Dr. Robert Ballard and his team have used robots to explore the mid-Atlantic ridge where our earth births her new "skin" by oozing out lava more than15,000 feet below the sea's surface – an environment of 300 degree Celsius sea water, full of metals and toxic acids. The team expected to find no life, due to the harsh condition and lack of light. And yet to their wonder, they found life teeming around these volcanic vents, discovering creatures from tube worms to large clams living by chemosynthesis – not photosynthesis, the process which was thought to be central to all life on earth.
How did Ballard's team do this? By having new probes that explored things beyond the reach of normal human perception, and, just as importantly, by bringing to bear the best talent in the planet – rapidly. Advanced digital devices allowed for the craft to be created to effectively probe the ocean's depths. After the initial discovery, they quickly tapped into a network of experts already hooked up to Internet2, an academic internet which runs 10,000 faster than the internet in your home or business.
In another instance, a group of neuroscientists, psychiatrists, neurophysiologists, and geneticists gathered together at Calit2, a supercomputer and visualization lab, headed by Dr. Larry Smarr – where there's a 40 by ten-foot visualization wall which has tens of thousands of times more resolution than the most advanced HDTV at Best Buy. This team used the spectacular display space to simultaneously look at CAT scans, genetic and statistical data. By being able to see all the data together, and have the minds of all those experts working in harmony, they were able to identify two genes that they suspect are involved in causing schizophrenia. It is still early, but the participants claim that this vital discovery would not have been possible if they were not able to see all the data, in detail, and in its entirety as a group.
These scientists are using technology to recreate how advanced knowledge work is conducted. Organizations need to look to the experiments in these labs to redesign how their highest value-added knowledge workers do their work – through how they are connected, what information they have access to, how that information is modeled, and how they solve problems.
Unfortunately, I do not know of a single commercial organization that is looking at this problem – consciously. Some do it by default when they create "trader cockpits" for capital markets traders, but they don't spread that knowledge to other areas. More perniciously, many organizations routinely give those employees who create more profit for the organization the same commodity information and coordination tools that the most junior person uses. Where else do we assume that those who add the most value should be given the same amount of support and concern?
Most leaders don't realize that the entire world-wide personal computer revolution is based on thinking that is about as old as the fundamental engineering of the Space Shuttle – circa early 1960s. This thinking was not invented by the technology titans of the time, IBM and AT&T. Instead, it was invented by Xerox (which at the time was just a copier business), and the Rand Corporation, supported by academic and military work.
There are many fathers of the personal computer revolution, but two efforts deserve central attention here: The Augmented Knowledge Workshop, headed by Doug Englebart, and Xerox PARC whose first employee was my friend Alan Kay. These two groups created the personal computer – and with it, graphics, desktop analogy, networking, shared files, video conferencing, calendars, address books, word processing, presentation graphics, and even the mouse. If you look at Doug Englebart's speech from 1968, his computer and software were more advanced and had better performance than many that we use today – forty years later. He did have a large support staff, but couldn't we do at least as well now?
Why was it so good and inventive back then? Because those geniuses were not trying to create tools – they were trying to understand the whole problem. They were willing to look deeply at how people really think and use information; how groups work together, and even how people perceive. If you take the time to look at the Englebart video you will see that the software was very fast. Why? Because they knew that people became vastly less productive when they have to wait for the information to come up. Think about that the next time you boot up Word or Excel. These brilliant designers did not just take off-the-shelf stuff and try to optimize it – they were willing to actually invent.
I don't know about you, but I think it is time to go back to some fundamental innovation around the way high-performance teams conduct complex, time pressured, knowledge work. Creating value and solving new problems in new ways is essential to competitiveness. But executives must be willing to invest in new ways of doing work – and to take some risks. The costs of these efforts are dwarfed by their potential value, but because it takes new, bold thinking to explore this territory, not the lazy mentality of benchmarking or optimization, it will need true leadership to make it happen.
As William Gibson, the famed Cyberpunk novelist said: the future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed. I think the future of knowledge work is here. It's about figuring out how to create new ways to gather vital information, and linking the experts physically and virtually into a much richer, faster data-world. It is only through this type of reinvention that we'll get the breakthroughs we need.