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Tag: origin: Doug Engelbart

A Level, B Level & C Level of Activity


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. 


Facilitating Evolution

A founding principle of this ecosystem is that it must support what Doug Engelbart called facilitated evolution, which is an interesting and important concept. Evolution in nature happens when the environment the organism is in changes. Random changes making the organism better ‘fit’ the new environment to the degree that the organism can reproduce (the only evolutionary measure of how well it fits the environment–effectively the reward system) or not. 

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 []. 

In order to facilitate evolution we must design the ecosystem and the reward system. Designing the reward system is designing the investment system and it is crucial since we cannot afford, as a human species, to loose innovation for mind augmentation in a world which is constantly increasing in complexity, we must invest in investing.  

Neither a completely free-market system nor a completely government-run system is sufficient since the rewards would not support enough risk in the free-market (since monopolies would soon appear and stifle innovation) nor enough exploration in a government-run system (who would assign resources?). 

Therefore we must look at multiple rewards to both support a B level of activity but also importantly, C level [], which is riskier but supports more change and therefore can give us more opportunities for fitness in the ever changing information environment we live in. 

I have no real answers in this post, but we need to address this issue, particularly if we develop a more open environment (which I think is a major goal) where no-company can invest in making a walled empire, in the social space like facebook or in the document world like Adobe or Microsoft.  

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