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True Innovation

by C. Ross Jam on February 26, 2012

Consider the source, an author with a forthcoming book on Bell Labs, but Jon Gertner has an interesting opinion piece on innovation in today’s New York Times:

“So how can we explain how one relatively small group of scientists and engineers, working at Bell Labs in New Jersey over a relatively short span of time, came out with such an astonishing cluster of new technologies and ideas? They invented the future, which is what we now happen to call the present. And it was not by chance or serendipity. They knew something. But what?”

Looking back at the iconic computing industrial R&D labs (Bell Labs, IBM Watson Labs, Xerox PARC), I’ve become more interested in how researchers weathered the bumps, rather than the frequent organizational hagiographies. Having seen the insides of industrial R&D, it couldn’t have been all milk and honey at the core. For every great breakthrough, were there two, three, five battles with management to keep the project going? How many promising junior folks just didn’t pan out or got chewed up and spit out? Along with the great collaborations, were there backstabbing rivalries?

Mostly, I’m interested in how these organizations developed and sustained a culture of innovation, no matter how brief. I forget who it was but a senior researcher in computing floated the notion that the field can only have one or two of these organizations extant and thriving at any given time. Outside of the raw numbers game of high quality researcher, I’m wondering if there isn’t some other fundamental limitation.

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