Fact and Fiction

Thoughts about a funny old world, and what is real, and what is not. Comments are welcome, but please keep them on topic.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Bell Labs: Over and out

In this week's New Scientist there is an article entitled Bell Labs: Over and out, which is about the decline and fall of Bell Labs. As the article puts it, Bell Labs was "formerly the world's premier industrial research laboratory". So, what went wrong?

The article says

What, then, was the key to its success? A large part of it was the way it encouraged its employees to strive for great ideas and tackle the toughest problems. The company trained technical managers to inspire staff, with ideas rather than meddle with details, and could afford to have multiple teams try different approaches at once. No doubt it also benefited from the security of working for a regulated monopoly insulated from the whims of the marketplace.

and also

Eventually Bell's success ended too. After years of litigation, AT&T spun off its regional telephone service as seven separate companies in 1984, ending the decades of cosy monopoly. A dozen years later, it spun off most of Bell Labs along with its equipment division as Lucent Technologies, which initially prospered but then stumbled badly, shrinking from a peak of 16o,ooo employees to 30,5oo before merging with Alcatel ... It will be missed - it already is. The greatest loss is not so much Bell's vaunted basic research, but its unique ability to marshal teams of top technologists to transform bright ideas into effective technology.

Bell Labs was a laboratory that did great research because it employed top-notch researchers, it was protected from the marketplace, and because its managers could operate in a hands-off mode rather than micromanage everything, which allowed its researchers to get on with doing basic (read "long term") research. When these preconditions (i.e. protection from the marketplace, and hands-off management) are removed the structure of the organisation begins to change irreversibly, e.g. basic research ceases to be done.

I'm not so sure that I agree that "the greatest loss is not so much Bell's vaunted basic research", because basic research provides the source material for future technology. Even if you employ the best people in the world for turning the results of basic research into usable technology, you can get away without doing basic research for only so long before the cellar full of fine wines laid down in earlier years runs dry.

I particularly liked the phrase "transform bright ideas into effective technology" that was used in the article, because it sounds like the sort of "mission statement" that could be used by any organisation that wanted to plunder its cellar to convert its past basic research results into technology.

Because I do a lot of basic research myself, I have an interest in freedom to do basic research being granted to individuals who have a flair for this sort of activity (not many people, in my experience); I have commented on this in an earlier posting here. It seems that wherever I look conditions are changing in ways that are hostile to this civilisation-creating activity; see here for my earlier posting on this.


At 1 October 2007 at 22:01, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes. I was there, and it was a good place because it let you work on future problems. Problems that no one knew about. Outside of Bell, even university research needs to make a nod towards problems that we know about.

When it Bell was healthy, people understood that you couldn't usefully manage basic research because you cannot predict what will come out of it. Managing basic research is like managing the roll of dice: at best it's a waste of time and manpower.

Management makes sense where you can predict the outcome and where you can push the outcome in a desired direction. If you don't know what's going to happen, any pushes you apply are just random shots in the dark.

The trouble with managing research is that there is one obvious question to ask: "If you succeed, what is it good for?" What people usually don't realize is that question can take decades to answer, so it's pretty useless as a management tool.

For instance, consider the hologram: it earned a Nobel Prize. What is it good for? People thought about 3-D photographs, but they were wrong. The current uses (worth many millions per year) are lenses, laser pointers, Christmas wrapping paper, and -- more distantly -- the lithographic tools that make integrated circuits.

Likewise, an early idea of a good application for lasers was to drill holes in diamonds to make dies for pulling wire. These days? Far more money and value comes out of DVD players, an application that wasn't imagined when the laser was discovered.

You can see that there are two kinds of research: One where the problem comes first. That's applied research, and it's possible to manage it, sometimes. You have a goal, and you can try to keep the research aimed at the goal. For some problems, years or decades may pass before the solution is found, but at least there is a goal, a direction.

The other kind of research just differs in that the solution comes first, before anyone has thought up the problem. That's basic research. It's essentially impossible to manage, because the managers don't know what the goal is. Years or decades may pass before anyone thinks up a problem that can use the solution that the researchers have found.

The stock of solutions that basic research provides is valuable, because sooner or later, someone will need those solutions. Eventually, a need will arise.

At 2 October 2007 at 14:14, Blogger Stephen Luttrell said...

I agree that basic research can't be managed, at least not using any of the standard management tools. It seems to me that the meaning of the word "research" has become devalued over time, so it is now mostly what I would call "development", and there is scant attention paid to real research any more. As you say, nowadays you have to have done the work before you submit your proposal, so by definition what you are proposing to do is not actually research.

One can stay alert to spot talented new basic researchers, but even doing that is quite a subtle art. You have to be a basic researcher yourself to know how to spot this characteristic style of thinking as it emerges in a young person. Successful basic research needs a delicate blend of discipline and anarchy, and it is a very unusual person who can hold these two things in their head simultaneously.


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