How has IBM research changed?

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IBM Neuromorphic Chip (from Wired story)

What does Watson, Neuromorphic chips and race track memory have in common. They have all emerged out of IBM research labs.

I have been wondering for some time now how it is that a company known for it’s cutting edge research but lack of product breakthrough has transformed itself into an innovation machine.

There has been a sea change in the research at IBM that is behind the recent productization of tecnology.

Talking the past couple of days with various IBMers at STGs Smarter Computing Forum, I have formulate a preliminary hypothesis.

At first I heard that there was a change in the way research is reviewed for product potential. Nowadays, it almost takes a business case for research projects to be approved and funded. And the business case needs to contain a plan as to how it will eventually reach profitability for any project.

In the past it was often said that IBM invented a lot of technology but productized only a little of it. Much of their technology would emerge in other peoples products and IBM would not recieve anything for their efforts (other than some belated recognition for their research contribution).

Nowadays, its more likely that research not productized by IBM is at least licensed from them after they have patented the crucial technologies that underpin the advance. But it’s just as likely if it has something to do with IT, the project will end up as a product.

One executive at STG sees three phases to IBM research spanning the last 50 years or so.

Phase I The ivory tower:

IBM research during the Ivory Tower Era looked a lot like research universities but without the tenure of true professorships. Much of the research of this era was in materials and pure mathematics.

I suppose one example of this period was Mandlebrot and fractals. It probably had a lot of applications but little of them ended up in IBM products and mostly it advanced the theory and practice of pure mathematics/systems science.

Such research had little to do with the problems of IT or IBM’s customers. The fact that it created pretty pictures and a way of seeing nature in a different light was an advance to mankind but it didn’t have much if any of an impact to IBM’s bottom line.

Phase II Joint project teams

In IBM research’s phase II, the decision process on which research to move forward on now had people from not just IBM research but also product division people. At least now there could be a discussion across IBM’s various divisions on how the technology could enhance customer outcomes. I am certain profitability wasn’t often discussed but at least it was no longer purposefully ignored.

I suppose over time these discussions became more grounded in fact and business cases rather than just the belief in the value of the research for research sake. Technological roadmaps and projects were now looked at from how well they could impact customer outcomes and how such technology enabled new products and solutions to come to market.

Phase III Researchers and product people intermingle

The final step in IBM transformation of research involved the human element. People started moving around.

Researchers were assigned to the field and to product groups and product people were brought into the research organization. By doing this, ideas could cross fertilize, applications could be envisioned and the last finishing touches needed by new technology could be envisioned, funded and implemented. This probably led to the most productive transition of researchers into product developers.

On the flip side when researchers returned back from their multi-year product/field assignments they brought a new found appreciation of problems encountered in the real world. That combined with their in depth understanding of where technology could go helped show the path that could take research projects into new more fruitful (at least to IBM customers) arenas. This movement of people provided the final piece in grounding research in areas that could solve customer problems.

In the end, many research projects at IBM may fail but if they succeed they have the potential to make change IT as we know it.

I heard today that there were 700 to 800 projects in IBM research today if any of them have the potential we see in the products shown today like Watson in Healthcare and Neuromorphic chips, exciting times are ahead.

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