'Innovating Innovation' at Bell Labs

Next Generation Communications Blog

'Innovating Innovation' at Bell Labs

By Peter Bernstein, Senior Editor

This is part two in a four-part look at Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs. The first focused at a high level on the context of what made, and continues to make, Bell Labs one of the pre-eminent fundamental and applied research organizations in the world. In fact, Bell Labs as an innovation brand is the most recognizable one globally. 

As promised, focus here is on the ingredients that have created Bell Labs’ world-class culture of continuous scientific exploration and innovation. It describes how it constantly reviews the process of innovation to assure its leadership in applying the ingenuity and knowledge of its scientists in product and service realization. The short-hand for this is “Innovating Innovation” — literally continually reassessing and improving how the Labs works to enhance its contributions to Alcatel-Lucent to ensure the company not only is ahead of the competition, but leads the market in helping customers improve their businesses and lives. It is by design that Bell Labs produced over 2,300 patents last year alone.

A culture committed to meeting challenges and driving change — the key ingredients

The culture of “Innovating Innovation” has two key components.

A critical mass of diverse scientists and engineers

It goes without saying that you have to assemble the right people in the proper environment, with the best tools and proper guidance and allow them to not just work alone but to enrich their work through the free-flowing of ideas and collaboration with each other. However, they also need to be aggressively challenged, open to input from others and dedicated to accommodating change on the path to creating and executing at optimal solutions.   

History has shown that just gathering the best and brightest is not enough. Compelling results and true breakthroughs come from taking the generation of big ideas and working through those ideas from multiple angles. This requires doing so in a systematic and disciplined manner, making sure the right and best resources are in the right hands at the right time. It is a bit of a misnomer to think that innovation is solely about inspiration and perspiration. It also is about the right mix of collegiality, direction/leadership and execution.

As Bell Labs likes to tout, “down the hall from anyone is an expert in almost anything.” With research centers around the globe, and thanks in many instances to Bell Labs innovations, “down the hall” is never more than a click, voice command or gesture away. Collectively, these researchers have the capacity to approach complex issues from a variety of perspectives and integrate those perspectives into astonishing solutions.

Infusion and adoption of an entrepreneurial persona

The history of scientific discovery, and at a macro level creating and driving paradigm shifts, starts with insatiable curiosity:

  • Better  understanding the things you know that you know
  • Exploring the boundaries of the things you know you do not know
  • Absorbing the impact of the things you did not know you did not know when exposed to them

This curiosity and the discovery of new facts are then coupled with the abilities to employ them to imagine how to create something totally new (sometimes previously implausible) or to radically improve something that currently exists. Those are the raw ingredients of innovation. 

The trick is to infuse a passion for turning knowledge into products and services, and embedding that passion into the communal DNA, i.e., create an entrepreneurial persona. This persona is what enables research assets to be rapidly driven into the business and delivered into the market. Interestingly, it is also an attraction for the world’s leading scientists want to work at the Labs. They get the resources they require and desire, the interaction that spurs them to accomplish great things, and the ultimately satisfaction of seeing the fruits of their labor realized in things that make a difference. 

As stated before, Bell Labs – despite all of the richly deserved patents, awards and accolades – has changed with the times. This is not just an ivory tower. As might be expected in a place that is always pushing the envelope, it understood years ago that its success would be directly proportional to making sure its ability to quickly and effectively turn “what ifs” into marketplace hits, would require not just attracting the best people, but in a hotly competitive world (including for talent) paying constant attention to the innovation process itself was critical.

Every aspect of how innovations are created and ultimately realized is put under the microscope. Who are the best people and physical resources for a project? What is the right number of people on a team to operate in “highest performance” mode? What kind of work environment and work schedule will work best? These are all constantly under evaluation. Putting in the appropriate gates, establishing milestones and metrics, peer-reviews to challenge assumptions and results, incentives, etc. are some of the stones that do not go unturned. In a culture that accommodates change are incorporated where and when they create improvements in process and practice. 

Examples of efforts Bell Labs has instituted to highlight the value of a culture of “innovating Innovation” are numerous. However, from my own long experience with the Labs two stand out.

The first is the Bell Labs “Grand Challenge.” With the merger of the Bell Labs and Alcatel Research & Innovation teams in December of 2007, Bell Labs President Jeong Kim recognized the researchers’ passion to embrace hard problems, as well as their need to collaborate together across technical areas and distances. In February of 2008 he kicked off the submission process for the Grand Challenge pushing the newly formed team to not just dream impossible dreams but to become a proof case of “the wisdom of collective thought.” He was seeking a “simple yet beautiful” idea that the full Bell Labs community could embrace and act upon that would have a profound impact on society and reap commercial benefits for Alcatel-Lucent.   

The concept was enthusiastically embraced. More than 250 diverse ideas were submitted. These were then “clustered” into common themes and ultimately synthesized into 37 proposals that were voted on by the full Bell Labs community. The beauty was the idea, proposal and voting processes were open to everyone, every step of the way, i.e., every idea and vote counted.     

The winner was a project called, Immersion@Distance, now into the third year of an estimated five-year effort has the goal of enriching human-to-human remote interactions through improved engagement of the senses, and the use of next generation content and context mediation, touches competencies in virtually every research domain. In simple terms its aspirations are to make remote communications actually better in many ways than physical proximity communications. In other words, it goes to the heart of Bell Labs historical core values and mission of improving peoples’ lives by improving communications. 

What is most notable about the challenge was its putting the innovation process on steroids by making innovation a full contact sport for the entire research community — an extraordinary exercise deserving of the appellation “Grand” given the absolute commitment of ALU to making sure the winning project was properly resourced and supported.

Entrepreneurial Boot Camps are conducted around the world.  As I mentioned, the third annual Americas Boot Camp starts in September. The first-ever Boot Camp started in Belgium several years ago.

The second example of “Innovating Innovation” is the ALU “Boot Camp” programs. Now in its third year, employees are asked to submit ideas for new product and service innovations with the potential to make a positive impact on ALU’s business using a unique, “start-up” style learning environment.  

The program has been a hit from the start. Boot Campers work in teams to develop their ideas into complete business plans that have the potential to be accepted into an Alcatel-Lucent business group, receive seed funding from the Alcatel-Lucent Ventures group, or be moved to an external venture capitalist for funding. Without divulging company secrets, it is fair to say the camps have exceeded expectations in terms of their ability to enhance the culture and to generate actionable ideas. 

Investing in organic innovation is key

Alcatel-Lucent is investing in organic innovation and invention to produce its next generations of differentiated value. Bell Labs is investing heavily not just in people but in process and practice. It is always seeking to take the lessons from transforming itself into an entrepreneurial focused continuous learning organization and applying them to improve their performance as ALU’s engine for value creation and corporate sustainability.          

In the end, this unique and valued institution that can best be characterized by its results – and perhaps, by its promise:

 “To be the undisputed industry leader in innovative R&D, giving Alcatel-Lucent a decisive advantage in the marketplace.”

In short, “Innovating Innovations” is not just about people. It is about channeling the talents of some of the smartest people in the world to be the foundation that enables Alcatel-Lucent to be fast and best in the markets in which it competes. 

Least it go unmentioned, the history of Bell Labs boldly going where others do not dare or do not have the resources to go in the areas of applied science remains intact and important. It allows the Labs as a whole to be exposed to both the things they know they don’t know as well as the things they did not know. It is this ability to be exposed in a profound way to challenges that can drive change that contributes to Bell Labs continued recognition as the world’s most recognizable research organization.  

Next up in this series is a more granular look of how Bell Labs invented the present and laid the groundwork for inventing the future.

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