Tuesday 5 January 2010

The Research & Innovation difference

In my previous life, as part of the research and innovation business of a global telecommunications company, I experienced first-hand the challenges of running and reaping the benefits of such a business. The biggest challenge is often getting ideas from research actually exploited and used for benefit either as product or service or internally. Part of the problem with this is how research is seen from other parts of the organisation, and how they interact together. When times are difficult, it is often research which is scrutinised and 'productivity' examined. The productivity of research is clearly driven in large part by the calibre of the people, but the research culture within the organisation is also very important.

The culture of research varies enormously across different organisations and is set from the top management. I have seen good and bad examples in the same organisation depending on the executives and seniors leading research at different times. The key thing I learned is that for success, research needs to be recognised as being different. It isn't the same difference as with other departments like Sales, Marketing, Development, Customer Support etc. For these, one size can fit all in terms of policy and execution. Research on the other hand benefits most when viewed differently. I would highlight a number of examples.

In Human Resources policy for recruitment, you ideally want a very different policy and process for finding new talent. The general HR processes which weed out candidates leaving only well rounded individuals of a traditional profile is wrong for research, where you want to attract and retain people who think different, challenge the status quo and may be rather unorthodox. In finance, it makes very little sense to set budgets on some artificial year boundary and require the same justifications (not none but different) as other operational departments. Research projects don't fit such nicely defined accounting periods, and you will rarely justify them in the same timescales as other departments. And in IT support and purchasing, researchers shouldn't be fenced in by rules that enforce the same vanilla boxes and technology as in the rest of the organisation; instead some need the latest kit or unusual new technology which cannot be corporately approved yet. The final example of many I could quote is accommodation policy. The surroundings for teams of researchers should facilitate the flow of innovative juices, which doesn't mean the use of traditional desks and offices but rather a mix of quiet reading areas and open comfortably furnished areas with unlimited refreshments on tap.

It is the seniors and leaders of research who understand the need for these differences in culture that stand a chance of growing and running a successful business. The people who work in such research organisations will thus feel motivated and valued and ultimately more productive. Their management that will justify these differences for their people to the rest of the business will be those who stand more chance of successfully building a reputation and interaction with the rest of the company.

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