Case study on too much of a vision?

16 Nov 2010 Sandeep Mehta

The article on Ars Technica about OLPC’s Negroponte offers to help India realize $35 tablet could be an interesting case study on how too definite a vision could actually be counter productive to over all results.  The single minded focus on $100 per laptop could have been a good stretch goal, but then project execution problems and may be technology challenges led to pretty big problems.

OLPC designs low-cost education computing devices for developing countries. The project aimed to produce a ubiquitous $100 laptop that would bring constructivist learning theory to the developing world. The project has fallen far short of fulfilling its initial goals due to serious setbacks, ranging from technical and logistical failuresto divisive ideological conflicts. OLPC was forced to reorganize and downsize much of its development staff last year as its funds dwindled. Despite these cuts, the organization was able to continue moving forward by narrowing its focus and pursuing a less ambitious strategy.

Add to it the problems of multi-organizational R&D where goals of “partners” were often at odds with the overall goals of the project and it became a significant mess:

When the OLPC project first launched, Negroponte argued that OLPC’s agenda could only be achieved by harnessing economies of scale. The laptops would be sold to governments in massive quantities in order to reduce overall manufacturing costs. Negroponte contended that competing efforts and alternative low-cost laptop products were harmful to OLPC’s vision because they would fragment the market and undermine OLPC’s ability to achieve the level of scale that he believed was necessary for success. 

This became a contentious issue that isolated OLPC from potential partners—particularly Intel, which parted ways with OLPC and built its own competing Classmate PC. Intel frowned on OLPC’s one-size-fits-all approach and argued that diverse offerings were needed in order to encourage adoption of low-cost educational computing. 

None of the problems here are easy to solve and I applaud OLPC for achieving everything they have.  However, there are several lessons we could learn for more effective R&D management in large cross-organizational R&D:

  1. Flexibility in vision (not at the expense of drive and focus)
  2. Ability to identify, express clearly and discuss diverse goals
  3. Ensure that some team members are not going to work to weaken the overall effort
  4. More collaboration and inclusiveness

Looks like OLPC is at least becoming more flexible:

The world needs your device and leadership. Your tablet is not an ‘answer’ or ‘competitor’ to OLPC’s XO laptop. It is a member of a family dedicated to creating peace and prosperity through the transformation of education,” Negroponte said in his letter. “[I offer] full access to all of our technology, cost free. I urge you to send a team to MIT and OLPC at your earliest convenience so we can share our results with you.

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