Engelbart profile in Wired and tools for knowledge work

The Click Heard Round the World. Fifteen years before the Mac, Doug Engelbart demo'd videoconferencing, hyperlinks, text editing and something called a 'mouse.' He tells Wired magazine writer Ken Jordan about his part in the point-and-click revolution. [Wired News]

Great overview of Doug Engelbart's work from Wired. Alan Kay once told me that you could explain most of the history of personal computing as people trying to work out the implications of what Engelbart demoed in 1968. Here's Engelbart on how they framed their approach:

Our approach was very different from what they called “office automation,” which was about automating the paperwork of secretaries. That became the focus of Xerox PARC in the '70s. They were quite amazed that they could actually get text on the screen to appear the way it would when printed by a laser printer. Sure, that was an enormous accomplishment, and understandably it swayed their thinking. They called it “what you see is what you get” editing, or WYSIWYG. I say, yeah, but that's all you get. Once people have experienced the more flexible manipulation of text that NLS allows, they find the paper model restrictive.

We weren't interested in “automation” but in “augmentation.” We were not just building a tool, we were designing an entire system for working with knowledge. Automation means if you're milking a cow, you get a tool that will milk it for you. But to augment the milking of a cow, you invent the telephone. The telephone not only changes how you milk, but the rest of the way you work as well. It touches the entire process. It was a paradigm shift.

One key notion of Engelbart's that I don't think has been sufficiently investigated or thought about is the time investment in learning to use new and powerful tools for working. The industry, by and large, has gone down the path of initial experience and ease of use out of the box. Very often this is at the expense of long term ease of use.

Take something as seemingly simple as outlining software, a category “Dave Winer” contributed to greatly. The earliest outliners like ThinkTank and More devoted considerable thought to using the power of technology to let you do things with outlines that weren't possible on paper. But the marketing forces driving software led mostly to the vestigial capabilities for outlining left in Word or Powerpoint. There are some promising developments such as MindManager for the PC and OmniOutliner for the Mac, but they are niche applications. Few seem prepared to invest the time to learn how to make effective use of these tools to think. Engelbart assumes that you will invest considerable time to learn to use the tools. For those with well defined work worlds (think AutoCad or Excel or programming), there is an expectation that it takes time to become effective using new tools. Not so in the world of general purpose knowledge work. There's opportunity there still to be exploited.

Paul Graham on What You Can't Say

Paul Graham: What You Can't Say. “The most important thing is to be able to think what you want, not to say what you want. … Draw a sharp line between your thoughts and your speech. Inside your head, anything is allowed. … But, as in a secret society, nothing that happens within the building should be told to outsiders.” [Hack the Planet]

More provocative thinking from Paul Graham. Some bits and pieces that particularly caught my eye, although it's all worth reading and thinking about:

A good scientist, in other words, does not merely ignore conventional wisdom, but makes a special effort to break it. Scientists go looking for trouble. This should be the m.o. of any scholar, but scientists seem much more willing to look under rocks. [10]

Why? It could be that the scientists are simply smarter; most physicists could, if necessary, make it through a PhD program in French literature, but few professors of French literature could make it through a PhD program in physics. Or it could be because it's clearer in the sciences whether theories are true or false, and this makes scientists bolder. (Or it could be that, because it's clearer in the sciences whether theories are true or false, you have to be smart to get jobs as a scientist, rather than just a good politician.)

Or this:

Argue with idiots, and you become an idiot.


Doc Searls – It's the Story, Stupid

Seeing through slides.

Scott Rosenberg: The single deadliest thing a speaker can do is read from his own slides. Agreed. It always exasperates me to see slides used as speakers notes rather than as helpful visual aids.

Want to know how to give a good presentation with slides? Here’s what I learned from two masters. It’s more than a half-decade old, but its tips are no less useful.

[The Doc Searls Weblog]

I’ve used this before as part of teaching presentation skills to consultants. Blogging it now so I can find it again later.

Arthur C. Clarke on Information Pollution

Arthur C. Clarke on Information Pollution. Castolari writes “Here is an interesting interview of Arthur C. Clarke and his views on regulating communications, as well as what he sees as the past, … [Slashdot]

Insight and perspective from one of my favorite authors. Here’s my favorite comment:

We are now faced with the responsibility of discernment. Just as our ancestors quickly realised that no one was going to force them to read the entire library of a thousand books, we are now overcoming the initial alarm at the sheer weight of available information and coming to understand that it is not the information itself that determines our future, only the use we can make of it.

It comes down to exercising judgment. Clarke has it and thinking about what he has to say is worth the time.

Pollard on Personal Productivity Improvement


In a recent post I argued that IT and Knowledge Management (KM) should merge into a combined TechKnowledgy department that would, in addition to the traditional responsibilities for managing the financial, HR and sales systems and technical hardware of the organization, take on these two important new responsibilities focused on the individual ‘knowledge worker’:1. Social Software Applications: Development of new social software applications for front-line employees, including:

  • Expertise locators – to help people find other people inside and outside the organization they need to talk with to do their job more effectively.
  • Personal content management tools – simple, weblog-type tools that organize, access and selectively publish each individual’s ‘filing cabinet‘, as a replacement for failed centralized content management systems.
  • Personal collaboration tools – wireless, portable videoconferencing and networking tools that save travel costs and allow people to participate virtually in events where they cannot afford to participate in person.
  • Personal researching and reporting tools – technologies and templates that enable effective do-it-yourself business research and analysis and facilitate the preparation of professional reports and presentations.

PPI2. Personal Productivity Improvement: Hands-on assistance to front-line employees — helping them make effective use of technology and knowledge, including the above tools, one-on-one, in the context of their individual roles. Not training, not wait-for-the-phone-to-ring help desk service — face to face, scheduled sessions where individuals can show what they do and what they know, and experts can show them how to do it better, faster, and take the intelligence of what else is needed back to HO so developers can improve effectiveness even more.
I’ve written before about social software applications, and noted that Business 2.0 has named these applications the Best New Technology of 2003.

Now I’ve put together, in Word format, a downloadable Business Case for Personal Productivity Improvement. I’ve written this so that it can be used by both:

  1. IT/KM professions inside the organization, to get executive buy-in and resources for it, and
  2. external IT/KM consultants who want to sell this service to organizations that prefer to outsource it.

I hope you find it useful and I would welcome comments on it. I am looking to organize a virtual collaborative enterprise of IT/KM professionals interested in providing this service, so I may also post it on Ryze/LinkedIn.

What do you think — could people make a living doing this?

[How to Save the World]

More spot on insight from Dave Pollard. This ties in nicely with several lines of thought I’ve been exploring. Take a look at Is Knowledge Work Improvable? for example.

The key challenge here is that success depends more on leadership than on management.

Lowering the power of context

Comment on post 3734 on 10/18/03 by Dare Obasanjo. *chuckle* It’s amusing to see my words critiqued out of context. It’s almost like being a celebrity or a famous politician being crucified over misconstrued sound bites. Almost. [chaosplayer News]

Dare chides me on taking his remarks out of context in yesterday’s post. On reflection he’s probably right in the sense that we are both making more or less the same point and are not in any disagreement.

His comment, however, triggers several other thoughts. One, that the tools here make it simple for anyone here to go look at what he said and draw their own conclusions. Two, that the particular quote I pulled by way of Scoble did trigger a reaction and let me start a train of thought that served my purposes. For that I am grateful, even if I may have been less than accurate in representing Dare’s point.

This suggests to me one of the advantages of blogging as a form over newsgroups and threaded discussion. In a threaded discussion I am more bound by context than I am here. Lowering the power of context without removing it entirely, makes blogs more conducive to working out your own ideas. I wonder what Denham would have to say about this? He’s generally been an advocate of the collaborative powers of tools such as threaded discusisons and wikis. Blogging adds another flavor to the mix. The challenge now becomes working out for yourself and your organization how to manage the mix.

A formula for blogging in organizations

I just learned about another SQL Server weblog community: SQL Team weblogs. Running on Scott Watermasysk’s .TEXT. By the way, the SQL Team website has tons of info on SQL Server.

[The Scobleizer Weblog]

I was going to point to this as a good example of the benefits you obtain when you lower the barriers to expression. And it is. But it also contains some interesting material on knowledge work from a slightly different point of view than I’ve taken before. So I’ve also subscribed to their RSS feed (SQL Team Weblog RSS feed).

One of the benefits you get when you lower the barriers to expression and lower the barriers to attention by providing RSS feeds is that the abstract notions of self-organizing networks get a set of operational tools. This is what is getting us excited about the potential for these new tools inside and across organizations.

Blogging in organizations = lowering the barriers to expression + lowering the barriers to attention. That’s a formula that warrants some thought. Moreover, it’s a formula that would likely never have occurred to me without living inside the phenomenon.

Go with the weblog flow

Andrew Grumet. Andrew Grumet: “Free your mind, and your weblog will follow.”  [Scripting News]

All the evidence I'm familiar with says peak performance depends on “flow.” So why is so much of the practice of management day to day about control? Some more from Andrew:

To really get into weblogs as a writer, try to keep moving to stay with the flow. The old advice to a budding jazz musicians applies: “If you make a mistake and hit a bad note, don't stop! Hit it again and keep going”. Too much worrying will make a burden of posting, making work of what should be fun.

The promise of weblogs in the organization is that they help us get more accustomed to flow. The threat the pose is the same thing; they work against those who are more comfortable with control than with performance.

Dolly Levi as the patron saint of the knowledge economy

Apropos of the gift economy of weblogs, here’s a great little story courtesy of David Gurteen on courtesy among scholars.

The scholar’s courtesy. A few weeks back I met with a very interesting woman called [Shane Godbolt] who works for the National Heatth Service (NHS) in the UK.

As she valued my website and newsletter – she brought me several ‘knowledge gifts’ in return as a ‘thank you’. This is just what I love about Knowledge Sharing – you get back as mcuh as you give – if not more [Smile!]

Amongst these gifts was a beautiful little story about the importance of acknowledging the sources of your ideas – regardless of whether they are in ‘print’ or not.

I received an early lesson about acknowledging others from my mentor George Spindler. The Spindlers were houseguests visiting me after I took a full-time academic appointment upon completion of doctoral studies. I eagerly shared an early draft of a chapter I had been invited to write, tentatively entitled “Concomitant Learning”.

Spindler was up early the next morning, but to my disappointment I found him looking through materials he had written (my library contained many of them) rather than reading my new draft. He had already read and enjoyed my article, he explained, but he expressed disappointment at my failure to credit him as a source of inspiration for the concept that provided my title and rationale. He had been searching for the citation I should have made. “But you’ve never written about it ,” I explained, reaffirming what I already knew and he was beginning to suspect. “I got the idea from you, but you only suggested it in a seminar. There was no publication to cite.”

Technically (and luckily ) I was correct, as his search revealed. That wasn’t the entire lesson however. “No matter where or how you encounter them,” he counseled, “always give credit for the sources of your ideas. It’s so easy to do so : so appropriate to good scholarship … and so appreciated.”

Never again have I limited my acknowledgements only to people whose ideas are in print. And I, too, have “so appreciated” that courtesy when extended to me!

Harry F. Wolcott, Writing up qualitative research, 1990, pp.72-73). Quoted in Blaise Cronin, The scholars courtesy, the role of acknowledgement in the primary communication process. Taylor Graham 1995, p122. [Gurteen Knowledge-Log]

Na ve though it may be, I continue to believe that knowledge hoarding and information hoarding are fundamentally pathological behaviors that have little chance of surviving in the face of healthy organizations. People who really know stuff are always willing and eager to share their interests and knowledge with others. Those who feel compelled to hoard their knowledge do so because of the meagerness of their holdings not because of their riches. Dolly Levi is the patron saint of the knowledge economy not Ebenezer Scrooge.

Eric Raymond on cognitive stress and knowledge work

A Taxonomy of Cognitive Stress: I have. A Taxonomy of Cognitive Stress: I have been thinking about UI design lately. With some help from my friend Rob Landley, I’ve come up with a classification schema for the levels at which users are willing to invest effort to build competence. The base assumption is that for any … [Armed and Dangerous]

Somehow, I missed this when it first appeared in May from Eric Raymond. I find his RSS feed erratic at best. It shows up at a good time, however, as I’m thinking through the implications of shifting focus to knowledge workers instead of knowledge management. Raymond is focused on user interfaces, but I think his perspective can be generalized to the challenges of doing and coaching knowledge work.