Don’t have access to customers? Hire stand-ins!

1 Jul 2010 Sandeep Mehta

I guess hints about R&D strategy are everywhere one looks.  The article How Moore’s Law drove Intel into the arms of anthropologists talks about how Intel developed and evolved an innovative approach to identifying and understanding customer trends to help drive R&D (for those who do not know SoC, it means System On a Chip):

Now, the SoC business has fragmented into three main parts: 1) OEM customers, who design consumer products and put in orders for SoCs with specific kinds of capabilities, 2) fabless semiconductor shops, which work with a range of OEMs to make SoCs that fit certain market niches, and 3) the foundries, which manufacture the SoCs that are dreamed up by the first two parties.
Because Intel isn’t an OEM customer, a fabless shop, or a foundry, it ends up having to be all three at once if it wants to play the SoC game. That’s one place where the ethnographers come in.
The ethnographers essentially stand in for OEM devicemakers, in that they provide Intel with market-oriented input into the kinds of products that the company should be designing SoCs for. In other words, the user experience researchers can function as substitute “customers,” so that Intel can iterate its products internally in conversation with a kind of “market.”

I have heard of many companies hiring their customers to drive R&D.  It is very common in Aerospace world to hire retiring astronauts or generals.  However, what Intel has done is one step farther removed.  They have hired ethnographers, sociologists and psychologists to go a step beyond their customers.  These are people that their customers would hire to help them plan their products.

This might be helpful for Intel in more ways than one.  First, it helps Intel become more successful by providing reference designs that its customers can use – there by leveling playing fields and driving down costs.  More importantly, it helps diminish the impact of asynchronous development cycles.  It normally takes much longer to design, develop and produce a processor than a system that uses that processor.  By getting insights into what will drive its customer’s behavior down the road, Intel can effectively do codesign with less complex R&D management.  On the flip side, Intel than has to absorb the cost of hiring a skill-set completely outside its normal business and find ways to manage and motivate them…

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