Monday, February 27, 2012

Freedom, Time, and Proximity -- the Nexus for Sustained Creative Innovation at Bell Labs

This blogpost was updated on February 28, 2012, thanks to an email message that I received from a former Bell Labs employee, Mr. Ronald Capik, which stated:

Dear Dr. Nagurney,

Your recent blog talks about the photo of white-coated Bell Labs researchers.
You may be interested in knowing that I and many other Bell Labs retirees
believe that photo is not from any Bell Labs location. It is also worth noting
that The New York Times has removed that photo and replaced it with one
of the Echo communications satellite.

Ronald Capik [Bell Labs, Retired]

Indeed, I checked and that photo, which I commented on in the first paragraph below, has been removed by The New York Times. I am retaining the original blogpost below for "historical" purposes and I thank Mr. Capik for taking the time to contact me and for noting the correction (or photo replacement) made by The New York Times. (Now for the mystery -- where was that photo taken?)

Jon Gertner, the author of the forthcoming book, "The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation," has an excellent Op-Ed piece, entitled, True Innovation, in The New York Times, complete with a 1966 photo, featuring white-coated Bell Labs researchers standing next to their open doors in a hallway. There is even, amongst them, a prominently visible female towards the front and another one (that I could make out) mid-way in the lineup.

Gertner singles out the various features of the Bell Labs work environment and culture, which he has been researching for half a decade and which he attributes as being critical to Bell Labs success. Researchers at Bell Labs invented the transistor, the laser, the solar cell, as well as the computer programming language C and Linux, among other inventions that were major technological breakthroughs. Of course, Bell Labs was started by AT&T, when it was a monopoly, so,without competition, employees could perfect products and processes before bringing them to market. Bell Labs also played a prominent role in quality control.

Behind this amazing research and creative organization, there was an individual and leader by the name of Mervin Kelly, who joined AT&T Bell Labs, rising from the position of researcher in 1925 to chairman of the board in 1959. Kelly believed that researchers needed freedom; they needed time; and that physical proximity was essential (phone calls just wouldn't do it and what would he say about the Internet).

Freedom is essential in the pursuit of knowledge and, frankly, one reason that I became an academic was that I wanted to pursue research questions that interested me. Time is also essential to research. Ideas that are just germinating may take weeks or months or years to be fully worked out and substantiated. That is why sabbaticals in academia are also so important. To do serious research and then to write it all up and shepherd it through the various stages of the publication process in terms of journal submission, revising the paper to address the questions of the reviewers', etc., also takes time (and patience).

Plus, and this I very much appreciate, since I write books and believe that books are as important as journal articles and provide a venue for one's specific focus and synthesis, Mervin Kelly believed that having at Bell Labs a number of scientific exemplars — “the guy who wrote the book,” as these standouts were often called, because they had in fact written the definitive book on a subject — was necessary.

Bell Labs, according to the Op-Ed piece, was sometimes "caricatured" as an ivory tower, but a more accurate description would be that it was 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. Now with so much outsourcing of production, such critical interactions are fewer and farther between.

And the list of Nobel prizes that Bell Labs researchers received is incredible -- a recent example (before the breakup of AT&T) is Dr. Steven Chu, the US Secretary of Energy.

However, sad to say, the glory days are over. Bell Labs is now the R&D facility of the French-owned company Alcatel-Lucent, which announced in 2008 that it is getting out of basic science, physics, and semiconductor research.

For those of you who are interested in the modeling of collaboration networks, we wrote a paper, A Knowledge Collaboration Network Model Across Disciplines.