Posted by: Chris | 18/06/2011

A Day of Service

A tree grows in Rueschlikon

A tree grows in Rüschlikon

This week IBM turned 100. As part of this anniversary the company pledged a “day of service” for all its employees to give back something to the communities we operate in. The service could be to help a social charity, go into schools to talk about the importance of science and technology for our future, or do something for the environment. In total, IBM is donating more than 2.5 million hours of volunteer services to communities worldwide.

In our lab, we decided to offer two activities for those who wanted to do something with their colleagues. We started to engage with a charity called Rainbows for Children  which wants to improve basic education in Ethiopia. Here we apply our IT skills to help bring wind power to Ethiopian schools to power PCs in computer classes and better manage the schools through IT. This is an ongoing project that is not finished with just one day of work.

The other project where over 100 colleagues participated centered around another (grassroots) charity whose goal is to bring down green house gas emissions by changing our own behavior and through projects that have a positive impact on climate change. One of those projects is to plant 100’000 trees that carry fruit varieties that have become rare in our industrialized food industry. We decided to support this project through planting rare apple trees in Rüschlikon the community where the lab has been located now for more that 48 years of its 55 year history. In addition we worked in the local forest to protect the rare yew tree from being destroyed by deer who consider the young, extremely slow growing trees a delicacy. The forest ranger who helped us distinguish yew trees from the more common silver fur, later on commented that he had never worked with such a disciplined and focused group of volunteers before. So as we try to be the best in our research, we strive to excel at volunteer work as well 🙂

We were very lucky, for our day of service the weather was splendid and so we managed to accomplish everything we had set out to. As we had randomly assembled the teams, a lot of people got to talk to colleagues they usually don’t meet. We concluded the day with a nice picnic.

Quite a few people commented that we should do such days of service not only when the company celebrates its 100th anniversary but more often. I will take up that idea and we will find something for us to do next year again. Maybe we can make this into a regular activity?

I’d be curious to learn what my readers would suggest we could do?

Posted by: Chris | 01/04/2011

Who do you work for?

A few years ago I had the CEO of a Swiss bank visit us at the lab for a briefing on our research as we often do with clients. At some point our conversation moved to a topic of a great concern to him. He said when people ask my employees who they work for, they say they work for a bank and don’t say the name of the bank as if that wasn’t important. He was trying to change that part of their culture so they would say with pride the name of the bank.

Gustavo Stolovitzky is an IBMer

This conversation reminds me of a similar discussion we have had at IBM. Who do you work for? Is it the manager or group you work in? Is it the physical lab? Is it the strategic area that we like to drive across our Research division? Is it IBM Research or is it IBM?

Obviously it depends upon who asks you; whether it is a fellow IBM employee or somebody from the outside.

While, like the bank’s CEO, we would like people to say “I am an IBMer” (see video below)  when they’re asked by outsiders, many of our employees will quickly follow that up that they really work for IBM Research – Zurich.

The real question is who does someone identify with, the larger organization or the unit?

Why is this important? I think it poses a very interesting dilemma. Smaller groups or organizations are very easy to identify with because you have a sense of belonging and you work with a team you personally know. In fact, one of the groups in my lab even has given itself a unique “trademark” to identify itself with. They’re proud to belong and are highly motivated in their team and often go beyond the call of duty.   This sense of belonging is so strong that others have remarked that they feel excluded and not as special. Which is the flip side of the equation. Looking at it from a global perspective it becomes even more challenging. If you want to drive a larger program you need people to identify with that unit rather than the immediate work group they’re in.

So the question becomes who do you really work for?

And if you happen to see me at an event or conference, please come up and ask me, “So Matthias, who do you work for?”

Posted by: Chris | 07/03/2011

Live from the CeBIT IT Fair in Germany

Here is an interview I gave at the CeBIT IT fair last week in Hanover, Germany.  It was quite an event that was kicked off with German Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel and IBM Chairman and CEO Sam Palmisano.

A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from an unknown colleague at IBM, who had stumbled upon my blog. He was very nice to say that it was a very unusual blog that he found interesting to read but he was also quick to point out that I hadn’t written anything in quite some time. Unfortunately true – I am a great procrastinator and while I sometimes have ideas for new topics, I never sit down to write them up.

Now I promised this colleague that his prodding would be enough to put me over the hump to write a new post.

One of the things that has always puzzled me is the nature of work. Particularly the work in our environment where we are responsible with innovation and leading the company to new businesses.

Last year I heard an interesting talk by a German author Anja Förster. She started with the example of the printing on most Apple products: “Designed by Apple in California – Assembled in China” to exemplify the management dilemma she wanted to talk about.

Which is more important?

Which is more important?

“Assembled in China” stands for the management methods and expectations in employees we had throughout most of the last century, employees were expected to be hard working, obedient, punctual, and if possible intelligent. Interestingly enough you can pretty much order people to behave like this and also measure and enforce such behavior. Most management approaches still follow this model.

“Designed in California”, however stands for new employee qualities. We want employees to be engaged, be creative, and have passion for what they do. The interesting challenge is that these latter qualities cannot be obtained with the same management methods as the former nor can they really be measured all that easily. In fact, the old management methods probably run completely counter to what we look for in employees today. If you think not everybody can develop these qualities, think of what people do in their spare time, how they pursue sports (train for marathons, climb mountains, …) or other hobbies (work in charities, sing in choirs, build cars, …) – how can we translate that type of engagement and passion to the work place?

Do we do it by setting aggressive targets (financial or otherwise)? Do we do it by offering rewards (financial or otherwise)? I would claim that more often than not, neither financial targets nor incentives, serve to inspire these qualities. I believe often it is a sense of doing/changing something important, of charting unexplored territory, of doing the impossible, or simply belonging to a team is what causes engagement and passion and lets creativity flow.

As an aside, I worked in sales for a few years and when I started, I was told all sales people are “coin operated”, my experience was very different, they cared about doing something good for their clients.  Yes, they also cared about winning against the competition, but the sales plan always came last and never drove their actions. Now this may have been unique, but then I may have been fortunate to be with that group of people.

I wonder what your experiences are in developing engagement and passion and being creative at work, your own and that of your colleagues or employees?

Please let me know your comments.

About ten years ago I gave a talk at a meeting of the Max Planck Society on how IBM Research works, how we organize and measure ourselves, how we pick research topics to work on. I closed the talk by stating that much of the future of research would be in combining many skills and work in interdisciplinary teams. When I look at how we work today, I have to admit this vision did not yet fully materialize.

When I look though at the big challenges mankind faces, be it dealing with climate change, with resources becoming scarcer, feeding the quickly growing population of our planet, dealing with a quickly ageing society and its healthcare challenges, having enough energy available to allow us to live the way we have become accustomed to, I find that the only way to approach any one of these very interrelated challenges lies in the collaboration of engineers and scientists of many different professions.

Take for example, a project the Zurich lab is involved in called EDISON. Here we work with partners, including DONG Energy, Oestkraft, Technical University of Denmark, Siemens, Eurisco and the Danish Energy Association  to develop an intelligent infrastructure that will make possible the large scale adoption of electric vehicles powered by sustainable energy.  The concept is simple, when less wind power is available (either because Mother Nature isn’t producing any or a storm causing disconnects), vehicle charging is automatically adjusted down to the available amount of green energy – and in the extreme case  they plug back-in, but instead of charging, the vehicles give energy back to the grid – creating a balance of supply with demand. (video)

In this project we have electrical engineers, computer scientists, economists, and applied mathematicians collaborating to find a solution anywhere from a viable business model down to knowing how much a car’s battery can be discharged without the driver/user/owner being adversely impacted.

Interdisciplinary research makes EDISON possible. Image courtesy of Dansk Energi

Clearly no single discipline could solve this challenge alone, yet it appears extremely difficult to assemble world-class teams to work on these problems. There are concerns that the work is too applied, it is too focused on solving a particular problem, cannot be generalized enough and – there are no conferences where the results of the work could be presented.

While I understand all these concerns, I believe as scientists and engineers we have the obligation to demonstrate that interdisciplinary work is where we can have the most impact on our society and the planet itself.

I wonder what you think the inhibitors are and how we can overcome these to apply ourselves to what really matters for our and our children’s future?

Posted by: Chris | 11/06/2010

The war for knowledge is over! Is it?

"Coming out of the worst economic downturn in our professional lifetimes -- and facing a new normal that is distinctly different -- it is remarkable that CEOs identify creativity as the number one leadership competency of the successful enterprise of the future," 2010 IBM CEO Survey

Recently when walking the dog, I listened to one of my favorite business programs on the BBC, Peter Day’s World of Business. He interviewed the well known management professor Gary Hamel on management and businesses and the recent economic crisis. It is a very worthwhile interview as he makes some very provocative, but to me, very true statements. One of the points he raised was that the future of the successful enterprise was in unleashing the creativity of their employees rather than only focusing on knowledge. He said, you can pretty much buy knowledge around the world for not very much – what is more challenging is how you create new knowledge and insights that differentiate you company from others. He said that most companies are still set up to treating employees as semi-programmable robots rather than exciting them to come to work and create new things and ideas.

He claimed, and I strongly support this thought, that survival in the creative economy will require very different management styles than we’ve seen prevail so far.

An interesting fact, that companies have woken up to this thought about creativity is also IBM’s recently completed CEO survey. In the face of rising complexity, the more than 1500 CEOs we surveyed identified “creativity” as the most important emerging leadership competency.

The management dilemma will be how to maintain operational excellence, compliance with more and more regulations and at the same time create a culture that of trust and entrepreneurial creativity so employees will increase their engagement with the enterprise rather than reduce it.

I wonder what Gary Hamel’s management lab will yield as new insights to deal with this dilemma. As always, I very much welcome your comments in how you would lead a company that will excel in the creative economy.

This week I was invited to a podium discussion at the 7th International Human Rights Forum in Lucerne. The topic was “Does Pervasive Computing Guarantee More Security for All Through Reduction of the Freedom of the Individual?” – quite mouth full. However, as it turns out it was a very interesting discussion.

Being from IBM, I represented technology and the other participants included a philosopher, a lawyer and as moderator a journalist writing about politics. We ventured into fields such as; “Are public security cameras an intrusion into privacy?; Do they work effectively?; Are they necessary?” to “Should technologists pursue anything feasible or are there moral/ethical limits?”

While I don’t believe these questions have a clear yes or no answer, I would like to make two observations.

(1) Apparently the security cameras deployed in the London subway system were key to resolving the bombings and in apprehending the terrorists. So while they didn’t prevent the crime, they at least helped effectively resolve it. It also appears that cameras deter certain criminals from performing their acts when they’re being filmed and cause them to move elsewhere. Do they reduce crime? Probably not.

(2) As far as information technology goes, I think researchers will do everything possible to push the boundaries of knowledge and capability. While the lawyer and philosopher in our discussion felt there should be laws and moral codes of conduct to keep this from happening, I said that whatever can be done in IT will be done. If not here then elsewhere. Think of China where IT is used to limit access to the Internet and track down Internet activists for publishing opinions and facts not in the “interest of the state”. Here I believe we need to know what is possible and work on technologies to deal with these possibilities. A good example is our Identity Mixer technology that allows one to do authenticated, but privacy preserving internet transactions.

I wonder what you think about these dilemmas and how you would answer them?

Time flies. I realize it has been already two months since my last blog posting. This is what the change of the years bring with it – no time to blog for fun – all the time spent on measuring and setting new goals.

In late November and December we spend significant amounts of time documenting what we did during the year, both at the individual and at the project level. This input is then used to assess how we performed against our objectives and milestones.

While I think that these assessments are important to determine the significance of projects and individual contributions, I wish we could do it a little simpler. When I was in sales, it was quite simple – how much did I sell at what profit and how happy was the client with IBM.

Now in Research, there are so many more criteria of what determines success.

At the start of a project it may be, did we get sufficient funding and support, did we find partners to work with us, is it a sufficiently challenging new idea, would it be a radical breakthrough if we solved it? In the middle of the project, did we reach the milestones we had defined, were they ambitious enough.? Did we publish at good conferences, in good journals? Did we file disclosures for patents? At the end of the project, did we transfer the technology/insights to an IBM organization or license it out to a partner? Did we deliver to the client what they had expected? Did we change the course of the (our) world?

We have so many criteria of what defines success that one of our skills as research managers is to choose the right ones at the right time, so we work on the right things rather than only doing the work right.

For the scientists that read this blog, how do you measure success at the end of the year?

Posted by: Chris | 02/12/2009

Smarter Planet Down Under

The week before last I had the pleasure to spend a few days visiting NICTA, the premier Information and Communications Technology research agency in Australia. It was my first time “down under” and I didn’t quite know what to expect. Up until this trip I’ve only met a handful of Australians, who seemed nice and just had a funny accent. : )

In fact, the people I met were extremely nice, welcoming and above all uncomplicated. Frankly, I’ve never meet a people as relaxed, calm, and unpretentious. They make you feel welcome. I guess that must be because Australia is so far away (I spent more than 22 hours on a plane getting there from Zurich) and they want to show their appreciation. : )

Anyway, working at a Nobel prize winning lab, I see amazing innovation on a regular basis, so the bar is high.  But I have to say,  NICTA certainly made an impression on me by showing off a number of very interesting projects, some of which fit very well into IBM’s vision of a smarter planet.

For example, in Sydney, I saw first hand the work they’re doing with the local roads and traffic authority to make traffic flow smoother and to get higher throughput on roads.  To do so they are observing moving traffic, which is different than current state-of-the-art sensing technology which studies cars stopped in front of a traffic light. They’re working with the Sydney Coordinated Adaptive Traffic System (SCATS) which – surprising to me – had been developed by the New South Wales (NSW) Road and Traffic Authority and is marketed world-wide to cities.

In Canberra, they showed me work they’re doing on optimizing vehicle routing, where multiple constraints are factored in, such as time to destinations, driver availability and time driven. They solve these optimization problems using the G12 Constraint Programming Platform.

In Melbourne, I saw an extremely interesting project where NICTA is collaborating with various Australian research partners in creating a bionic eye. The bionic eye will be made up of  three parts including an implant that stimulates the retina, thus enabling high resolution vision, a high-speed externally powered wireless transmission system and a video camera using video processing to place the relevant pixels onto the retinal implant.

Another project of particular interest to me is a wireless sensor network application the Melbourne team has developed for smart water management, called Water Information Networks (WIN).  The innovative approach taken here, is to use the canals as additional reservoirs allowing farmers on-demand-access to water for irrigation. By managing the whole system from the farmer, via the canals, back to the reservoirs, a lot of wastage can be avoided and the already scarce resource  is used optimally.

This last project is also a good example for my theory that technological innovations often need the right environment to happen. What do I mean by that? Well, agriculture makes up the largest part of Australia’s exports.  Fresh water on the other hand has become a scarce resource in Australia because it rains less and less frequently. So being able to reduce wastage by, say 50% means that the agricultural output of the economy can be sustained even under these adverse circumstances. Such a problem we would likely not tackle in Switzerland as we still have plenty of fresh water and rain.

All in all, Australia is a great place to visit, but even more importantly a great place for innovation.

Posted by: Chris | 27/10/2009

Less Money = More Innovation?

Yesterday I attended EIRMA’s CTO roundtable, an annual, invitation only, meeting of European Industry Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) hosted by Shell Research. The topic was the role of the CTO/Head of Research in times of economic crisis. How should the CTO communicate with the other leadership in the firm about the importance of maintaining research budgets? What was the role of government in times like these to maintain innovation alive?

Times of crisis spur innovation

I will not write in detail about these questions, but I wanted to share the key messages in the opening speech by Jorma Ollila, the former CEO of Nokia and now Chariman of both Shell and Nokia.

He spoke about the three areas a CEO will focus on in times of recession, including:

  1. Adjust fixed cost to revenues and increase productivity by reducing variable costs. What this means is quite simple: when orders stop coming in you need to reduce the workforce and work with your supply chain to reduce the cost of materials, services purchased.
  2. Examine R&D costs as they represent a significant fixed block of costs. Re-prioritize those projects that will likely make you a winner when you come out of the crisis and eliminate those that don’t make the cut. Effectively also reduce or keep flat the spending on R&D.
  3. Communicate more than ever with the employees and build trust in talking to them in times of great uncertainty.

He then went on to talk about what is required to create a world-class research environment, namely:

  1. Engineers like gadgets (his words), so make sure they have access to the tools of their trade.
  2. Labs must look like labs of a winning company otherwise the talent you’re looking for will not come.
  3. Hire stars, employees that new hires will respect and aspire to become like them.

His last observation was that innovation is at its best in times of crisis and scarce resources. He cited Intel, which spent a lot of money to get into the mobile world and kept failing – so far. The times when they produced real innovations was in their early years, when they were struggling as a company. He cited where the CEO stated that whenever they were strapped for cash, they had the best ideas. Whenever the investors poured more money into the company, nothing new happened.

While it seems like a paradox, I think he’s right with this observation. When IBM lived through its near death experience in 1992/93 many innovations happened in our business, for example, we started the IT outsourcing business that now has developed into a huge business not only for us but an entire industry. Or we revamped our mainframe computers to use CMOS chips which reduced the running costs significantly and provided a performance roadmap for the future.

The experience also kept us out of the dot com bubble, where abundant amounts of money were spent on innovation but not too much happened in our industry. The real innovations came when the bubble burst – Google, Web 2.0, ….

The challenge is: however little we like crises – they do have positive effects on our creativity and innovation spirit. How do we maintain this sense of urgency when we get out of the current crisis? And what will be the innovations that will come out of the biggest recession since the 1930s?

Please share your thoughts.

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