Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"Lessons" from the labs for businesses

I write "lessons" within quotes because I am somewhat wary of role models, whether individuals or institutions. Imitation of role models is harmful because it ignores the uniqueness of individuals as well as institutions. Approaches and solutions must always be specific to a given context.

With that caveat, I commend an article Schumpeter wrote in the Economist a few weeks ago about what business can learn from large research projects. He talks about Atlas, the world's largest microscope, whose components were designed by hundreds of scientists from different institutions and whose components were sourced from 400 suppliers on four continents. Atlas was responsible for catching the Higgs boson last year. Such large research projects have some things in common with businesses and they also differ in some respects:

“Big Science” projects differ from companies in important ways. They are publicly financed and do not seek profits. They are also one-off affairs, with no need to maintain supply chains or manage long-term relationships with customers. Yet, like companies, they must innovate furiously, make the most of limited resources and beat rivals to breakthroughs.
The key to success is allowing talented individuals free rein for expressing themselves, which allows every issue to be comprehensively debated, and everybody to understand exactly why a certain idea has won out.

In a Big Science project, teams with rival proposals spar publicly, forcing all the boffins to articulate their assumptions, justify their choices and learn enough about their rivals’ ideas to criticise them at length. ....The sparring takes a while, but the lifetimes of Big Science projects are measured in decades. Besides, a good scientific scrap fosters the exchange of ideas and ensures that advocates of losing proposals understand the winning ones, which they are expected to work on. Battles allow boffins to let off steam, so grudges seldom fester. 
That's the big difference between the corporate world and large scientific projects. Companies are, in general, run autocratically, with "bosses" - and, that too, a few of these at the top -calling the shots, without much challenge from those below. Companies can be far more innovative, nimble and successful if they can operate in a decentralised and democratic way. Why don't they do so? Well, one reason certainly is that those at the top can produce results for a limited period and laugh their way to the bank without having to worry about the company's long-term success.

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