Many tech firms (especially larger ones) depend on research and development in order to build new products. But effective research is also costly and time-consuming, which makes executives—so dependent on monthly and quarterly results—very nervous. They want new products right now, and they’re often willing to sacrifice long-term projects and “moonshots” in order to launch something that could make some money on the open market.
How can companies effectively shield research teams from the short-term demands of the market, while ensuring that those teams eventually produce something useful? That conundrum has befuddled even the largest enterprises. And as more tech companies embrace complex challenges—artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, using data to cure disease—resolving it has become more important than ever.
Simply put, companies that don’t build effective research units won’t last.
A new article in Fast Company breaks down how Facebook organized its research division to tackle the problems of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Faced with the conundrum described above, the company took a unique approach. Rather than place researchers within active product teams, or placing the entire research team in a silo cut off from the rest of the company, it devoted a portion of its researchers to “near term” projects, while focusing the rest on the longer-term.
Facebook engineers, who work with researchers to translate ideas into practical applications, can also post their work to an internal network where other employees can find (and perhaps use) it. That “open sourcing” allows the company to reduce the time necessary for research to see real-world use.
In order to prove effective, a research unit also needs ample funds. Tech companies that slash research funding tend to pay a competitive price at some point, while those that spend billions—including Amazon, Google, Intel, and Apple—maintain a competitive edge. But all the money in the world won’t help if there isn’t an internal culture that gives researchers the ability to do their job, in addition to serving the greater needs of the business. As companies try to come up with the Next Big Thing, creating that culture is more important than ever—whatever the final structure of the research division.