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Summary of Doug’s call for Improving How We Improve

Last updated on October 17, 2018

Summary of Doug’s call for Improving How We Improve, edited into lists from the original keynote address, using only Doug Engelbart’s original words: 

IMPROVING OUR ABILITY TO IMPROVE:  A CALL FOR INVESTMENT IN A NEW FUTUREDouglas C. Engelbart The Bootstrap Alliance April 23, 2002 (AUGMENT,133320,) 


A Level#

A level activities are the organization’s primary activities, such as marketing, sales, accounting, research etc. 

B Level#

    • B level investments are predictable.
    • B level investments have specific objectives and tend to proceed in a straight line from specification to final delivery.
    • Typical approach is narrowing the problem in order to make it more tractable.

C Level#

At the C level we are trying to understand how improvement really happens, so that we can improve our ability to improve. 

    • Different groups exploring different paths to the same goal constantly exchange information about what they are learning.
    • 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.
    • Context is tremendously important, breakthroughs come from taking on an even bigger problem, moving up a level of abstraction, to look at the more general case.

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 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. Hyperlinks were quite literally a critical part of our ability to keep track of what we were doing. 

Thinking back to our research at SRI leads me to another key feature of development work at the C level:  You have to apply what you discover. That is the way that you reach out and snatch a bit of the future and bring it back to the present:  You grab it and use it: 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. The CoDIAK process builds on continuous, dynamic integration of information so that the members of the improvement team can learn from each other and move forward. 

Pursuit of CoDIAK requires, in itself, some technical infrastructure  to support the concurrent development and continual integration of dialog, external information, and new knowledge. If this sounds somewhat recursive to you, like the snake renewing itself by swallowing its own tail, be assured that the recursion is not an accident. As I just said, one of the key principles in CoDIAK is the application and use of what you learn. That recursive, reflective application gets going right at the outset.  


One of the most important things that we need is a place to keep and share the information that we collect – the dialog, the external information, the things that we learn. I call this the “Dynamic Knowledge Repository,” or DKR. It is more than a database, and more than a simple collection of Internet web sites.  

It doesn’t have to be all in one place – it can certainly be distributed across the different people and organizations that are collaborating on improving improvement – but it does need to be accessible to everyone – for reading, for writing, and for making new connections. 

The DKR is a wonderful example of the kind of investment that you can start making at the C level, with modest means, that will pay dividends back as it moves up the line to the B and the A levels.  

You start small, and keep leveraging what you know at each stage to solve a bigger and bigger problem. 

This is precisely the kind of outcome that can come from investment in building a DKR at the C level. What you learn there can be used to improve work at the C level, which in turn improves ability at the B level, which then translates into new capability at the primary, A level of the organization. 


Another key, early investment is in the development of tools to provide access to the knowledge in the DKR for all classes of users, from beginners to professional knowledge workers expecting high performance. This “hyperscope” – that is my term for it – allows everyone to contribute and use the information in the DKR according to his or her ability.  

ViewSpecs #

Tied to the hyperscope is the ability to provide different views of the knowledge in the DKR – and I do mean “views” – stressing the “visual” sense of the term.  

Moving away from words on a page, we need to be able to analyze an argument – or the results of a meeting – visually. We need to move beyond understanding the computer as some kind of fancy printing machine and begin to use it to analyze and manipulate the symbolic content of our work, extending our own capabilities.  

The Capability Infrastructure#

The Capability Infrastructure combines inputs from both the tool system and the human system.  

  • The tool system is the contribution from the computer, provides access to different media, gives us different ways to portray information, and so on.
  • The human system brings its rich store of paradigms, information captured in customs, and so on.

Augmentation Systems#

The human system, as the part of this framework that is best at learning, also brings the opportunity to develop new skills, benefit from training, and to assimilate and create new knowledge. These dynamic elements are the “magic dust” that makes the whole system capable of innovation and of solving complex problems.  

High-Bandwidth Symbol Manipulation#

These valuable, dynamic, human inputs must of course come into the system through the human’s motor and perceptual capabilities. If this interface is low-bandwidth and able to pass only a small amount of what the human knows and can do – and what the machine can portray – then the entire system tends to be more “automation” than “augmentation,” since the computer and the human are being kept apart by this low-fidelity, limited interface.  

If, on the other hand, this interface can operate at high speed and capture great nuance – perhaps even extending to changes in facial expression, heart rate, or fine motor responses, then we greatly increase the potential to integrate the human capabilities directly into the overall system, which means that we can then feed them back, amplify them, and use them. 

The key to building a more powerful capability infrastructure lies in expanding the channels and modes of communication – not simplifying them. If we begin to act on this notion of our relation, as humans, to these amazing machines that we have created, we really begin to open up new opportunities for growth and problem solving. 

My sense is that computer science has brought us a gift of great power, the ability to amplify and extend our ability to manipulate symbols. 

It seems to me that the established sources of power and wealth understand, in some dim way, that the new power that the computer has brought from the heavens is dangerous to the existing structure of ownership and wealth in that, like fire, it has the power to transform and to make things new. 

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. 

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  1. […] ? I like ’Sea’, since it is also ‘C’, as in Doug Engelbart’s ‘C’ level activity and of course links to my own philosophy of Liquid Information: […]

  2. […] Planned evolution does not occur in nature and when it does in the human realm we call it innovation and it has proven a powerful force for change. Innovation primarily happens along a designed path though, with specific hoped-for outcomes and this puts it quite firmly in what Doug Engelbart calls the ‘B’ level of activity [].  […]

  3. I can’t imagine that you’re not aware of the HyperScope that was actually build by a great group and supervised by Doug. I always wondered why the Doug@50 group is not even looking at or discussing any of it, and now I wonder how and why an abstract “hyperscope” can be mentioned without a reference to the work Brad Neuberg, Andrew Pam, Jeff Rulifson, Eugene Kim, the two Cheyers and Doug did together (not sure about the entire staff and apologizing for people I missed to mention). It’s not that Doug@50 is going to introduce any new “hyperscope” beyond or besides the one that already exists.

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