posted 2 Feb 2001 in Volume 4 Issue 5
Book review: Business-Driven Research & Development
TITLE: Business-Driven Research & Development - Managing
to Create Wealth
AUTHOR: Ashok Ganguly
PUBLISHER: MacMillan Business
I had the difficult challenge (but also good fortune) of working under Ashok Ganguly during his time as director of research for Unilever. It is from his experiences in this role that this book originates. It is widely acknowledged that Ganguly had a significant and long-lasting positive effect on the way that research is conducted in Unilever. For this reason the book is worth reading as an account of the philosophy he followed. In some places the book is too academic in its style and doesn't grab your attention but the read is worth the effort. There are some strong messages in the book which are worth pulling out:
- Ruthless alignment of R&D to consumer needs and business strategy can be practised right down to 'bench' level in the organisation. No one in research should be far from the ultimate consumer no matter how fundamental his or her research topic appears to be.
- Some 'blue-sky' research groups controlled at a corporate level outside the business units should be funded and challenged with breaking the existing business mould. There should be constant efforts to introduce new ideas and new science and technology into the company to prevent the convergent thinking which can lead to a company stagnating.
- Innovation comes through promoting creativity in multidisciplinary teams oriented towards a clearly articulated business goal.
- Contrary to accepted belief research projects can be 'managed' to a project plan. Serendipity is important but so is structured progress.
- Project goals can and should be negotiated with the stakeholders by the team. Without this the 'emperors clothes' syndrome can develop where senior managers continue to believe in an idea that everyone knows is already dead but can't admit it.
- Portfolios of projects need to be structured to balance risk time of delivery and likely yield. The decision process for this needs to be made explicit and the book hints at the tools used - the Innovation Funnel and Consumer Technology Matrix.
- Risk management needs to be explicitly considered and discussed openly at all levels in the project. Projects closed down when the risks become too great are not failures. The failure would be in undertaking projects without risk.
- The concept of an Innovation Funnel with decision gates is core to the Unilever philosophy for R&D. A corollary of this 'funnel' is that Unilever Research expects a proportion of its projects to be culled at each gate. Again these should not be perceived as failures but well-managed risks.
- The careers of scientists can be explicitly managed to ensure that the necessary business competencies can be added to their skills bases early enough in their careers without detracting from their scientific ability.
l'outsourcing' of research or partnership with Academia are both viable options for industrial R&D allowing the company to cast its net more widely.
A chapter is devoted to each of these areas with a clear exposition of the underlying theory and the way in which Unilever has implemented it. Wherever possible there are clear diagrams and tables that go a long way towards softening the formal narrative style. This is so often missing in a book by someone of this seniority and so was a pleasant surprise.
The book is clearly well researched in terms of the literature Ganguly has absorbed. I once criticised an internal report written by Ganguly because of a poorly prepared indeed largely absent bibliography. In response he asked his assistant at the time to 'scatter a few references through the text to shut that man Dale up'. This time round I am delighted to report that the bibliography is both relevant and useful.
I wish Ganguly had taken the route of editing a book of articles from contributing Unilever authors. His treatment of some of the processes is shallow reflecting his distance from the detail. His treatment of knowledge management is particularly weak in the light of modern views on this field. Ganguly has clearly used much material from others some credited and some not. In some areas his understanding of the detail does not reflect reality today. It would have been better to ask directly for contributions from the experts with the richness that this would have brought.
Things have moved on in the three years since Ganguly left Unilever and this book has been too long coming off the press. Overall however this book is still worth a read as an introduction to a new pragmatic approach to industrial R&D that could be a model for the future. A second edition would be even more useful but I somehow can't see it happening.
Adrian Dale is head of knowledge management at Creatifica Associates. He can be contacted at: email@example.com