Doug Engelbart (1925–2013) spotted this earlier than most. A pioneer of human-computer interaction, his 1968 “mother of all demos” presaged and demonstrated videoconferencing, collaborative document editing, and even the computer mouse decades before they became commonplace or even technologically feasible. He was a visionary in every sense.
In 1950, though, Engelbart was lost. He had finished his degree in electrical engineering, had proposed to his fiancée, and was contemplating what the rest of his life might look like. In his own words, he realised that he “didn’t have any more goals than a steady job, getting married and living happily ever after.” Contemplating how to make a bigger impact, Engelbart came to four conclusions:
He wanted to make the world a better place;
Doing that would inevitably involve some kind of organised effort to harness the collective intellect of humanity;
If you could find a way to dramatically improve the harnessing of that collective intellect, you’d have found a way to dramatically improve the solving of all the problems that humanity faced;
Computers held the key to that dramatic improvement.
A lifetime of research along these lines led to Engelbart developing what he called “Collective IQ”. Just as IQ measures an individual’s ability to solve problems and reason, collective IQ measures the ability of a group to work together, to anticipate and solve problems, to harness their collective knowledge and experience and apply it to a challenge.
Engelbart saw two aspects to collective IQ, both related to knowledge.
The first was a question of process. How well did a group develop, integrate, and apply its knowledge? Was the process smooth, collaborative, collective? Groups with high collective IQs are able to absorb, synthesise, and disseminate large quantities of complex information easily.1
The second was a question of the assets produced by that process. How effective was the group’s shared repository of knowledge? How easily could information be synthesised, stored, retrieved, updated? How coherent was the group’s shared vision of the problem and its potential solutions? Groups with high collective IQs have a robust and coherent system for organising information and the discipline of using it effectively; no information falls through the cracks, and everything is at everyone’s fingertips.2
Unlike individual IQ, collective IQ isn’t fixed, and indeed has almost limitless capacity. It can be augmented by tools; it can be enhanced through human processes and experience; it can be endlessly and cumulatively improved upon.
Most organisations, though, do little to focus on this improvement. Engelbart identified three types of activity performed by organisations: A Activity, B Activity, and C Activity.
A Activity is “business as usual”: doing on a day-to-day basis the things that the organisation was set up to do. For a school, that means teaching students; for a car manufacturer, that means building cars; for a design agency, that means servicing clients with creative work.
B Activity is “improving how we do that”: anything that aims to improve an organisation’s A Activity. That could be developing new tools and processes with which to make their products, examining past projects via retrospectives, sharing knowledge, conducting research into markets and consumers, and getting feedback from clients. Knowledge of these improvements might come from within – someone in the organisation having a new idea of how things could be improved – or from without, through networking, conferences, trade publications or academic research.
C Activity is “improving how we improve”: anything that aims to improve B Activity. While B Activity is likely to be highly sector-specific and even organisation-specific, C Activity is likely to be similar even across wildly divergent industries and sectors. It might include things like: strengthening relationships between people responsible for A Activity and people responsible for B Activity; introducing improved techniques for gathering feedback, conducting retrospectives, and so on; running pilot and prototype projects; and partnering with others in different organisations to share knowledge.
All organisations spend time on A Activity. Many conduct B Activity – the worst in an ad hoc and infrequent manner, and the best in a habit of continuous improvement. But relatively few even think about C Activity, let alone devote time and energy to it.
C Activity is interesting for several reasons. The first is that it’s highly transferable between industries and sectors; learnings can be applied to your own organisation from many others. The second is that it has a multiplying effect: it improves B Activity, and in doing so improves A Activity at a greater rate. And the third is that it’s almost entirely human, rather than technological; that means that it can advance without external hard limits at a potentially exponential rate.
This potential to create a positive feedback loop and gain leverage is referred to by Engelbart as “bootstrapping”: the ability of an organisation to improve its own effectiveness by finding new ways to collaborate, to improve not just business as usual but to improve the rate at which you improve it, creating an unstoppable flywheel with no limits.
Engelbart frequently speaks of two different systems, the tool system and the human system; both must be improved if you’re to work on C Activity in your organisation. That means improving your tools and your systems on the one hand; and on the other, means empowering people, giving them a shared vocabulary, creating roles and responsibilities for improvement, and sharing knowledge with others.
The great thing is that C Activity is universal: best practice in one field is best practice in all; activities that exist at the frontiers of how we improve are useful everywhere. Most people don’t think about what C Activity asks them to think about; they don’t see improvement as a discipline within its own right, something deserving of systematising and deserving of improvement itself. If you look around at your organisation through this lens, then, you’re likely to see a lot of opportunities. Making the most of them takes some effort, it takes some focus, but more than anything else it takes continually asking the question: “how can we improve how we improve?”
Doug Engelbart. “Augmenting Society’s Collective IQ”. Presented at Hypertext 2004
Doug Engelbart. “The ABCs of Organizational Improvement”. Doug Engelbart Institute
Doug Engelbart. “Improving Our Ability to Improve: A Call for Investment in a New Future”. Presented at the World Library Summit, April 2002
Christina Engelbart. “Lessons from Engelbart’s Demo @50: Taking the Challenge Forward” (video). Presented at the Computer History Museum, December 2018
Gardner Campbell and Christina Engelbart. “Networked Inquiry as General Education: ThoughtVectors in Concept Space”. Coalition for Networked Information, December 2016
Tia O’Brien. “Douglas Engelbart’s lasting legacy”. San Jose Mercury News, 9 February 1999
Engelbart coined the acronym CoDIAK for this process: how well a group could Concurrently Develop, Integrate, and Apply its Knowledge. ↩
Engelbart called this asset a DKR: a Dynamic Knowledge Repository. He specified a set of criteria for an ideal DKR that he called an Open Hypertext System, but it remains a frustrating technological pipe-dream even in 2021. It’s well worth reading about his vision for OHS, which you can do here. ↩