Boosting Collective IQ Through Great Work Cultures

As a young manager at Tymshare, I had the incredibly good fortune to work down the hall from Doug Engelbart, who was a Senior Scientist at Tymshare at the time. Though Doug is remembered primarily for his invention of the mouse, he viewed the mouse as just one small part of a larger system of tools that he hoped would augment human intellect. When Tymsharebought the commercial rights to NLS, the system Doug and his group had developed at SRI, the product was renamed Augment, and became the principal line of business in Tymshare's newly formed Office Automation Division.

When I walked down the hall and started talking with Doug, he offered to give me a demo of Augment. While he was showing me Augment's exciting new features, Doug emphasized the fact that his vision was to augment rather than automate human intellect. I was standing there all starry-eyed, looking at the future, watching Doug demo and talk about such capabilities as the mouse, windows, online conferencing, collaborative hypermedia, knowledge management, social networking and organizational transformation. Though I had seen demos at computer conferences, I hadn't been up close and personal before, and here I was seeing these capabilities demonstrated by the visionary, Doug Engelbart, himself. Then Doug brought me down to earth and told me that all these features were nice (and I'm thinking NICE? This stuff is absolutely knock-your-socks-off AMAZING!!), but the key was to augment the human intellect and boost our collective IQ. Doug's goal was to facilitate the co-evolution of human and tool systems so that, together, we would be better able to address complex, urgent problems.

Walking back down the hall, I was totally fired up by Doug's vision and was hit with an immediate problem -- less complex than the ones Doug talked about, but even more urgent to me. One of the software engineers on my team had just arrived totally exhausted after his long commute from Livermore to Silicon Valley. He was a real introvert, who hated working in a cubicle as much, or maybe even more than he hated his long commute. And that day, I could tell that he had just had it with both his long commute and his noisy cubicle -- he was completely fried, and it sounded like he was ready to walk out the door and never come back.

As a manager, I could use part of my budget to provide engineers with a second phone line at home and a portable computer with a built-in modem -- not all that whiz-bang compared with what Doug had just shown me or with what we have today, but I didn't think we needed whiz-bang technology to solve this urgent problem. Given that Tymshare was the leader in what is now called "cloud technology," why couldn't our engineers make use of the same technology we offered our customers? Our tool system had evolved, but our human system was lagging far behind, so I asked the engineer if he'd like to work from home and just come to the office for regular weekly meetings in the middle of the day when the drive would be easy. What an amazing transformation -- not only in the attitude and productivity of this one individual but also in the catalyzing effect this change had on the whole team. Everyone was energized and started brainstorming ways we could take advantage of the tools we had at our disposal to improve our human systems.

Driven by Moore's Law, our tool systems have been continuing to evolve rapidly; our human systems have not kept pace. We have much of the sophisticated communications technology that Doug demo'ed for me in 1980, while our organizations are still structured for Henry Ford's and Frederick Winslow Taylor's work world. There are many ways that work can better fit the realities of the modern world of work and better meet the needs of the modern workforce. If we really want to boost our collective IQ, we need our work cultures to evolve in a way that can take advantage of the connectivity provided by our current tool systems. The tools themselves are not going to solve any problems. It's how we use these tools that counts, and to make good use of these tools, we need respectful, empowered work cultures that encourage individual initiative and engagement along with group collaboration. Following Doug's advice, we need to encourage individuals and groups to experiment with adapting human processes to make good use of the tool systems.

If our human systems can catch up with our tool systems, with our work cultures evolving in ways that harness the incredible potential of individuals and groups to connect, share ideas, collaborate and learn from each other, the net result will be smarter, more capable organizations and a higher collective IQ. The posts so far in this series have shared some ways that our human systems and our work cultures can evolve -- work flexibility, self-management and involving employees in every decision that affects them. This series will continue to share ways that we can transform our work cultures to catch up and co-evolve with our tool systems.

My blog post is dedicated to Doug Engelbart, who died last year after a lifetime of encouraging and inspiring many of us to improve not only our tool systems but also our human systems.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Great Work Cultures. The latter is creating a new norm of work cultures that optimize worker effectiveness and human happiness. For more info on Great Work Cultures, read here.