Are Research Labs Redundant?


Former IBMer Irving Wladawsky poses the question in a post titled Reinventing the Research Lab. In this piece he speaks about Paul Horn, who notched up an impressive list of feats while he headed up IBM Research.

But Paul’s key impact, as Irving points out, is that he laid the foundation for corporate R&D in the 21st century. Having recently left my role with a research institute I can identify with and I totally agree with his take.

Essentially, the concept of extended elapse times and the hand overs necessary to get research productized under the traditional research university style lab structure has become redundant. The challenges are out in the real world, not in some ivory tower, and researchers need to get their hands dirty, delve into the rock face and only then will they emerge with true nuggets…elegant, innovative solutions to problems, as well as new ideas that might lead to fundamental advances in science and technology.

Irving notes that start up companies have done away with the gaps altogether, significantly decreased the time-to-market for new products and services… these competitive pressures have made it unaffordable to continue supporting [any] research labs that have only a loose connection to products and customers.

I agree with him that fundamental research, knowledge, and top talent are [defnitely still] needed – in fact they are more important than ever given the rising complexities of the problems to be solved, and the increased opportunities to apply new technologies and science to solve them. But the culture of the research labs had to drastically change. [my highlighting] They had to become far more involved in helping develop the highly sophisticated product and services that their breakthroughs hopefully lead to. Above all, they had to go out to the marketplace and learn first hand about the increasingly complex problems that desperately require their breakthroughs, knowledge and talents.

Unless research labs are able to fundamentally restructure themselves they will, as Irving notes – disappear altogether or become shadows of their former selves.

[Photo of Darpa’s Mobile Lab in Antarctica courtesy of cham0152]

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