The unrealized potential of the research lab

I attended the IBM research 60th anniversary. IBM research is, by any reasonable account, the industrial research lab which has managed to bring the most value to it’s parent company over the long term. This can be seen by simply counting the survivors: IBM research is the only older research lab which has not gone through a period of massive firing. (Note that there are also new research labs.)

Despite this impressive record, IBM research has failed, by far, to achieve it’s potential. Examples which came up in this meeting include:

  1. It took about a decade to produce DRAM after it was invented in the lab. (In fact, Intel produced it first.)
  2. Relational databases and SQL were invented and then languished. It was only under external competition that IBM released it’s own relational database. Why didn’t IBM grow an Oracle division?
  3. An early lead in IP networking hardware did not result in IBM growing a Cisco division. Why not?

And remember … IBM research is a stark success story compared to it’s competitors.

Why is there such a pervasive failure to recognize the really big things when they come along in a research lab? This is a huge by capitolization standards: several ideas created in IBM labs have resulted in companies with a stock market valuation greater than IBM. This is also of fundamental concern to researchers everywhere, because that failure is much of the reason why research is chronically underfunded.

A reasonable argument is “it’s much harder to predict the big ones in advance than in hindsight”. This is certainly true, but I don’t believe that is a full explanation. Too many ideas have succeeded because someone else outside of the orignal company recognized the value of the idea and exploited it. There is no fundamental reason why VCs should have an inherent advantage over the company running a research lab at recognizing good ideas within it’s own research lab.

Muthu Muthukrishnan says “it’s the incentives”. In particular, people who invent something within a research lab have little personal incentive in seeing it’s potential realized so they fail to pursue it as vigorously as they might in a startup setting. This is a very reasonable argument: incentives for success at a research lab are typically a low percentage of base salary while startup founders have been known to become billionaires.

A third argument is that researchers at a research lab are likely to find new and better ways of doing things that the company already does. This creates a problem because a large fraction of the company is specifically invested in the current-to-become-old way of doing things. When a debate happens, it is always easy to find the faults and drawbacks of the new method while ignoring the accepted faults of the old (this is common to new directions in research as well).

None of these three reasons are fundamentally unremovable, and it seems plausible that the first industrial research lab to remove these obstacles will reap huge benefits. My current candidates for ‘most likely to remove barriers’ are google and NICTA.

2 Replies to “The unrealized potential of the research lab”

  1. Another reason is that it’s very difficult for big companies to change direction when they have an entrenched customer base and management structure designed to keep the revenue flowing from an entrenched product. Companies like Microsoft, Adobe, and Alias are so locked-in to their big moneymaker products that it’s hard for them to pursue the next Big Thing the way that small companies can. Just consider all the difficulty Microsoft has had redoing its operating system, and, arguably, the attempt to do so is relatively visionary. When was the last time Adobe released something major that wasn’t an incremental change to an existing product? It’s also not profitable for these companies (at least, in short-sighted thinking) to gamble on revolutionary products which have small amounts of revenue compared to their current products, whereas the risk calculation is quite different for small companies.

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