Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Bell Labs

Among the American private sector industrial R&D labs (such as those at GE, Ford, IBM, Xeros, ...), Bell Labs has a such a special status that one finds an article appearing every once in a while telling us what a great place it was, and trying to extract some management wisdom about what made it so great. Here's the latest, from Jon Gertner.

Gertner appears to trace the decline of the Bell Labs to the US industry's decision to move their factories to other parts of the globe:

... Bell Labs was sometimes caricatured as an ivory tower. But it is more aptly described as an ivory tower with a factory downstairs. It was clear to the researchers and engineers there that the ultimate aim of their organization was to transform new knowledge into new things.

Steven Chu, secretary of the Department of Energy, won a Nobel Prize in 1997 for his work at Bell Labs in the early 1980s. He once said that working in an environment of applied science like Bell Labs “doesn’t destroy a kernel of genius, it focuses the mind.” At Bell Labs, even for researchers in pursuit of pure scientific understanding, it was obvious that their work could be used.

... Bell Labs’ satellite facilities [were set up] in the phone company’s manufacturing plants, so as to help transfer all these new ideas into things. But the exchange was supposed to go both ways, with the engineers learning from the plant workers, too. As manufacturing has increasingly moved out of the United States in the past half century, it has likewise taken with it a whole ecosystem of industrial knowledge. But in the past, this knowledge tended to push Bell Labs toward new innovations.