Reflections on Impact
Different occupations have different kinds of impact. Scientists have impact through their discoveries. Inventors have impact through their inventions. Scientists and inventors change the world with new ideas. Engineers have impact by making useful things that people need. Designers have impact by making beautiful things that people love. Engineers and designers have impact through the goods and services that they create. Entrepreneurs have impact by creating sustainable business institutions and wealth, either on their own or in existing businesses. Their impact is in creating goods and services that people use and which provide an economic gain. Leaders and managers work with others to achieve a collective impact.
I have been a scientist, inventor, engineer, designer, and entrepreneur depending on the situation and opportunity. In choosing our work we choose what kind of impact we can have. As Nils Nilsson said succinctly, “You get good at what you practice.”
- Thought leadership. Google Scholar reports over 240 publications. In all four of my interest areas there are journal publications with several hundred citations. The most cited paper (1195 cites) is Beyond the Chalkboard (CACM, 1987). Another indicator of thought leadership is starting fields. With Dan Russell, Stu Card, and Peter Pirolli, I started the sensemaking field in CHI. This influence has grown over the years and is now an area in business and intelligence analysis, a topic of dissertations, and is covered in recent CHI conferences. Before digital rights management the accepted belief was that no solution to the problem of widespread unprotected digital copying was possible. The idea here was to enable a marketplace ind digital goods and services and the influence of this idea has also grown over the years. Having influential ideas is a good thing, but it is not the same as having practical impact. When ideas are about goods or services that people might use, then the path to practical use also requires invention and innovation.
- Invention leadership. 100 U.S. patents, including several with hundreds of citations and a pipeline of patent applications. The DRM patents taught a technical approach enabling digital goods and services. I also have patent portfolios in collaborative systems, sensemaking, social music, social indexing, and urban transportation systems. Patents take ideas and turn them into workable inventions. Beyond invention, the path to useful goods and services also requires commercialization.
- Commercial impact. Contributed technology to four commercial spin outs from Xerox. Inventing DRM provided the technical foundation for an industry that securely distributes digital media including digital music, videos, books, newspapers, ringtones, and so on. Launching ContentGuard with the DRM patents made Xerox several hundred million dollars. My projects in workflow / analytics systems for urban departments of transportation are enabling city departments to be data driven and to operate much “smarter cities”.
The assessment of impact of management and professional activities is different from personal creativity and productivity.
- Research management. I have taken several tours of duty in research management at PARC in areas including theory and technology for agile organizations, computer security, sensemaking, and led the Information Sciences and Technologies laboratory for four years. I reflect on research management in a book written with my wife, Breakthrough (2006).
- Professional leadership. Edited with Stephen Smoliar the book review column for the Artificial Intelligence Journal for a decade. Contemplating Minds (1994) gives highlights.