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An inventor for the ages

WS talks to high-tech visionary Douglas C. Engelbart

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in Leaders & Managers,Office Management,Workplace Communication

One man invented the computer mouse, on-screen windows, groupware, videoconferencing and the hypertext software that lets Web surfers jump from link to link with ease. His name: Douglas Engelbart. His lifelong goal: to provide tools that help people and organizations grapple with the complexities of an ever-expanding knowledge base.

Engelbart, age 73, has devoted 50 years to thinking about the way we think. He filed for a patent for the mouse in 1963 while working as an inventor and researcher at Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International).

Today, Engelbart oversees the Bootstrap Institute in Fremont, Calif., which he co-founded in 1989 with his daughter. The institute helps companies and their personnel learn more effectively and draw upon archives of knowledge to boost corporate performance. In this interview with Working Smart, Engelbart examines the best ways to harness human intelligence.

WS: You conceived of many of your inventions in the 1960s, when computers were still in their infancy. Did you anticipate that 30 years later, consumers would buy such a powerful machine for less than $1,000?

Engelbart: I’m more interested in how computers are used than the fact that they’re now in more homes than ever before. I think that most people have only begun to scratch the surface of what these machines can really do to raise the collective level of human intelligence.

WS: What advice would you give managers on how to foster an innovative workplace?

Engelbart: You need to create a spirit of camaraderie where people feel free to cooperate rather than just compete. Without that sense of free-flowing collaboration, you won’t get the sum of what they can all do to truly make a lasting contribution.

WS: How can a manager build a cooperative spirit when workers are supposedly less loyal than ever? In high-tech fields, for example, programmers and other technicians are in such great demand that they often hop from job to job to advance themselves.

Engelbart: Look at the successful sports teams. The best coaches create an environment where the players support each other, where they want to win because they’re more interested in contributing to the team’s excellence than their own individual glory. Sports stars might still be traded, but they know how to think like team players when it counts.

WS: Were any of your inventions a result of teamwork?

Engelbart: All of them were. I had a real productive period in the late 1960s and early 1970s in my lab. That period was made possible because lots of people around me were pitching in and doing work that freed me to think. And I didn’t have all the answers by any means. My employees had to explain to me how things worked, and then I took their explanations and applied them to what I was working on.

WS: A manager can have two equally bright people on staff, but only one of them may deliver consistently exceptional results. What skills or traits distinguish a true inventor from those who never seem to reach their full potential?

Engelbart: I think it has to do with one’s attitude about how he treats his intelligence. You can’t get complacent. You can’t say, ‘Okay, I’ve mastered that. I know what I need to know and now I’m done.’ That’s the wrong way to look at it. I’m always looking ahead, thinking ‘it’s just the beginning.’ A lot of computer vendors preach a false security to managers. They say, ‘We’ll take care of you and keep you on top of the improvement process with our products.’ But you have to do it yourself. You can’t buy a program that thinks for you.

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