R+D my R’s

I’ve been lucky enough to be working with technology in one form or another for all of my working life. I ‘got into it’, as we used to say when we were young, purely by accident, and have grown ever fonder of the twists and turns it has taken ever since, providing us with new smarter ways of communicating, keeping transparent, staying alive, and much much more. So I am what you might call a fan of technological advance.

And central to the theme of technological advance is Research & Development. Or at least it used to be. In what my children are increasingly calling the olden days, there would be a separate R&D function in almost every business that was delivering new stuff. This stuff could be anything from service products to cars to software. It was expected that any company worth its salt would be finding out what the market wanted or even how to manufacture that market. (History is, of course, littered with attempts to manufacture the market that went horribly wrong. The one that always sends a shudder down my spine is the campaign based on Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) at the end of the 90’s. If you’ve erased this from your memory (and I so wish I could), this consisted of O2 promising that the internet was going to be arriving on WAP-enabled handsets, so everyone could happily browse away in the (relatively infant) web. The problem was, they couldn’t. Not only was the network not up to the job, but neither was the internet. Or the handsets, really. Which just left a half baked idea and a lot of front. And what might work for Simon Cowell didn’t work for O2.)

Anyway, R&D was pretty core to the smart companies that dominated the post war years. Any book on company management will tell you that R&D is the key to the constant re-development of companies like Sony, Apple, Toshiba etc. And the companies that didn’t have effective R&D are the ones that started feeling a bit cumbersome. I think that’s what happened to IBM, and I also think (and part of me secretly hopes) that it’s what may well happen to Microsoft. If your business is constantly trying to push the same market, there’s a chance you’re going to run out of customers.

So, I was at a meeting with a pretty big IT company recently, and asked them how much they were spending a year on R&D. The rep quoted an absolutely massive number, which I couldn’t quite believe. Pushing a bit harder, we agreed that this number must include acquisition costs. At which point it struck me that that’s where we’ve got to in the development of R&D. We see this all the time in IT, with the big companies buying up the small ones to create a portfolio of product, sometimes at odds with their initial direction as a business. And I think that’s a real shame as it becomes all about wedging something small into a bigger whole, and that’s not really about R or D. And of course, in extremis, the big company buys up the smaller one before they can become a competitor, sometimes killing the developed technology in the process.

So I think that’s a shame. When I looked at this fantastic idea from the RCA grad show:


then I can’t help feeling that what’s being developed by the bigger businesses in the name of R&D these days is pretty second rate.


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