Imagining—And Creating—R&D Of The Future

Technology officers today are operating in truly extraordinary times. Exponential growth in computing speed, storage capacity, and communication bandwidth, along with the continued miniaturization of devices and increased connectivity, are evolving at rates never seen before. Enabled by these advancements, we are now seeing a much broader level of convergence between information and communication technologies (ICT) and other traditional domains, such as healthcare, education, environment, energy, transportation, etc. Smarter infrastructure, together with the ability to process big data, is redefining business and social values.

Consumer expectations are growing exponentially too. Yesterday's smartphone may have--literally--been made just yesterday, judging by today's extraordinary upgrade rates. Even in the field of audio and infotainment systems such as those produced by Harman, we have witnessed an unprecedented evolution in customer expectations--shifting from basic radio, stereo, and CD players to connected lifestyle systems that provide entertainment, information, and real-time aggregated services from a variety of sources. Over the past five years, customer expectations for in-car systems have grown to encompass advanced features including voice command, smartphone integration, personalized streaming audio, and social media.

The challenge now facing chief technology officers is managing this convergence. In the not-so-distant past, many companies developed successful products simply by asking customers what they wanted, and matching emerging technologies with those desires. Today, facing the challenges and opportunities described above, we must move beyond this traditional R&D model. Innovative leaders are now coming to grips with the fact that clinging to the past--or even the present--leaves too little room for the exponential future.

So how do we effectively manage R&D in these times? Traditional research and development practices are clearly not enough. The velocity of change, together with the need to consider a much broader set of domains, requires a far more holistic view.

Let's take a step back for a moment and think about the challenge as a metaphor: Imagine, for example, that each of the myriad technologies available to us is represented by a slat of wood. Each slat may be of varying length (representing its function and level of maturity), and when fused together side-by-side in a circular form, the slats form the sides of a wooden bucket. However, the bucket will only hold as much water, say, as the shortest piece of wood.

The same principle holds true in the converging nature of today's consumer devices. Assembling and integrating a suite of technology components such cloud operating systems, network protocols, signal processing, embedded databases, user interfaces, content libraries, and third party applications may yield a device, but the end product will only be as successful as its weakest or least mature component, and may not satisfy the user's needs or expectations.

To take the analogy one step further, let's consider the user experience (UX) as equivalent to the volume of water inside the bucket. Since the user's expectations grow with time and use, the evolution of the experience is like drops of water continually being added into the bucket. Yesterday's bucket may have met the user's satisfaction threshold, but tomorrow's expectations may overflow capacity and the bucket loses its relevance.

Anticipating the opportunities that will spring from technology innovations and managing the task of systems integration requires that technology officers pursue a redefined process model. Modern R&D organizations must go beyond the traditional bottom-up process of managing technology components and instead follow a holistic, three-pronged approach that blends a boundless vision for the future customer experience with product building blocks and sound corporate strategy.

The modern R&D organization must embrace an external, visionary view that goes much deeper than next quarter's deliverables, and anticipates the potential UX--or perhaps more accurately, the future experience (FX). Experts are anticipating a time when media, networks, consumer electronics, and applications will converge into a perfectly unified and ubiquitous experience. Defining and articulating this experience requires that R&D goes beyond mere hardware and software. It must carefully consider and incorporate multiple domain disciplines ranging from human psychology and industrial design, to socio-cultural influences such as topical art and literature. Consumer devices are increasingly breaking from their current physical limitations and becoming intuitive, embedded elements of the world around us. Consumer electronics technologies of the future will not only respond to our demands for entertainment, information, and lifestyle services, but will literally anticipate our needs and serve up increasingly integrated solutions automatically, as needed. Each of these continual enhancements represents as additional drop of water into the bucket.

Second, successful innovators must manage an increasing variety of technology building blocks and prioritize their relevance--long a challenge for many R&D departments. There are typically far too many paths to take and jobs to do within the boundaries of finite resources, and the continual push towards convergence expands the universe of options. When these are examined against the FX requirements, however, current technology strengths will be viewed as much more than incremental contributions to today's products. This assessment of any company's technology assets must also consider which should be core differentiators versus which are enablers, which are mature versus which are emerging, and--ultimately--which ones are missing.

Third, with all the pieces identified though the described selection process and guided by a vision for the future experience, the elements of the R&D process must be brought together through an articulated strategy. Aided by collaborative, open innovation across business and geographic boundaries, third-party synergies will further enrich and accelerate the process. When managed correctly, this strategy will provide a view of technology developments and opportunities that can drive the organization's overarching strategic plan.

Directing innovation in these exponential times clearly requires technology officers to be adept at nurturing the creative tension between divergent thinking--the generation of fresh ideas, and convergent thinking--channeling those ideas into practical solutions. The resulting strategic "glue" and a portfolio of diverse technology "slats" will serve as catalysts for the vision that binds processes and technical strengths with future experience models to yield as-yet-unforeseen innovations--tomorrow's "super bucket."

[Image: Flickr user Niels Linneberg]

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