Escaped from the Lab: OOPSLA Workshop Report
OOPSLA 2008 Conference, Nashville
October 20, 2008
In this workshop, the workshop participants explored several
interesting questions surrounding the subject of Innovation and
how to get new ideas from the laboratory (universities and
corporate research labs) into practical uses.
The top questions were:
- How do innovations escape?
- What are the values, culture, and climate that contribute to
- How can we attract and retain innovators?
- Industry people are the "customers" of innovators -- so what
should industry do to be a good customer?
- Are there special considerations for research that is
contracted or outsourced?
- How should we measure the impact of innovation?
How do innovations escape?
To have success in the real-world application of an innovation
goes beyond the capability of most research organizations.
You often need help from the outside.
- You can think of making a bridge from Research to Development
- Moving innovations into practice requires people.
One conclusion -- technology transfer is a collaborative effort.
- It is important to form alliances, work with others to get
the word out about an innovation
- Innovations often come up against problems because of
the fear of change -- resistance.
- There are good ideas about surmounting resistance to change
in the book Fearless Change
by Mary Lynn Manns and Linda Rising.
Another good observation -- in some cases, successful technology
transfer has happened by transferring people (sometimes on a
- Interns (graduate students working for a company to help the tech transfer)
- Professors on a sabbatical
- Industry people working in an academic lab on a short-term fellowship
- Bringing in innovators in a consultant role for a short term
Values, culture, and climate that contribute to
This was an interesting topic to explore. Some obvious factors have
played a role in building an environment for innovation:
- Geography can be really important. There is often a
geographic clustering of firms that are involved in similar
technology work. This attracts many innovators to work for
companies in that geographic cluster.
- Example: In Netherlands, there is a cluster of companies around
Eindhoven that do work on embedded systems -- especially with the
auto industry in that region. On the other hand, there are very
few software developers with real-time development experience
in Amsterdam, because the main focus in that region is the
- Government policies can help or hinder the climate for innovation.
Regulations, tax policy, compliance rules affect the businesses
Some other legal issues, such as government regulations that
affect employee benefits -- rules that make medical benefits
and retirement benefits more portable -- can also help
- Finally, the attitudes and primary motivators of researchers
and innovators are an element in the values and climate.
Researchers look at the culture in their local work environment
and ask "what is in it for me?" They are
often looking to balance risks and insecurities in their
careers on one side -- and on the other, incentives such as
career advancement, building their resumes, and having fun.
Many innovators also put some weight to "idealism", the
idea that their innovations can help to save the planet.
How can we attract and retain innovators?
We assembled a list of things that attract good technical people
to work for a company:
- technical ladder -- Does a company have a series of ranks
that a technical person can advance through in their careers?
- compensation: salary, bonuses, stock options, medical benefits,
- the opportunity to work with other good people
- leadership opportunities (this might not be in management -- it might
just be the chance to be a technical team leader)
- mentoring opportunities -- the chance to be recognized by others as a guru
- becoming a thought leader
- opportunities for personal development -- lifelong learning
- interesting work challenges
- trips to conferences -- especially OOPSLA
- appreciation by peers and managers
We listed a few things that repel good technical people:
- managers who give "unreasonable challenges"
- For example: Some managers will assign some "stretch goals" to each
member of the team, and then punish them in their ratings for not
achieving the goals.
- managers who micro-manage
- inflexibility in performance management
- For example: In many companies, the manager and employee decide on
performance goals at the beginning of the year. If the projects
change during the year, the goals are renegotiated. The worst thing
is if the employee is held to the original performance goals.
- a job environment where innovators are put on the "front line" of
dealing with customers -- without any management help to bridge
the communications gap between development and customer
What should industry do to be a good customer of innovations?
In some companies, a common model for introducing new innovations
is to work with a "research partner" -- which might be either a research
group in a university or a small startup company.
There is always a give and take between:
- technology users -- a
company that needs some innovations / solutions to solve some
of their problems
- researchers (in a university or small company) -- they have
some kind of generic solution, but they want to work with a
practical problem to test the real-world feasibility of
Some interesting problems that might cause some "mismatched expectations":
Will a business person be capable of evaluating a
research asset? (Do they have enough knowledge and
experience to tell if the asset solves their current problem?)
- This is a big issue. Some companies have tried to reduce
costs by eliminating most of their internal research and making
contracts with universities and contract research labs. This
model can work -- but if the company can't tell the difference
between a valuable innovation and a lemon, they will struggle.
Who has the responsibility to show that the research product (or prototype)
is suitable for the practical problem? The main answer we came up with:
it depends on whether you are in a "pull" or a "push" scenario.
- Pull scenario: Industry asks the researchers
to adapt their assets to solve a particular industrial problem.
In the pull model, it is the industry customer who needs to
do "due diligence" to ensure that the research prototype will
- Push scenario: Researchers are anxious to get
some real-world users, so they "push" ideas into practical
uses. In the push model, researchers need to gain an extra
understanding of the objectives and context of the users.
Research that is contracted or outsourced
We discussed some of the models of industry-university collaboration.
This collaboration could be done in a couple of ways:
- a company makes a research grant - This is the simplest to
administer: the innovations that result from the grant either become
public domain or the property of the university, and most of the control
of the research work is in the hands of the principal investigator.
- a company and a university research group negotiate a contract - This
is more complicated, and there are many things to be decided in
- Who owns the intellectual property for the innovations
at the end of the contract?
(In some universities, specifically in institutions who have
been active in agricultural and biomedical research, the
university may have policies that require research contracts
to assign intellectual property rights to the university.
In schools with strong engineering departments, it is more
common to have policies that allow the industrial funders
to own some or all of the intellectual assets created under
- Will university researchers be able to publish research
papers about the innovations?
(Researchers want to have minimal restrictions on publishing
research results -- this has to be balanced with the possibilities
of getting patent or copyright protection for some of the
- What intermediate deliveries will be produced, and are
they prototypes or products?
(The contract should balance the researchers' interests in
exploring new technologies and the company's interests in
solving specific technical problems.)
One of the workshop participants, Ethan Hadar from CA Labs,
presented one model that is used to manage industry-university
collaboration -- in an Agile manner.
In this model, there are five main players -- three on
the industry side and two on the university side.
- Professor (manages the research on the university side)
- Student researcher (performs most of the research work on the
- Industry collaborator (usually a technical-professional in the
company that is using the research in an industrial application --
this person works closely with the Student researcher)
- Industry line manager (usually the direct line manager of
the Industry collaborator -- provides the funding for the research
- Research manager (a manager on the industry side who has special
expertise in overseeing the research program -- collaborates with
both the Student researcher and Industry collaborator to make sure
that the organizational objectives are met on both sides)
One more point was raised in the discussion of this
question -- how to move "customer-generated innovations" into
a product. We talked about two slightly different models:
- Matlab model -- Matlab accepts customer-built add-ons to
their product, but they have an internal staff that performs the
required "product hardening" to integrate the new features
into the next Matlab product release.
- SAP model -- SAP allows customers to produce SAP extensions
that will be included in future SAP product releases. The
development work is done by the customer -- with support and
assistance from SAP architects.
Both of these models seem to work OK, but there is definitely
a different division of responsibility for the productization work.
How should we measure the impact of innovation?
Measuring the impact is a good idea -- even the only measurements
we can make are simplistic.
We considered three sets of measurements:
- Individual measurements -- measurements that an individual
innovator might use to track their own effectiveness, or that
might be part of a laboratory's evaluation of individuals.
This set of measurements is not surprising:
- academic papers
- building something that makes a difference (to a business partner,
customer, open source community, ...)
- the amount of fun
- Organizational measurements -- there are two sets of measurements
we considered. The first set is pretty traditional: based on
ordinary economic value:
- new products
- new customers and markets
- increased market share
- The second set of Organizational measurements are more
interesting -- and surprising:
- ability of the organization to attract new employees -- new innovators
- It might not be so important for every innovation to make
a big profit -- for example, for Google Labs, they might be willing
to use some less profitable innovations to build their reputation
as a great place to work. This could draw enough new innovators
to be a net gain in total business value.
- mind share -- this is an idea from the world of free/open source products
- There is a potential future market to be won when you
convince customers and users that your set of tools is good
to use, because it is free. For example, Eclipse has gained
a large "mind share" because of its economic model, and this
will result in the sales of more commercial Eclipse spinoffs
for some companies.
- Government measurements -- these are the measurements that
a government might watch to decide the impact of some of their
policies that affect innovation
- increased employment in the country or in selected regions
- increase in GDP
- strategic position
- building a set of intellectual property for the country's industries
What other questions do we have?
In the workshop's initial brainstorming session, we came up with
a number of other good topics to discuss.
Unfortunately, because of the lack of time, we put these questions
off until another future workshop:
Questions and issues on innovation for future discussion:
- Time to value
- How do we improve our hit rate?
- Creativity -- innovation needs "creativity" and "organization" in balance
- Definition of innovation
- Roadblocks to innovation
- Innovations and new ideas from unlikely sources -- such as customer support
- What to do when someone overcommits
- Acquisition and partnering -- what are the positives and negatives?
- Innovation mechanisms -- how do you search for innovations and plan for them
- Methods of influence
Last modified: October 21, 2008