Building focused R&D commuities

21 Jun 2010 Sandeep Mehta

As organizations grow larger in size, it becomes more and more difficult for R&D team members to know all the development in progress.  Furthermore, as disciplines get more specialized and demands for lower costs and higher efficiency increase, cross-disciplinary communications decline and the need for building focused R&D communities increase.  Many companies like Caterpillar have taken web-based or wiki-based approaches to drive communications across geographic locations (with varying degree of success).  MIT Sloan Review has a useful article on How Reputation Affects Knowledge Sharing Among Colleagues.

Social networks are a defining feature of 21st-century information exchange. Within research and development-intensive industries, in particular, social networks have always been key to fostering innovation. But what lies at the heart of a researcher’s decision to share information within a network of fellow researchers?”

As anticipated, people who have known one another longer and have meaningful relationships are more likely to share knowledge. Predictability and reciprocity are also positive factors. But being indebted to someone is a negative factor: Someone can’t be seen as taking more than giving. There are surprising results as well. The frequency with which people correspond, for instance, doesn’t correlate to them being more likely to share knowledge.

So, what are the drivers to building focused communities?  Clearly physical distance is one.  The other is familiarity or shared connections (a way to know who to contact and how) and lastly reputation (is it worth going through the effort?):

The research has a number of practical implications. It suggests that physical distance, for instance, poses barriers for those seeking knowledge. The best course of action is to talk to someone in the same city, or at least the same state. It’s also best to request information from those with whom you have a shared connection within an organization. Other scientists within the same company are most likely to share unique and not easily replicated scientific knowhow–that which could potentially provide a greater contribution. So someone seeking assistance will more likely succeed if he or she can make the case that the knowledge is vital to accomplishing a task and that the source has the expertise to provide it.

Because both proximity and organizational ties positively influence people to share knowledge, R&D workers may be more innovative if they are closely connected. The study even lends support to the idea of rotating groups of workers to improve knowledge sharing.

However, most R&D managers do not have simple approaches to change physical locations or drive familiarity.  The cost and efficiency pressures are such that there is not enough budget to allow for social networking across large distances.  Furthermore, the effect of social contacts fall off rapidly with time, so even if R&D managers hold internal meetings the return-on-investment in increased interaction is not guaranteed.  Furthermore, disciplines are getting so specialized communications needs are for very specialized expertise (e.g. not just any electronics, GaN LNA implementation at 40 GHz).  Hence, R&D managers need new tools that automatically build an expertise directory that allows engineers to quickly locate people who are working in exactly the same area.

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