When the person sitting across the conference table from you founded a company that Oracle just acquired for $2 billion , you pay attention. When he starts saying he thinks he is on to the next revolution, you want to catch every word.
Not an easy ambition with Coveo  CEO Louis Tetu, whose mind moves fast enough to land him in university at age 16, to become Canada’s youngest engineer at 20, and then launch an ever-more successful series of software ventures. But with broad strokes you can outline what Tetu sees as the new big technology opportunity and maybe that will give us enough foresight to play our next few moves well.
Consider that while we have latched on to terms like “collaboration” and “innovation” only in the last couple of decades, these concepts have been at the heart of civilization’s evolution since man first started shaping tools and planting seeds. Chinese farmers discovered the wheelbarrow around 100 B.C. but it took over one thousand years for Europeans to learn of and adopt this simple tool. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic texts were illegible for nearly 2,000 years until French linguists abruptly solved their puzzle in the 1820s. Mankind’s history has been shaped by lost knowledge.
But as our knowledge shifts from physical to digital form, it transcends the barriers that have contained it. Google, with its mission to “to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful,” is perhaps the first to give us a glimpse of how powerful the digitization of information can be. Today the Internet is nearly completely indexed and searchable.
And yet, there is still so much more work to do. At work, in the domain where it matters most, people still operate in the dark ages. The knowledge you need to help unlock new innovations slumbers behind silo walls out of your reach. You are trying to solve a customer’s problem but your customer service database offers no solution, and your sales, shipping, marketing, and fulfillment data warehouses are still out of reach. You are racking your brain on difficult research problems, unaware that there are 10 people somewhere in your company that have already developed the solution.
Coveo’s mission is to connect all of this data. Its cloud-based technology can index information from all your company’s systems, even unstructured emails and reports, making this available to the people who need it at the precise moment they need it.
This may all sound academic, so here is a simple example of how it might work. A customer calls you to complain. You type the customer’s complaint into a box and see several boxes populate with relevant information. You have the obvious ones--similar complaints and how they were solved, pertinent customer service documents--but then you see more unusual ones, like relevant information from your warehouse and engineering departments and, my favorite, experts: a list of people in your company whose emails, transcripts, and documents indicate they may know something about your topic.
Great innovations so often depend on connecting with the right people. If Henry Ford hadn’t found Thomas Edison as a mentor, would we have the Model T? If Bill Gates and Warren Buffett hadn’t started playing bridge together, who knows how our world might be different. And if Tony Robbins hadn’t met Jim Rohn, we may have less inspiration in the world.
As Tetu explained to me, when a scientist in your R&D lab seeks to solve a problem, they will probably by necessity limit their collaboration partners to the scientists they cross in the lunch room. But there may be just the right person, with just the right interest, ambitions, and knowledge sitting across an ocean.
By indexing it all and bringing you “complete, relevant, and actionable” information, Coveo may be pushing us forward to the next era of innovation and collaboration, one in which a wheelbarrow can be invented and shared with the world in a matter of hours, rather than millennia.
[Image: Flickr user Lee Shoothead ]