Friday, October 19, 2012

Lead vs. impact in industrial research

The quarterly letter of John Kelly, the head of IBM Research Division reminded us that his first directive is to shift the main goal of what IBM research is doing from impact and contribute to lead.   

Much of the work done in industrial research today falls into the contribution impact,  as illustrated in the picture, the human models are already there, and the contribution is in coloring them.  Much of the industrial research today concentrates upon incremental contribution to the company's products or services.  

The alternative is lead.  Take the Israeli invention known as USB stick  (in Israel we call it disk-on-key), the picture below explains why.

Lead means the creation of something new that is not an increment of some existing stuff.

This leads to several questions - first, is this scalable, in the sense that - are there enough revolutionary ideas, or if there are enough people skilled enough - even in the research community - to generate such ideas. 
Another question is - work towards lead is much more risky relative to work towards incremental contribution.  It might also take less resources, although there is no exact correlations, some of the revolutions were done by small teams,  e.g. the relational model was devised by a single person.   Furthermore,  leading may mean disrupting some existing interest, thus accumulate enemies and encounter the corporate's immune system, see my post about the "innovator's dilemma".
In my opinion the answer is that while incremental contribution should not be eliminated, the best researchers have to be geared towards the drive for lead.    This requires a supporting culture, in which risks are tolerated.   This is sometimes against the DNA of the risk-averse companies, and the tendency to focus on the pressing business as usual stuff which is mainly incremental.   I think that even if we assume a certain rate of failures,   one revolutionary result worth thousand evolutionary ones, and this is the relative scale of scores that should be weighted.     

While I referred to the context of research in industry  and corporate cultures, this is also somewhat true for academic research which also have great deal of incremental work AKA "delta papers".

I am investigating recently the impact of my own research work over the years and will write about it soon, with some interim conclusions.  

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