Risk-taking and collaboration are vital to research success in the 21st century.

Even in an age where swift return on investment is paramount and where expenditures are tightly controlled, there is still a thirst for research projects that are bold in their scope, grand in their challenge, and seminal in their results. Novel ways and strategies for collaborating put such goals within our grasp.

Those are part of the findings from a survey conducted by the IBM Academy of Technology, a group comprising IBM’s top technical leaders, which explored the role, culture, ecosystem, ideals, value, organization, and funding of industrial research in the 21st century. The Academy interviewed dozens of influential information technology researchers and executives at IBM and other large industrial research labs, as well as academia—spanning a wide range of experience, age, and locales.

Reassuringly, respondents readily recognized the enormous potential in embarking on first-class scientific endeavors, taking calculated risks, anticipating both success and failure, and expanding links between the commercial, government, academic, and scientific communities.

The names of several stand-out institutions and individuals consistently came up during the conversations. They seemed emblematic of the type of approach researchers believe is necessary for commercial and scientific progress. These institutions included Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Bell Labs, and IBM Research. Among individual researchers, Stanford Univ. Professor Emeritus Donald Knuth was widely admired for his work on algorithms, former IBM Computer Scientist Ted Codd for his work on relational databases, and Viewpoints Research Institute President Alan Kay for his visionary leadership at Xerox PARC.

To be sure, some of those individuals had the luxury to innovate without excessive concern for short-term profit; but common denominators included a commitment to excellence and willingness to take risks. Those interviewed admired research that was visionary, challenging, rigorous, and responsible for a huge impact on the world or the industry. Respondents urged us at IBM to look to the past for such cues, and combine them with tools that we enjoy today, to create a blueprint for how we might succeed in the future.

For instance, researchers in any setting need to fully exploit the availability and immediacy of the social media. These tools, combined with a pervasive open source sensibility, make it less pardonable to fully sequester oneself intellectually. There are fewer excuses for not keeping up with peers or sufficiently collaborating, especially with availability of technology such as micro-blogging, wikis, and social networking sites, which can keep peers abreast of conference presentations and debates in real time. This is unprecedented in the history of science.

It makes sense to exploit these virtual tools to expand links between academia, government, and industry. Business partners, venture capitalists—and even competitors—need to be considered in these enhanced ecosystems.

Meaningful university interactions will be critical to the industrial research culture. We should encourage rotations of graduate students and faculty into industrial labs, and sabbatical programs for lab researchers in academia. Firms should use their research arms as a place of intellectual rejuvenation for its employees.

As for all-important funding, respondents recommended a hybrid model that first provides a reliable base of unencumbered resources. Government participation can then help with exploratory work, as long as it supports a research agenda that meets the needs of the parent company. Commitment from sister business units also ensure that researchers pay attention to the needs of the business.

Likewise, customer contracts and licensing revenue can help make researchers sensitive to client and market needs. Simultaneously, a research organization can influence marketplace direction by providing both thought leadership and world-class technology.

There will be no single ideal formula for how to measure or fund research, concluded respondents. Complete quantification will not be the best approach. Respondents even suggested a sort of retroactive yardstick. Metrics must acknowledge and encourage dramatic scientific advances.

It goes without saying that an industrial lab must add value to its parent company. In-house research can provide a competitive advantage because it knows the parent company’s business best. Respondents observed that industrial research is most effective when organizationally centralized, yet distributed in execution. In a world in which businesses often grow by acquisitions, the labs will have to improve their links to acquisitions as well.

We heard that world-class research requires world-class researchers, and that requires going where great researchers are. Firms that can work collaboratively across space and time will have a significant competitive advantage over those that cannot.

Some of the most important steps a lab can take are also the “simplest”. Said one respondent, a well-run organization requires “an environment in which people who work in different ways can be respected and rewarded. Diversity is good.” In other words, a strong lab must hire the best and the brightest and provide them with a sense of empowerment.

Strikingly, respondents told the Academy that an excellent research organization must unapologetically foster a collaborative atmosphere and a sense that the institution is special, vibrant and—yes—elite.

The facile cliche of “no pain, no gain” is truer than one might imagine; we repeatedly heard that risk-taking should be an essential part of the research culture in the finest research settings. Failure needs to seen as acceptable, at least within reasonable limits. After all, history has shown that out of a culture of carefully calibrated risk, often come the greatest rewards.

Published in R & D magazine: Vol. 52, No. 1, February, 2010, p.25.