IBM is one of the last companies with a formal research unit and worldwide labs working on a variety of tasks.
IBM recently gave a briefing on how to optimize endpoint computing while keeping captured data secure and optimizing the interchange between the endpoints and a multicloud back end. It isn’t produced yet, but it arguably was a unique, from-the-ground-up concept that not only would optimize the endpoint computing effort, but would also reduce potential latency significantly while improving security. This last is increasingly critical given the increasingly troubled world we live in.
Some of the projects I’ve visited over the years at IBM’s various labs were machines that could write words on molecules (not too practical but wicked cool), inexpensive ways to clean water (much more practical), and advanced lithium air battery technology that we really need right now.
Let’s talk about the advantage of having a formal research division.
The importance of research
More and more companies tend to operate tactically and reactively. You can see why that’s a problem in the smartphone market right now. Most phones, with the obvious exception of the Microsoft Surface Duo 2 that I carry, look pretty much the same and do the same thing as they have for two decades. Companies seem to mostly look at each other for ideas and then struggle to create something like a successful product without violating copyrights or patents.
If you want to revolutionize a market, you need to free up your employees from their day-to-day activities and encourage them to use their imaginations, innovative capabilities, and resources to dream what might be better. We do get that from startups, but then you have the situation that arose with the iPhone, where a company comes up with a revolutionary idea and takes out the vendors that used to dominate the market.
I’m still amazed that both Palm and Microsoft came up with early iPhone-like concepts, but their leadership didn’t pursue the efforts to launch. And part of the reason was the efforts driving the iPhone-like offerings lacked support, focus, and the kind of executive support a lab enjoys but small working groups don’t.
Now, labs aren’t perfect, and they can lose their way by working on projects that will never be adopted by their parent company, because they are outside of that company’s existing market. And if you get too many of these, the lab effort may fail. IBM’s almost did a few decades ago, because it got too separated from what the product groups needed.
IBM corrected this, and while it undoubtedly still has some moon-shot projects floating around, much of what it does is reimagine technology based on advancements to create useful offerings that will fill future customer needs.
IBM’s leading efforts in artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing are examples of this, and, thanks to IBM’s labs, it is far more prepared for the coming QC revolution than any of its peers.
Wrapping up: The critical nature of labs
Labs provide a structure to create revolutionary products, while development efforts tied to existing product groups generally only make incremental improvements.
This isn’t just because the lab is focused, but because the executives that run it have enough clout to bring a potential product forward for proper consideration.
Had Microsoft or Palm had this kind of effort, one of them would have been more likely to bring it to market, because the presentation would have been more compelling and backed by someone with the connections to get backing needed to launch the product.
In short, a labs effort like IBM’s is largely worthless tactically, which is why it isn’t used broadly, but it is invaluable strategically to better assure the future of the company and give it a recurring opportunity to disrupt markets before those markets are disrupted around them.
IBM is one of a small handful of companies over a century old, and it is largely because of IBM Labs that it has survived, as opposed to most companies having trouble lasting half or a quarter as long.