|The Idea Factory: . . . Jon Gertner
A New York Times journalist narrates the history of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company in conversational language. AT&T is an excellent example because it was a major source of scientific discovery, engineering invention and industrial innovation throughout the 20th century. The United States government allowed the company to operate a virtual monopoly over information and telecommunications (ITC) technologies. The book details how AT&T set-up a research and development facility (Bell Labs) in parallel to a product manufacturing factory (Western Electric) to support their innovation pipeline.
The book illuminates five critical yet under-appreciated innovation success factors:
1) Most of the scientists and engineers came from small town and rural environments where they had first acquired technical problem-solving skills before obtaining advanced academic degrees;
2) Promotion occurred through the ranks so that managers had in-depth knowledge of the programs and projects they supervised.
3) Senior employees often served terms as consultants to government agencies, as university executive managers, or as entrepreneurs, and brought lessons from those experiences back to internal projects.
4) Staff conducting fundamental research, applied research or experimental engineering, were required to log their progress in bound lab notebooks witnessed by co-workers. These notes were reviewed on a weekly basis by managers who reported up through the company. This tiered-level of oversight allowed staff to work unfettered, while protecting intellectual property claims, promoting communication between projects, and preserving continuity over the company’s base of enabling knowledge across programs and over time.
5) The synergy between the research and development (R&D) laboratory and the development and production (D&P) factory was sustained by the over-arching management structure.