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Roger L. Martin and Jennifer Riel make the provocative observation in a recent Business Week column, "Innovation's Accidental Enemies," that management's demands for "proof" make it difficult for innovators to advance new ideas.  Indeed, the very term "proof of concept" suggests the importance of passing this management test.

 

I'm not so sure the corporate "enemies" are accidental.  In fact, I think the obstruction is there by design.  It's easy for innovators to come up with ideas, but only few will truly meet complex customer requirements.  A series of obstacles can serve as an early expression of those requirements, so that the ideas stay on target.  Good management ideally puts tests in the way to improve ideas.

 

I've also found that researchers sometimes present concepts to management as a solution that just needs to be invested in -- without laying out a plan for actually moving the business into the solution.  So, management's objection to an idea may not be an objection to the ends, but just to the (lack of) means.

 

One of the ways to put means and ends together is to get customers involved early on in research.  The Innovation Network research model looks for three-way partnerships -- universities, internal R&D and customers.  The customers help to keep the research on track and also provide a path for advancing promising concepts, which may be all the "proof" that is needed.

 

__ Burt

Wired, in the January 2010 article, The Neuroscience of Screwing Up, makes the usual observation that successes in research often emerge from initial failures (example:  astrophysicists Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson couldn't get rid of the noise in their radio survey of the Milky Way, only later to find that they'd discovered echoes of the Big Bang).

 

The point that struck me is a pattern for turning failures into success:  "The best way to solve a problem?  Try explaining it to somebody outside your field."

 

Author Jonah Lehrer reports University of Toronto lab director Kevin Dunbar's findings that "most new scientific ideas emerged from lab meetings" and that a diverse lab -- with representives of multiple disciplines -- can be more effective at problem-solving than a group of researchers all having the same training.  (Penzias' and Wilson's insight came from a casual conversation with nuclear physicist Robert Dicke.)

 

EMC's locally networked approach to research -- bringing together participants of multiple business units and university researchers -- fits very much this cross-disciplinary paradigm.

 

Prof. Busnaina's recent lecture is a good example of the benefits of these kinds of conversations.  Although the research area is nanotechnology, his problem-solving paradigms, presented at a high level, encourage creativity in other system design patterns.

 

I was especially impressed with the solution he shared to the problem of toggling a carbon nanotube switch between two positions, for instance to store a bit.

 

In previous approaches, a strand of nanotube material would be toggled between the two positions by applying a voltage to one of two circuits, one below and the other above the strand.  When a small voltage is applied to the circuit below the strand, the strand is pulled down toward the circuit, and remains there after the voltage is removed.  To pull the strand up again, however, would require a much larger voltage across the circuit above the strand, partly because the strand is now further away from that circuit, and also presumably because the strand is “locked” in position.  (My lack of precision on these terms illustrates Dunbar’s point:  As a non-expert, I need to communicate in metaphors.)

 

Busnaina’s solution is based on a simple motivation:  If pulling a strand down is easier than pulling it back up, is there a way to toggle the switch by pulling down two different ways?  The answer is yes:  If the strand is sits across the two circuits rather than between them, and rides over a divider between the circuits, then toggling is just a matter of activating one circuit or the other.  When a small voltage is applied across the first circuit, the strand is pulled down to that circuit and away from the second.  The pulling away is mechanical not electrical which is why it is easier than in previous approaches.  Similarly, when a small voltage is applied across the second circuit, the strand is pulled down to that circuit and away from the first.

 

I'm not sure to what extent Busnaina explaining these things to people outside his field last week helped him solve further problems.  Having it explained to me, though, may well help me solve other problems in the future.  I’m looking forward to finding the next problem closer to my own research areas that can be solved by putting together two easy operations rather than an easy one and a hard one.

 

__ Burt

One of the best ways I've found to learn a subject is just to listen -- really listen, without email and web browsing in the background (hard to do these days!).  In technology research, sometimes the listening involves reading a research paper, and sometimes hearing a research lecturer, which is what I look forward to doing every few weeks through the EMC Research Cambridge Lecture Series, now announced here on labs.emc.com.

 

This Friday, I'll have the opportunity to learn about nanotechnology and its future impact on storage and computing from EMC Research Lecture Series - Cambridge: February 12, 2010: High-rate Directed Assembly for Applications in Electronics, Energy and Life Sciences.  The lecture is open to the public (both in person and by phone).  It will be interesting to find out more about Prof. Busnaina's lab and the discoveries at this particular layer of "middleware" between atoms and everyday materials.

 

An hour or so with a talented commuicator on a compelling topic can help break through a surface understanding, and begin to explore.  It's one of the reasons that research lectures are so important in the EMC Innovation Network.  Listening and learning helps us to start taking things apart, so we can put them back together again in new ways.

 

__ Burt

As my colleague Stuart Miniman mentionedWelcome to Early Preview of the Innovation and Research Community, the innovation and research community at EMC has taken up residence on Labs.

 

It's an honor to be part of this space that Randy Ziegler and his team -- especially njain -- have put so much time into preparing.

 

Randy and I were both members of the company's Chief Development Office a few years ago when Randy was leading the Developer Network (of which this EMC Community Network is an outgrowth) and Jeff Nick gave me the responsibility to lead what he named the EMC Innovation Network, the company's new corporate research program.

 

It was clear then that the developer and innovation communities had a good deal of common interests.  The addition of innovation and research content to Labs is thus a natural next step.  Indeed, this home for so many great development activities is just the right place to share highlights of the company's Innovation Conference, publications by its researchers, and much more.

 

So, we're started.  Our goal is to more just sharing information, but inspiring creative conversations about what we've called, in the Innovation Network Lecture Series tagline, "the information infrastructure of the future."  I look forward to the journey!

 

__ Burt

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